Editor’s Note: Narratives surrounding the Nuremberg Trials overwhelmingly focus on the men. From U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson to the notorious Nazi leader Hermann Goering, the legacy of this landmark event in judicial history is framed by men, overshadowing the critical and diverse roles played by women.
USC Shoah Foundation is spotlighting the under-examined efforts of women at Nuremberg in an eight-part series of stories that each focuses on the contribution of a different woman. The stories were shared in a Jan. 30 public lecture titled “Women at Nuremberg” by Diane Marie Amann (University of Georgia), who came to work at the USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research as a fellow in January.
After her first-ever trip via plane to Europe, and then a journey by car through a wintry German landscape, the American Jane Lester arrived to a post-apocalyptic setting: the city of Nuremberg.
It was 1945, and she and the rest of the prosecution had arrived to the bombed-out, rubble-strewn city for the trials.
“The city was just a mass of graveyards,” she said during her 1996 interview with USC Shoah Foundation, when she was 81. “We’d take Sunday walks and you wouldn’t see a soul.”
Then 29, the native New Yorker had been recruited by American attorneys for her rare German fluency, which she’d picked up at a Catholic college in Rochester. During the trials, she worked as a research analyst.
She and other members of the prosecution were put up in the Grand Hotel in Nuremberg – previously where Hitler had held his party meetings. Her command of the English and German languages made her an invaluable resource to the prosecution, for which she translated evidence and pored over documents.
”The style of that trial was documentation,” she said, adding that the defendants had written their own prosecution. “We found them: great clusters of documents. Convicting them – boasting of their wonderful deeds that were the crimes of our trial.”
In her testimony, Lester remembers the pressure of the world’s eyes on Nuremberg: “The world watched, because we had been in the paws of this man Hitler – we still thought he might be alive at that time – we had been in his hands and now, here were, these people who supposedly had caused all this trouble.”
Lester recalls in her testimony being horrified with the dealings she read about, and being surprised by how complicit many were in allowing it to happen: “It shows how weak we human beings are if you’re working for the mighty dollar.”
During the trials, she worked for Robert Kempner, a successful lawyer who had been fired from his position as chief legal advisor to the Prussian police because he was Jewish and after the war became assistant U.S. chief counsel during the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. Together, they worked to prosecute his old nemeses, Hermann Goering and Wilhelm Frick: “It was a warning: that crime is crime even if big-government entities manipulate it.”
Her devotion to exposing the truth was instrumental in convicting many accused of war crimes after World War II.