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Witnesses to War Trials : Friends Were Court Reporters at Dachau Hearings on Nazi Atrocities

July 04, 1993|LINDA FELDMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WEST LOS ANGELES — Two women. Both grew up poor--one in New York, the other in California. One has an eye for art; the other makes art. One is a lifelong student of learning, and the other is a world traveler.

They met in Washington during the '40s, working at stenography jobs that opened up when many men in the labor force went off to war. Four years later, they were in Germany together, working for the U.S. Army.

Today, Sylvia Gavurin of West Los Angeles and Sylvia Mathon of Encino are still friends--bound by the history they each recorded at the Dachau War Crimes Trials.

Sylvia Mathon remembers a few words quite clearly. "The first time I heard the trial judge say, 'You shall be hung by your neck until dead,' I was so startled that I didn't write the words down," she recalled. "I had never heard a human being say this to another human being before, except in the movies. After that it became a job, and some of the other reporters and I were taking bets on how many times the judge was going to say that."

Gavurin, by contrast, found it progressively more painful as time went on to live with the descriptions and reminders of Nazi atrocities day after day.

"My emotions were killing me. I was concentrating on the words, which I had to carefully transcribe. . . . To this day, I cannot recall any of the things that were said, only that I suffered a great deal and had to go into therapy when I returned, a year later."

The most notorious Nazi war criminals, including Hermann Goering, the Hitler crony who directed Germany's Air Force, were tried at the international tribunal at Nuremberg. Dachau, near Munich, was one of several sites for similar trials convened by individual Allied powers when Germany was partitioned after the war. Dachau was in the American sector, so the trials there were administered by the U.S. Army.

Aaron Breitbart, senior researcher for the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies in Los Angeles, said the Dachau trials resulted in death sentences for 260 German war criminals (although some were later commuted) and prison sentences for 498 more.

When they first teamed up in Washington in the early days of the war, however, the two Sylvias had no inkling of what was happening in German concentration camps. They landed jobs as court reporters for the Office of Price Administration, the wartime bureaucracy that regulated prices for products that were subject to rationing. The reporters had the job of taking word-for-word records as representatives of various industries met with the administration to hammer out prices for their products.

Gavurin and Mathon got their assignment to go to Germany soon after the war ended, but they offer differing accounts of how it came about. Mathon recalls that she persuaded Gavurin to go with her; Gavurin remembers being asked to go by a War Production Board official. Their initial destination was to be Nuremberg, where they would serve as reporters for the international tribunal; at the last minute, they were reassigned to Dachau.

"When I heard about the Nuremberg assignment, I was afraid to go, because I had heard stories about WACS having to wash their hair in helmets," Mathon recalled. "I talked Sylvia Gavurin into going--that's how I remember it. . . . We didn't know about the Holocaust. We had no idea. The fact that we were both Jewish had nothing to do with it. No one asked, and we didn't tell. I wanted to have a good time. I was 24. It was my first plane trip. It started my love for travel."

The trials were held in the Dachau concentration camp. Gavurin remembers walking past glass cases that held some of the evidence of the atrocities, such as lampshades made from human skin, that she had heard described in testimony.

Dachau, according to Breitbart, was the first of the 1,634 concentration camps built by the German government. It was originally set up not for Jews, but for political dissidents and as a training center for concentration camp guards. As the war progressed, however, it evolved into a death camp similar to such places as Auschwitz and Treblinka, though on a smaller scale. Breitbart estimated that 50,000 people, most of them Jews, were put to death there.

The German prisoners were held in the same buildings that had housed prisoners during the war.

The most famous case tried at Dachau was that of SS Maj. Gen. Jurgen Stroop and 22 others who were held responsible for the final annihilation of the Jewish residents of the Warsaw Ghetto. Thirteen, including Stroop, were sentenced to death. Stroop, however, was extradited to Poland, tried again, and hanged there in September, 1951.

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