As Nazi war criminals testified, Paula Isenberg took notes. A 98-year-old recalls her role in history.
by Joanne O’Sullivan . photos by Matt Rose
Paula Isenberg still remembers the expression on a frail old Jewish man’s face as he testified just a few feet in front of her. He had watched his entire family being killed before his eyes. She recalls a Nazi camp doctor who covered his face with his hands while a prosecutor showed a film revealing the horrors of Buchenwald, a concentration camp that was one of the first and largest in Germany. She will never forget one of the first items entered into evidence at the Buchenwald trials: the shrunken head of a Polish prisoner, its thick, dark hair still attached.
Now 98, Isenberg lives in the Givens Estates retirement community in Asheville. Her mind is as sharp as ever, and she has nearly a century of memories. But some of the most powerful come from the time she served as court reporter for the women’s branch of the U.S. Army just after World War II.
In the early 1940s, as the war helped America pull out of the Great Depression, Isenberg was yearning for a bit more personal freedom. She was born in Borough Park, Brooklyn, in 1912 and had graduated from Brooklyn College in 1935, at the height of the Depression. There wasn’t much work available at the time, but she got a secretarial job in the women’s clothing business in Manhattan. She was unmarried and in her 20s, still living at home, pining for her own place. In those days, “nice Jewish girls didn’t rent rooms,” Isenberg says. Upon hearing that she wanted to live on her own, her father made it clear that wasn’t an option.
So when Congress approved the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) in 1942, Isenberg saw a good opportunity to both serve her country and get out of the house. She enlisted in 1943, barely making the 100-pound minimum weight requirement. “I weighed 99, and the doctor told me to go drink as much water as I could,” she remembers. That trick netted her half a pound, and the physician was willing to round up.
WAACs completed many of the same basic training exercises as men—marching and other physical rigors—but after training, they were generally assigned to support roles. Isenberg went to what was then Fairfield-Suisun Army Air Base (now Travis Air Force Base) in northern California and helped make beds, cook and clean bathrooms. She was later assigned to desk jobs at Hickam Air Field and other posts in and around Hawaii, where she started using her typing skills—which would lead to her most memorable duty.
It was 1947, and World War II had been over less than two years. The process of bringing to justice the thousands responsible for and complicit in wartime atrocities was under way. Isenberg typed quickly—she had learned it in college—and was assigned to be a court reporter for the American Military Tribunal trials (distinct from the International Tribunals held in 1949 in Nuremberg). She arrived in January at the former Dachau Concentration Camp in Bavaria, which the U.S. Army had symbolically chosen as the site for war crimes trials. She and other staff stayed in the barracks, and she remembers the cold, the frozen pipes and constant food and supplies shortages. “I never wanted to see red cabbages again,” she says.
But those inconveniences soon seemed trivial. The trials began in April 1947, and Isenberg heard wrenching daily testimony against the 31 Nazi defendants charged with crimes committed at Buchenwald during the war.
Although tens of thousands died there, Buchenwald was designed as a “work camp” for political prisoners—mostly Communists and resistance fighters from the European countries the Nazis had vanquished. But it also held more than 4,000 Jews, including, most notably, Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel. When American troops liberated the camp on April 11, 1945, they found emaciated prisoners and stacked corpses. Some of the more than 20,000 prisoners still living showed grotesque evidence of the Nazis’ sadistic treatment and medical experiments: lampshades made of tattooed skin, meat hooks from which people were hung to die.
From the outset of the trials, none of the 31 defendants (all officials at the camp) showed remorse or emotion, Isenberg recalls, with the exception of the one-time camp doctor. Particularly chilling at the trial was the presence of Ilse Koch, the former commandant’s wife—known as “the Bitch of Buchenwald”—who was said to have had prisoners killed just for looking at her. “She was horrible,” says Isenberg. “There wasn’t anything she wouldn’t do.”
For nearly five months, Isenberg served 30-minute shifts, on and off with other reporters, first recording, then transcribing, testimony. Witnesses told their stories in Polish, Czech, French and other languages, and interpreters translated. At the end of the trial, all the defendants were sentenced to death or life in prison, but many sentences were later commuted. Asked if she thinks justice was served, Isenberg simply says no.
After her time in Germany, Isenberg returned to the U.S., married, and continued her career as a court reporter in Washington, D.C. She and her husband retired to Scottsdale, Arizona, for 20 years, and she moved to Western North Carolina to be near her daughter, Naomi Henry, about five years ago. Isenberg says that in the 1940s, and even in the decades that followed, she didn’t realize the magnitude of history she helped record. But in recent years, working with hospice nurses from CarePartners in the past few months, she has felt compelled to reveal more of the horror she recorded. She has also donated several original trial documents to the United States Holocaust Memorial in Washington, D.C. “People have to remember,” she says.