‘This is an extraordinary place,’ 21-year-old Patricia Crampton, then Patricia Wood, writes of Nuremberg, Southern Germany to her parents in England, in a letter postmarked 5 December 1947. She describes leaving work at 5.30pm in the last stages of a bright and sunny November day, yet by 6pm it is completely dark and snowing. Back in her shared accommodation in the evening, after a visit to her German dressmaker and supper with the rest of the military section at their base, the Grand Hotel, she is ‘looking out of the window on a complete Christmas card’.
The contrasts in weather mirror the extremes of her life both in the few weeks covered in the letter, and her experiences in Nuremberg, where she was working as a German to English translator at the notorious Nuremberg War Crimes Trials. The series of 13 trials, designed to bring Nazi war criminals to justice, began 75 years ago in November 1945 and ended in 1949. Patricia arrived in 1947 and for two years she spent long working days in the Palace of Justice translating papers documenting crimes against humanity in the Doctors’ Trial and the IG Farber Trial in horrific, gruesome detail, while at weekends she visited beautiful countryside and cities in Germany and Switzerland. She had graduated only a few months previously from Oxford with a degree in French, German and Russia.
Thirty-four of her letters home, dating from June 1947 to March 1949, and now in the British Archive for Contemporary Writing at UEA, document these extremes. In the 5 December letter she writes of the ‘fantastically macabre event’ of the SS officer Oswald Pohl’s trial, who ‘thundered, obstructed and was sarcastic and defiant by turns’ as he gave testimony to ‘packed rows of spectators’ seats’. She comments that he is ‘obviously there for his big scene, his final curtain’ despite having been sentenced to death. The spectacle becomes a farce when the judge asks him to raise his hand and Pohl sneeringly shows this is impossible since he is ‘shackled’. In the same letter she expresses a wish to see a pantomime while in England for Christmas – which seems ironic, given the Pohl incident, but was doubtless simply a need for some fun – as well as a planned trip to Paris, and even a hint of gossip; ‘So that’s why Rosemary married the Navy! (CAT!!)’
In an article in the Swedish Book Review in 2007 Patricia said of her time in Nuremberg, ‘I had an amazing two years – privileged, shocking, life-changing –spent all my spare time with a very special group of friends, and returned in 1949 to my own beloved country where everyone, including my own parents, preferred not to ask, not to think, not to know anything at all about the death camps and everything that preceded them.’
Her parents may not have talked about it, but in an extraordinary one-and-a-half page list in the 14 page 5 December letter Patricia evocatively and movingly tells them of horrors perpetrated by the Nazi regime that she had heard in court and translated from German documents into English. The now well-known (and no less horrific for that) facts such as ‘the million and a half Jews gassed over two years in one centre alone’ and the lesser-known quotidian cruelties and deprivations of ‘starvation, of bare feet while working in winter snow and bare hands grasping icy iron to which the skin often adhered when the hands were taken away… daily shootings, daily beatings’, degradations such as bound prisoners being forced, after a day of this, to sing in the pouring rain about the ‘nobility of labour’, and repulsive atrocities such as ‘the introduction of live mice into the uterus of women, the dipping of heads of old men into latrines before they were shot or gassed’. Patricia is adamant that people ‘should know’ about these ‘appalling bestialities’.
How on earth did she cope with such abominations, day after day for two years, at such a young age? Her weekend travels must have gone some way to keeping her spirits up. ‘We went to Heidelberg last weekend and drank pink champagne!’ she writes. ‘Oh, the food at that hotel! I’m enclosing a menu of the Thanks-giving dinner this week – does it seem rather shocking?’ In the letter and a recording made by the Imperial War Museum in 1997 she mentions buying dressmaking fabric, fine china tea sets and quantities of chocolate bars from the American and British military discount shops. Sending these to her mother, sister and cousins, who could not hope to obtain such things in England just after the war, must have given her some pleasure to off-set the daily horrors.
