She is 95 now, has trouble walking and hearing and speaking clearly.
But Nicole Galloy Hays’ memories are still sharp of the time, 75 years ago, when she worked as a translator at the Nuremberg trials, where 24 men — some high-ranking members of the Nazi Party — were brought before the International Military Tribunal and prosecuted for crimes they committed during World War II.
“It was interesting to hear all of it,” Hays said recently. “But we also knew that they would pay for what they had done.”
Hays lives in Kirkland with her son, Robin, and his wife, Suzanne, and not long ago captured her memories of Nuremberg in a self-published memoir called “Sitting Between Two Chairs.”
The book covers her childhood in France during the German occupation and her work as a War Department civilian attached to the U.S. Army, as well as the years after in the United States, where she moved with her late husband, Rex, and raised four children.
But her experience at Nuremberg stands out, for it is a reminder that history indeed repeats itself. And Hays believes that people don’t really change that much.
“Not especially,” Hays said, quietly. “I don’t think there is much change in people. It’s just the outside circumstances that motivate us.”
But Dee Simon, the Baral family executive director of the Holocaust Center for Humanity in Seattle, sees it differently.
“If anything, the Nuremberg trials gave us hope, because of the way they showed how civil society will find its way after it falls,” she said. “The trajectory always gets us a little bit better. There is the other side of it, where things are so much better now.”
Consider, she said: The Nuremberg trials helped =show what led to the killing of so many millions in the Holocaust, but also instilled the concept of human rights and ended government sovereignty over its own people.
It also led to the creation of the United Nations, and its International Court of Justice, at The Hague, where those who commit mass atrocities are put on trial at the Peace Palace.
“It also gives you context when you’re watching current events unfold,” Simon said. “How does history meet the present?”
Hays never expected to be part of history.
She was born in Paris but moved with her family to the country during the German occupation. When the war ended and the family returned to Paris, she ached to get out.
That chance came when a friend announced plans to move to Germany with her soldier boyfriend and take a job as a translator at the Nuremberg trials. When that plan fell through, Hays applied for her friend’s job.
Nuremberg. It was a city in Germany, but also a reckoning for the defendants, who included the leadership of the Nazi Party, the Reich Cabinet, the Gestapo and the general staff and high command.
Hays, just 20, begged her parents to let her go. She would perfect her English! She would be paid! And it was just for three months.
Days later, she climbed into a C-47 aircraft with other secretaries and translators.
They were housed at the Grand Hotel, where bombs had knocked out some of the stairs, so Hays had to climb a ladder through a hole in the first-floor bathroom and step over rubble to reach her room. But the mirrored lobby and marble ballroom were intact, as was the dining room, where she ate memorable meals served by white-jacketed waiters surrounded by lawyers, judges and journalists from around the world.
She walked around the battered city, reduced to piles of brick and stone. The smell of corpses told her why she was required to get typhus and typhoid vaccinations before her arrival. Water was captured in bags hung from wooden poles.
Every morning, she took a bus to the Palace of Justice, where she and three other translators worked on documents, the pages distributed among them, never in order. Hays would translate from English to French.
She processed documents concerning Ernst Kaltenbrunner, a high-ranking Austrian SS official and a major perpetrator of the Holocaust; and Arthur Seyss-Inquart, an Austrian Nazi politician.
“Active participants in Hitler’s scheme to wipe an entire race off the face of the earth,” Hays said. “For the first time I began to understand the horrors of the concentration and extermination camps.
“That people would willingly, and knowingly, descend into this abyss of evil defied understanding,” she said.
Hermann Goering, the highest-ranking Nazi official to be tried, was “the best” of the defendants, Hays said, because he was the only one who took responsibility for his actions.
“He admitted what he had done,” she explained. “Others said, ‘We didn’t want to do it, but we had to follow orders.’ “
When she had time, she explored the Palace of Justice; the massive kitchen and mess hall; and the post exchange she described as “a real Ali Baba cavern,” where people could buy cigarettes, gold watches, candy and radios. Another, off-limits wing held prisoners and military police who guarded them.
The courtroom sat at the center, and Hays was able to attend a few sessions. The room was packed, but she could see the judges from the four Allied nations — France, Great Britain, the United States and Russia — behind a large desk on top of a platform. The defendants sat behind military police, and behind them, booths of people where people could wear headphones to hear the court testimony in their native language.
If the proceedings went too quickly, a red light went on to indicate the real-time translator was falling behind. Those transcripts were sent to Hays and her colleagues for translation.
After work, the hotel lobby was filled with men and women in American, British and Russian uniforms. The air, she wrote, “buzzed with conversation in every language.”
She remembered dancing the jitterbug with American soldiers and waltzing with Russians. The Russian colonel with thick eyebrows and gray hair who “sprang up” from his seat and threw his legs around in dance.
Still, the weeks spent working on the trial got to her, so she escaped to an Alpine resort, and to Munich.
She returned to see most of the defendants convicted, some sentenced to hanging, others to prison. Goering killed himself the night before he was to be executed.
Robin Hays knew of his mother’s experience, but she didn’t talk about it that much. Not the trial. But the crowd at the hotel? The dancing? Yes.
“To her, there’s a pride,” he said. “But also, it was her favorite time of her life. The war was over at this point, and she started to have fun.”
Said his wife, Suzanne: “They just felt so alive. It was an exciting time, you’re not so worried about living or dying. They were just having a good time.”
Now it is memories, captured in her book and hundreds of others, along with the black-and-white photos that were given to her by an American hired as an official court photographer; and a 78-rpm recording of the defendants pleading “not guilty” given to her by an American sailor assigned to record the proceedings.
“I had lived history,” she said, “seen it tried and sentenced.”