Chasing a Ghost

I thought I saw a ghost as I watched the haunting documentary Nuremberg: Its Lessons for Today at the Cleveland International Film Festival in March.

The camera swept past a young G.I. during a courtroom scene. He was thin with dark, wavy hair, and he was typing as he listened to the gruesome proceedings. Then he was gone.

Was it him? My heartbeat quickened. Could that soldier have been my father, Pfc. Maurice Hunter Warner?

My father was an Army clerk during the first Nuremberg Trials. He was in the courtroom almost every day as the most notorious Nazis, including Joseph Goebbels and Rudolf Hess, were tried for war crimes.

The image lingered for the briefest of moments. Then he was gone. Again. This month will mark my 50th Father's Day without him. And perhaps, indirectly, he was a victim of the horrors of the Holocaust, too.

My dad had been on the front lines in Europe for a year when the war ended there. A 19-year-old from Mount Sterling, Ky., a town of fewer than 5,000 residents, he was assigned to operate a teletype machine at Nuremberg, not long after the trials began on Nov. 20, 1945, until his discharge in June 1946.

Even the documentary, at only 80 minutes long, is difficult to sit through. The Nazis filmed many of their own cruelties, films that were used in evidence against them. One, included in the documentary, showed how they developed a pipeline that carried automobile exhaust into a sealed room filled with prisoners. Then the camera took viewers inside to see the bodies piled on top of bodies, the terror frozen on their dead faces.

So I can't imagine what Pfc. Warner experienced there.

He was engaged then to 18-year-old Thelma Sorrell. He never wrote to her about what he saw. But one day she got a letter from his roommate at Nuremberg, concerned about her fiance's drinking. "He said Maurice was drinking buckets of beer every night," my mother told me.

Maybe it was a coping mechanism. Henry T. King Jr., a former Case Western Reserve University professor, was one of 100 prosecutors at the Nuremberg Trials. In his 2009 Plain Dealer obituary, he said that when people asked him how he dealt with the brutality he saw daily, he always replied: "Scotch."

Stuart Schulberg, another young G.I., directed the Nuremberg documentary for the military. It was shown in Germany in 1948 and 1949, but the U.S. government never released it here. Schulberg was never told why.

By then, the U.S. had a new enemy, the Soviet Union. The Marshall Plan to rebuild Germany and Europe was ongoing. The government "may have worried," Schulberg's daughter, Sandra Schulberg, speculated in an interview last year, that the film's reminder that the Germans "were guilty of monstrous crimes" would have diminished our support for rebuilding their country.

More than 60 years later, Sandra Schulberg rescued the film in tatters and put it back together. Her father never told her about the documentary. She only discovered it after his death in 1979.

My father never said a word to me about his work at Nuremberg, either. I learned about it years after he passed away.

My parents were married on Christmas Day, 1946. Dad went to college, got a degree in fine arts and became a commercial artist. My mother says he got his drinking under control, except on Saturday nights. "I always had to drive him home," she said.

On one of those nights in 1959, at a party, this otherwise gentle man became so belligerent that the host asked him to step outside and cool off. Dad took a swing at the man. The man swung back. Dad went down and his head hit the floor.

He suffered dizzy spells at first. Months later, doctors discovered a hematoma, a mass of broken blood vessels, too close to a nerve center in the back of his brain. One surgery followed another and another. Finally, the doctors sent him home to die.

In his last few weeks, he weighed no more than 80 pounds. His head was shaved. He appeared as emaciated as many prisoners at the Nazi death camps.

I was 9 years old. I was afraid to go into his room. He died early in the morning of Dec. 31, 1961, before I woke up. I never got to say goodbye.

I can't say for certain that the Nuremberg experience led to my dad's death. Nor will I ever know if that G.I. in the documentary was him. It doesn't matter. What is important is that the film and the memory of him reminded me of lessons that are still as meaningful today.

We can never be afraid to look at what is too painful. We must accept what happened, learn from it and move forward.

Regret comes far too late.

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