The 5 December letter contains no trace of the effect of her work on her well-being and mental health, although the ‘PS’ gives a hint; ‘J’s letter very sophisticated’, probably referring to her younger sister, Jenny, ‘vituperation … sufficiently colourful to clear any depression –no gloom!’ But by this point she had spent a few months dealing with horrific material. As she explains in the IWM recording, her mother threw away her earliest letters home, in which she recorded her first impressions of the ‘post-war ruin’ that Nuremberg had become, a city of ‘rubble’ without ‘one street left standing’. These missing letters perhaps also contained her first impressions of the trials, which she says in the recording she was not supposed to talk about. Possibly they were too painful for a mother to keep. In the recording she does say that she ‘would go away and have a quiet cry’ after some days at work, adding movingly ‘I think in a sense I think of it nearly every day.’
In the letter she says that ordinary German citizens were completely ignorant of what the Nazis were doing: ‘the effect of all this on the more sensitive of the German typists is striking –there is no doubt whatsoever that, in spite of “the sickly smell of burning flesh wafting on the breeze from Birkenau”, as one affidavit poetically has it, the German people did not know of the atrocities, and the ones who now know are having nervous breakdowns trying to convince sceptical friends and relations.’ Here there is an addition to the letter, the words ‘of what happened’ are written in a fainter, shakier hand. There’s another later on, ‘About parents’ Silver Wedding’, just before a section in which she states her great disappointment at not being able to find anything silver to buy them, ‘unless you wanted some faintly silvered candle sticks or cigarette boxes.’ I find these two additions incredibly moving; the less firm handwriting suggests Patricia made these clarifications when she read her own letters decades later, when her parents were dead and she herself was elderly. It looks very like my grandmother’s handwriting when she was in her late 80s and wanted to label photos to clarify who was who before it was too late.
Reading the 5 December 1947 letter in 2020, after listening to the 1997 IWM recording, I know what Patricia did not know when she wrote it; that she would later dismiss her German dressmaker for calling her former employer ‘only a dirty Jew’, and that she would use the creative writing talent so evident in her phraseology to pursue a 40 year freelance career in literary translation. Just one example of this talent is her description of a weekend spent in ‘a lovely hotel above the semi-ruined castle, looking down the sluggish Neckar winding under its lovely bridges across the plains, with Heidelberg, old and thin, stretched along the left bank, the long withered arm flung across the river to rest along the right’.
Patricia translated more than 200 books for children and 50 for adults, including Dutch author Dick Bruna’s Miffy books, Anne Holm’s Danish classic The Sky Grew Red, Swedish Pippi Longstocking creator Astrid Lindgren’s books, as well as Norwegian, French, Spanish and German literature. Her award-winning literary career followed translating for two international companies, and NATO.
Patricia married the sculptor Sean Crampton in 1957 and they had two children, Dan and Harriet. She campaigned for better recognition and remuneration for translators, championing model contracts that protected translators’ rights in her role as chair of the Translators Association. She also chaired the Translators Guild of the Institute of Linguistics and helped it to transform into the Institute of Translation and Interpreting, which became the professional body of non-literary translators. In these roles she fought to get translators a share of the Public Lending Right for library borrowings when it was set up in the UK in 1979. She was also on the International Board of Books for Young People, whose aim was greater worldwide understanding through children’s books.
In the IWM recording she says that during her weekend travels to places such as Munich and Heidelberg while in Nuremberg for the War Trials she ‘experienced the resurgence of German art’. It was this, the idea of witnessing the rebuilding of a nation, that first attracted me to the Patricia Crampton archive. My grandfather, George Murray, led the British contribution to the post-war reconstruction of Germany’s education system. Reading Patricia’s letter, what resounds louder than the eerie echoes of thousands of people shouting ‘Sieg Heil’, while Hitler – like Oswald Pohl – thunders above them at his Nuremberg rallies, is music. Out of the rubble of Nuremberg, Patricia says in the IWM recording, ‘the first thing they rebuilt was the opera house … for the sake of their morale.’
Patricia Crampton died on 1 December 2016.
The Swedish – English Literary Translators’ Association 25.1.2017 https://www.selta.org.uk/is-there-such-a-profession-remembering-patricia-crampton.php
Crampton, Patricia Elizabeth Cardew, Oral History Sound Archive, Imperial War Museum https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80016805