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Local judge recalls Nuremberg Trials

Sixty years ago the Nuremberg Trials put Nazi leaders on the witness stand. It was that historic tribunal that defined standards of international law. Rebecca Tolin talked with a local judge who says the trial's significance is still very much alive today.

Norbert Ehrenfreund is one of those people with a long and varied resume. One of the most unique chapters of his life was when he worked as a Nuremberg Trials reporter. Ehrenfreund's experience in a German courtroom in 1945 shaped his life in many ways. Now six decades later, the San Diego man is writing a book about why we should all care about the often-forgotten trials today.

He presides in court acts in plays and movies like this KPBS docudrama.

Norbert Ehrenfreund: "There have been several drafts but this is the latest one."

And now Norbert Ehrenfreund is writing his second book. You'd never know the 84-year-old is retired. Ehrenfreund has a story to tell, and no choice but to tell it.

Ehrenfreund: "I feel I have a duty, yes in a way a duty, to write this story from my perspective what I see and the good and the bad of it too."

Ehrenfreund witnessed some of modern history's best and worst - during and after World War II. As a young soldier he earned a bronze star, on the frontlines of the Battle of the Rhine.

Ehrenfreund: "We knew what we were fighting against, fighting against a terrible thing with Hitler and Nazism. And I was fighting and I was fighting also thinking about my own family, my own grandfather who had been murdered by the Nazis at a concentration camp."

His grandfather was one of six million Jewish people killed, before the Allied victory. Ehrenfreund, then a 23-year-old war hero - with a journalism degree - got a job as a correspondent with the newspaper Stars and Stripes. His first assignment: the Nuremberg Trials.

Ehrenfreund: "I realized I was looking in the face of a man who was full of Nazism, Nazi evil. And I thought what's he thinking about me? I was a young fellow sitting there in a press gallery. He is probably thinking, who is this kid and what is he going to write about me? What lies is he going to tell about me? I felt that's what he was thinking."

As a cub reporter Ehrenfreund came face to face with Herman Goering, and other Nazi leaders accused of crimes against humanity. As he covered the international military tribunal, Ehrenfreund scanned the faces of all 21 defendants.

Ehrenfreund: "I thought to myself who are they? How could they, you know? I mean Germany is a beautiful nation with beautiful people. How could this country so steeped in culture and science and music we're talking about the land of Beethoven and Bach and Bromes and Gerteh and Schiller how could it have produced leaders that were so barbaric?"

Ultimately 18 defendants were found guilty in the international tribunal. Ehrenfreund said weeks of testimony documented the unthinkable.

Ehrenfreund: "It struck me too that they're human beings, and we're human beings. Does that mean that as human beings, that we're all capable of this bestiality? That doesn't mean that we'd do it. We don't exercise it. But we're all capable of this same bestiality somewhere in us."

Ehrenfreund's experience covering the Nuremberg Trials would change the course of his life. As a young cub reporter in the 1940's he was so impressed with the lawyers and the judges, he decided to pursue law himself. He would later become an esteemed judge on the San Diego Superior Court.

Jill Costigan, Norbert Ehrenfreund's Wife: "He was inspired by the things he saw and wrote about to follow the law and change his direction in life. And I think we're all better for it, at least the California Judicial System is better."

Edward "Ned" Huntington, SD County Superior Court Judge: "I think he carried over what he learned in the Nuremberg Trials, what he learned as a public defender, what he learned as a law student into becoming the judge that he is. And that's one that he will afford all sides a fair hearing and he'll listen to everybody. He is a terrific listener."

Judge Ned Huntington says family court runs smoother today, thanks to Norbert Ehrenfreund. He introduced counselors into the child custody process, and allowed women to get temporary restraining orders against their abusers. Some of his innovations later became state standards.

Huntington: "He probably made more significant changes in the way we do business in family law than any other judge in the state of California. He just did a tremendous job in making it a more manageable place for people to come conduct business about their children and their family."

San Diego County Superior Court even gives out the "Norby" awards for excellent service - named after Norbert Ehrenfreund. After almost 20 years in criminal law and 30 years as a superior court judge, he's still filling in on the bench. Ehrenfreund is strongly guided by those principles of due process, elevated in a Nuremberg courtroom some 60 years ago.

Ehrenfreund: "Nuremberg started this idea that you've got to give, whoever the people are, rich or poor, high or low, they were entitled to a fair trial. And a fair trial meant three basic things: "it meant the presumption of innocence, it meant an open trial and it meant attorneys to represent the defendants."

Costigan: "He is very, very much aware of the rights of a defendant. Most of his work has been in the criminal bench, and he is always concerned that the rights of the defendant be protected."

When he's not in the courtroom or taking his daily walk through Balboa Park, Ehrenfreund works on his brainchild "Ghosts of Nuremberg" with his wife, Jill.

Ehrenfreund: "I'm used to a typewriter. It's more comfortable for me and it comes out easier if I write it out in longhand and my wife types everything up."

The two collaborate on the manuscript from their Banker's Hill apartment. Ehrenfreund says Nuremberg has much to remind us. Besides due process, it established an expectation of individual accountability and human rights.

Ehrenfreund: "Nuremberg started that concept that human beings had rights, and that it started the concept between that there was a new relationship between government and governed. Because citizens of a country they knew for the first time that there government had to be fair to them."

Although Ehrenfreund admits sometimes cries for help go unanswered as in Rwanda or Darfur, there is worldwide understanding of human decency. Ultimately, he hopes the legacy of Nuremberg will live on through his words.

Ehrenfreund: "People did not give that Nuremberg Trial, did not realize what the Nuremberg Trial had started, its legacy, its influence in so many areas on fair trial, on human rights on the idea of individual responsibility."

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