A Missed Opportunity

Dammit.  I missed it

Nuremberg.  The Nuremberg trials. Of course I wasn’t born yet.

I also missed the 70th Anniversary Commemoration.  At least I think I did.  I just Googled “70th Anniversary of Nuremberg” and I’m a little bit confused.  The 276,000 hits I got (in 0.64 seconds) give dates all across the spring of 2015.  I was reminded of the Anniversary when I saw that MSNBC has made a documentary about the trial.  I imagine I missed that, too.

Yup.  I missed all of them.  And while I regret not paying more attention to the 70th Anniversary (whenever it actually is), there is one Nuremberg-related thing that I truly regret, and I always will.

Did you ever see the movie Judgment at Nuremberg?

It’s a great movie.  Amazing performances by a phenomenal cast — Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, Richard Widmark.  Even William Shatner somehow got in there.  I watched the movie in high school because I had read that Judy Garland, whom I love, was in it and gave a terrific dramatic performance.  (She did.) I knew the names of each character in the movie.  They were real folks, and they made history.

In fact, I’ve always been fascinated by real people who make history.  I’ve always liked to learn their stories.  And I’ve been lucky enough to hear a few of them in person.

But back to the movie.  That movie made me think about what happened there, and to realize that it was a proud moment in world history.  We, the Allies, gave fair trials to people who were accused (and ultimately convicted) of some of the most heinous crimes ever committed by mankind.  Martin Bormann, Hermann Göring, Rudolf Hess, Albert Speer, among others.

Holy Shit!  That is really huge.  And the trials left their mark on how we conduct ourselves since:  International rules regarding how we treat and try alleged war criminals come from the Nuremberg trials, as did the Nuremberg Code that established the ethics of how medical research participants must be treated.

By now, you’re probably wondering what I’m yammering on about.  Sorry.  I’m getting there.

In the school year 1977-78, I was working at a law school as the administrative assistant for a large student organization.  I had a big office, right in the center of the school just off the main reception area, and at the head of a hallway that also held the offices of a bunch of professors.  My office had a couple of comfortable chairs, a couch and, most importantly, coffee and tea.  During the school year, loads of student congregated there.

That summer, like all summers, the school was quiet.  Very quiet.

One day, an older man stopped by my office and introduced himself. His office was a couple of doors down.

“Hi, I’m Professor Taylor,” he told me.

I introduced myself, and told him to feel free to stop by any time for coffee or tea.

Professor Taylor took me up on my offer.  Just about every afternoon, all summer long, we had tea together.  Professor Taylor was a visiting professor, and he seemed kind of lonely.  He was looking for someone to chat with.  He liked to chat. And he liked to ask questions, too.

I was surprised when he asked me my opinion of the other professors.

“But I’m just a secretary,” I objected.

“How someone treats a secretary is a great measure of a man — or woman.  You can tell a lot by how someone treats secretaries.  It’s easy enough to be nice to your peers; harder to be nice to people who aren’t.”

So we chatted all summer long — for two months.  He asked me a lot of questions.  About the other professors, about the students.  About Boston and things to do and places to go.  We talked about local restaurants, the best way to get from here to there.  As the summer progressed, he told me of places he’d traveled to with his family, other places where we’d both like to go.

He was such an incredibly nice man.

I thoroughly enjoyed our chats, and was sorry to see them end with the summer.  Of course, our tea parties ended when school started and my office became a beehive of students.  He started teaching classes.  Still, we stopped and chatted a bit when we ran into each other in the hall or in the cafeteria.

At the end of the school year when his visitorship was done, Professor Taylor stopped by and gave me a lovely can of wonderful English tea.

“I wanted to be sure to give this to you personally before I left this afternoon, Elyse.  They’ve evicted me from my office!”

“Who am I going to share this with this summer without you?” I responded.  We chatted a little bit longer, said our goodbyes and he left.

“Why did Telford Taylor give you tea, Elyse?” asked Lucas, one of the students who was in the office.

“We had tea together a lot last summer when we were the only folks here,” I responded.  “Lots of nice long chats.”

“Did he tell you about the trials?”

“Trials?”  I tilted my head at Lucas.  “What trials?”

“The Nuremberg Trials.  Telford Taylor was the lead prosecutor in the Nuremberg Trials.  He tried the Nazis!”

“Oh.”

There aren’t a whole lot of things that I truly regret about my life.  But I’ve always wished that I had known a little bit more about the man when we met for tea.  And I would have too, if he’d been a character in the damn movie.

Telford Taylor at Nuremberg Photo Wikimedia Commons

Telford Taylor at Nuremberg
Photo Wikimedia Commons

Not only was he the lead prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, he stood up to Joseph McCarthy, an early objector to the Vietnam War, and lent his voice to many other political causes that I’ve long thought about.  When we were chatting over tea, I wasn’t terribly political, but I did have an interest in history.  And Professor Taylor was a playah.

I will never stop kicking myself.

62 Comments

Filed under Cool people, Nuremberg Trials, Tea Parties, Telford Taylor

62 responses to “A Missed Opportunity

  1. Do you ever wonder why he didn’t mention it? Intriguing story.

    Liked by 1 person

    • When your books become best sellers, are you going to introduce yourself as a NYTimes best selling author or as Renee? I’m guessing the latter.

      The more I think about it, though, the more I’m sure that I would have been totally intimidated if I HAD known.

      Like

  2. Love this story, Elyse. He was a giant among men, yet unassuming. A real hero and role model. Nothing like people who brag about being brave or great leaders. I suppose if you have to tell people that you are wonderful, you probably aren’t. 😐

    Don’t kick yourself; have a cup of tea and toast yourself–you spent time with a truly remarkable historical figure! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Still, it’s kinda cool that you can say you were friends with someone with such historical importance.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow. That’s a totally amazing story, Elyse – thanks for sharing. And I did love that movie.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I am in the “stop kicking yourself” camp. He was probably relieved that he didn’t have to be Telford Taylor, Famed Prosecutor around you. Just being Good Ole Professor Taylor was enough. Things worked out well the way they did, and you can read his thoughts in his book. I know you would have wanted to talk to him about his life and work, but he was just a man who wanted a cups of tea and chats. You were giving him what most people weren’t.

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  6. What an interesting story. Funny how we can get to know someone on many levels, enjoy the experience, and still not be aware of some of their greatest contributions.

    I would have kicked myself, too.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Reblogged this on Still Skeptical After All These Years and commented:
    I think Elise’s outstanding memoir is perfect material for thought on this Veteran’s Day. See if you agree.

    Jim

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  8. This is a terrific memoir, Elise. Nicely done.

    It occurs to me that its just as well you didn’t know of Taylor’s Nuremberg background. If you had, I wonder if he would have wanted to discuss it? As a veteran of the Vietnam war, I submit that the question of war and morality can not be satisfactorily resolved. The extremes can be quite clear but somewhere between the Holocaust and the the Marshall Plan the issues go to unresolvable shades of gray.

    I visited Taylor’s Wikipedia page and near the bottom I found this startling statement:

    Taylor published his views in a book entitled Nuremberg and Vietnam: An American Tragedy in 1970. He argued that by the standards employed at the Nuremberg Trials, U.S. conduct in Vietnam and Cambodia was equally criminal as that of the Nazis during World War II. For this reason, he favored prosecuting U.S. aviators who had participated in bombing missions over North Vietnam.

    I have nothing but respect for Taylor’s intelligence and morality, but this goes too far and indicates a perfect example of the conundrum of war and morality. If everyone thought as he did, war wouldn’t exist because it would be unthinkable, but it is part and parcel of the history of humanity. By his standards we should have court-martialed the pilots who fire-bombed Dresden and Tokyo, and also Paul Tibbets who killed almost every man, woman and child in Hiroshima. And impeached Harry Truman.

    On this Veteran’s Day we would do well to think seriously about the word war, and how its definition has changed. Of the oxymoronic term, Department of Defense. Of how easy it has become to use professional and highly technical armed forces as just another tool. “War” used to be the last resort. No longer. This is why the Afghan and Iraq wars still plague us.

    Liked by 3 people

    • A very thoughtful comment, Jim, and I have been thinking of how to respond all morning.

      I’m not a vet, never carried a gun, never served. So I can’t pretend to really know first hand what I’m talking about. Naturally, that doesn’t stop me from thinking about all of this.

      I can’t pretend to have any insights at all to Professor Taylor, and I can’t even remember his opinions on the weather, now, nearly 40 years later. My lasting impression is of a kind, gentle soul. But there really wasn’t any substance to our chats.

      I wonder if his later, pretty pacifistic views emerged out of the rubble of what he saw working on those trial — arguably the worst acts that mankind has committed. I wonder if it left him intolerant for any more. And the questions of right and wrong, good and evil, righteous and malevolent, faded.

      I’ve long thought that it is really important to have extremists on both sides (environmentalists are my favorite examples) so that folks can meet at a reasonable point somewhere towards the middle. That’s where I personally am on questions of war. There are things worth fighting for, things we need to fight for. WWII was one of them. Perhaps Professor Taylor had just seen too much to have a more nuanced view.

      I wonder if he had written much prior to Nuremberg on any of these questions. That would certainly make for an interesting analysis, wouldn’t it.

      I, personally, am possibly alive today because Harry Truman decided to drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. My father was in the navy stationed in the pacific and would have been part of the invasion of Japan. So while I think it is a horrible, horrible weapon, and I dearly hope they are never used again …. well, here I am.

      I also find the name “Department of Defense” absurd. The one I detest, though, is “Department of Homeland Security” — it has a faintly nazi ring to me that I find distasteful.

      Thanks again for your thoughtful comment and for your re-blog.

      Like

    • Jim,

      I too enjoyed this piece, very much. You also make some thought provoking comments here, as you are wont to do. And I agree with your sentiment.

      It seems that once we humans invented the spear, the “civil” in civilization was in trouble. To my mind, war and racism are the two primary contributors to human misery. How many more years will it take before we can figure that out? And do something about them?

      Liked by 3 people

      • Glad you enjoyed the story Herb.

        I wish I shared your implied optimism that some day we will figure out an end to war. We seem to be regressing on so many levels.

        Like

  9. I don’t know Elyse, I think it might have been nice for him and you that he had someone to talk with who didn’t know. What a lovely memory. Wonderful story also.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Val. And for him I agree. I wasn’t a missed opportunity for him. But for me, oy! Still, upon reflection,I would have been too intimidated had I known who he was and what he’d done.

      Like

  10. Wow… nice. I did a double-take as soon as I saw the name, remembering him from my studies. Nice, Elyse. A great memory for you, and also a wonderfully paced story.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. History slips away so quickly…

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I remember the movie! That’s a miracle in itself. I think we all missed opportunities to learn because we were…umm…we were….I don’t know….somewhat uninterested? disconnected? self-absorbed? Something! Now I find that older people often has several reinventions and are quite interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. So cool to have met him. I guess now you would have Googled him. 🙂
    I agree that the movie is wonderful.
    The conflict with the dates is because the trials took place over more than a year. The trial against the major war criminals took place in 1945-46, with the verdicts announced in October 1946. Several other trials took place over the next few years. That’s great that Taylor also stood up to McCarthy.

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    • Yes, you’re right about the dates. But you would think that if they were going to have a big commemoration they’d decide on one — like October 1946 as the one to celebrate 70 years later (so I won’t miss it, it’s NEXT YEAR!)

      He did do a lot with his life. So now I need to kick myself again. OUCH!

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Wow!!! Did you ever hear from him again or contact him? As I was reading, I thought how strange that he never shared any of the big parts of his past with you. But maybe that’s what he “became” in a sense and it was a relief for him to have normal conversation with someone. But, I would’ve been disappointed too! Great story!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • No, there was no further contact. I don’t think it would have been appropriate (the only professors who tried to contact me were the ones hitting on me! Professor Taylor was not!)

      But I think you’re right that he liked the normal conversation aspect. He did get me to tell him what little gossip I knew about the other professors, though!

      Like

  15. I love how we meet someone and they end up having a big impact in our lives. That man sounds quite remarkable.

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    • He was a great man, I think. I don’t know if you read the obituary I linked to. It’s amazing that one person can do so much in the world, isn’t it. And still, he was very unassuming.

      Like

  16. What a story. How fascinating it would be to go back in time as you are now and chat with him some more. He’d probably even read your blog. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Damn him! Why did he die so soon!

      I would love to go back in time and talk with him. Have a nice cuppa. Even without talking about the trials (or about him standing up to Joseph McCarthy or or or). He was just a nice man.

      Liked by 1 person

  17. I can see how you’d feel disappointed It would have been nice to talk about the trials with him, or something. Darn!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I said to Barb below, that given my age at the time (21), I probably would have been too intimidated to talk with him if I’d known. And somehow I doubt he would have confided anything more significant to me than “I don’t like Earl Grey”!

      But still. Darn is right!

      Liked by 1 person

  18. What a story. All of it. The fact that you had so many visits with him is tops. The two of you must have been very good at living in the moment.

    Liked by 1 person

    • We were living on the moon, or so it seemed. We were practically the only ones around!

      But he was sweet and kind. And you know something? That makes me feel even better about the fact that our government and the other Allies didn’t put a vengeful sort in this position. And we might well have.

      Current politicians notwithstanding, we Yanks ain’t so bad!

      Liked by 1 person

  19. What a great story. The man’s self esteem was obviously not lacking. He had no need for others to know how brilliant, important, or instrumental he was. As a matter of fact, he was interested in other things besides himself. What a lesson to remember. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Great story … so yes, you deserved to be kicked for the missed opportunity and yammering (the word that I didn’t expect to encounter today).

    Liked by 1 person

    • “Yammering” was one of my dad’s favorite words. It makes me smile to use it!

      Everybody else is being so nice — “Don’t feel bad, Elyse.” But not you! Noooooooooo! Of course, you’re right. I should be kicked. And I have been doing so for nearly 40 years!

      Like

      • Self-inflicting kicking is the worst kind … and cheers to saluting your dad by using yammering. Meanwhile, off to the theater for the final touches as the band is doing their sound check for Opening Night.

        Liked by 1 person

  21. What a fantastic story! You touched greatness without even knowing it. Don’t kick yourself. How were you to know?

    Please keep in mind that Judgment at Nuremberg isn’t a documentary. It’s a drama. Too often people mistake the latter for the former.

    Speaking of judgment…off topic. Do the unthinkable. Watch the GOP debate tonight. Don’t you want to know what the enemy is planning?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’d always thought that the names were the ones of the primary characters. The attorneys and the judges. Oh well. Still a great movie — I should watch it again.

      And if Google were around then, well maybe … but probably not. You have to think of the right things to ask. And for some reason, I wasn’t all that interested in the brains that surrounded me (this was Harvard, after all).

      Are you challenging me to watch the debate? Oh lord. I do watch some of them — but not all. The debates on both sides are pretty hard to stomach. We’ll see. If i need an emetic this evening, I will certainly give it a look!

      Like

  22. Fabulous story. I met the real Crocodile Dundee once. Doesn’t compare – even if you didn’t discuss the trials.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. Wonderful story. I have wished my younger self had not been quite so self-focused and had made more of an effort to learn from others about their history. Now, years later, I realise what I missed. Especially my parents’ early years.

    Liked by 1 person

  24. That gave me goosebumps. Wow.

    Liked by 1 person

  25. In addition to loving reading this story, I’m glad for how it’s illuminated something I’ve been grappling with in my day-to-day life currently. How well he got to the heart of it, in but a sentence!

    Glad to have had the chance to share this memory, and the delight/self-kicking.

    Liked by 2 people

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