Leo DiPalma, Who Guarded Infamous Nazis at Nuremberg Trials, Brought Down by COVID-19

Emilio “Leo” DiPalma (far right) stands guard at the Nuremberg trials. (Courtesy photo)

In his early 90s, Emilio J. DiPalma’s family moved him into a home for veterans in Holyoke, Mass. As a young man from Springfield, Mass., he had fought in Germany at the end of World War II and stood guard during one of the famous trials of Nazi war criminals in Nuremberg. Now he would live out his days among other veterans.

The Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke was nothing fancy. But the place impressed DiPalma’s family, one of his daughters, Emily Aho of Jaffrey, said. The employees seemed to respect the veterans and offered plenty of activities. DiPalma seemed happy.

“There was so much life there,” Aho said. “They had this canteen, there was always people singing, dancing, games. I loved going there and visiting. And the staff was amazing. They truly loved my father.”

Then the coronavirus came.

Dozens of residents have now tested positive for COVID-19, 28 of whom had died as of Thursday, according to news reports. The outbreak has prompted state and federal authorities to announce they will investigate the home.

Aho said she learned her father had tested positive for COVID-19 around April 2.

On Wednesday, she said, he died. He was 93.

The family got more tragic news a day later. Aho said she learned Thursday morning that an uncle in Massachusetts also died of the disease.

“The hard part of all of this … is that there’s no funeral. There’s no services. We can’t be graveside. They can’t embalm,” Aho said. “He’s gotta go in the ground soon, and that’s that.”

But DiPalma’s story will live on. Beginning in his 70s, he decided to talk openly about his experience in the war and its aftermath. In recorded interviews and a short memoir, DiPalma recalled in detail what it had been like to battle on the front lines, guard infamous Nazi leaders like Hermann Göring and hear about their grisly crimes.

Eli Rosenbaum, a U.S. Department of Justice official who for years led an office that worked to deport ex-Nazis from the United States, got to know DiPalma after coming across his memoir a little over a decade ago. He called him a “quiet hero” of the Greatest Generation.

“He experienced the horrors of combat personally,” Rosenbaum said Friday, “and then month after month in the courtroom at Nuremberg he was there as additional horrors were detailed every day.”

‘Just a kid’

For most of his life, Leo DiPalma spoke little of the war.

After returning home, he married Louise Catelotti. (She died in 2006.) They settled in East Longmeadow, Mass., and raised four daughters. DiPalma worked as a crane operator and volunteered for the local fire department.

Aho remembers DiPalma as a good father, capable and modest, something of a jokester. She knew he had served during the war and played a role at a trial, but not the details.

“He never really talked about his service,” she said.

That changed when they visited Germany together in 2000. In Nuremberg, they stopped by the Palace of Justice, where the trials were held. Local historians greeted him with fascination and urged him to share his story.

Aho, a children’s book author, bought him a tape recorder and helped him fashion his thoughts into a brief memoir, “Just a Kid,” aimed at young readers. Those recordings were the first time she’d heard her father’s story in full.

Then 18, DiPalma was drafted into the U.S. Army in September 1944. He got to Europe in early 1945. Soon, he was on the frontlines, artillery shells whining overhead.

During combat, DiPalma and his fellow soldiers focused on doing their jobs, he recalled in a 2002 oral-history interview published by the New York State Military Museum. But there were aftershocks.

“When things calmed down, it would be hours later, I’d get the shakes, you know,” he said. “And I’ve never felt like that, before or after.”

They were pursuing retreating soldiers through the German countryside. The Germans knew the land better. They shelled their pursuers and left behind snipers. He lost good friends and came close to losing his life at times.

“When a bullet or slug comes close to your head, it emits a cracking sound, similar to the sound of a snapping whip,” he would write in his memoir. “Nobody had to teach or tell you what that crack was.”

Several months after the war ended in Europe, he was sent to Nuremberg. The trial of Nazi leaders accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity would begin that November. He worked a night shift photocopying records seized from the Nazis. He didn’t understand why they documented their own atrocities.

What he remembered reading was horrific — soldiers forcing prisoners to bury one other alive; a commander ordering underlings to shoot detainees who returned from work not wearing their hats, just because he felt more of them should be shot.

DiPalma later watched the cells of leading Nazi war criminals and stood guard in the courtroom during part of their trial. Photos show a smooth-cheeked youth in dress uniform and helmet, standing just feet from the prominent Nazis testifying in the witness box.

Rosenbaum said the officer in charge, U.S. Army Col. Burton Andrus, wanted only men who had fought in Europe to guard the courtroom. DiPalma was among that select few.

“He wanted the defendants, and he wanted the world, to see some of the men who had defeated the Nazi regime through their courage,” Rosenbaum said.

DiPalma’s recollections include striking portraits of the fallen Nazi leaders on trial. Göring, for instance — who had established the Nazi state’s secret police, led its air force and held various other roles in the regime — seemed to expect deference because of his former status.

Once, DiPalma recalled, Göring refused to go into the hallway until a group of onlookers had left. The 19-year-old gave him a little push.

“He turned around, and he swung at me, and he hit me on the arm,” DiPalma recalled in the 2002 interview. “And I give him an awful belt in the kidneys. He never said a word to me. But he didn’t like me.

“I know he didn’t like me,” he added with a slight grin.

Albert Speer, an architect who became minister of armaments and war production, drew sketches of some of the American guards. Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy in the Nazi Party, would mutter gibberish at an open window in his cell. DiPalma suspected he was feigning mental illness.

At one point, the American prosecutor, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, got into a heated exchange with Baldur von Schirach, who had headed the Nazi’s youth organization.

During a recess, von Schirach turned to DiPalma. “The Hitler Youth is nothing more than your Boy Scouts,” he said, according to the American’s memory.

“I said ‘Really?’ ” DiPalma said in the 2002 interview. “He didn’t realize that I was a front-line soldier. I said, ‘I fought your Hitler Youth.’ He never said a word.”

Rosenbaum said DiPalma’s close observations at Nuremberg are relevant to a question we’re still grappling with — how such atrocities could be committed not by “monsters created in a laboratory,” but by human beings.

“When he talked to audiences about that, I think that came through. And it’s really scary,” Rosenbaum said. “It’s easy — it’s more comforting, in a way, to think that they’re monsters. You know, just be on the alert for monsters. But that’s not the message of Nuremberg.”

Standing guard, forever

Aho said her father wanted people to learn from his story and stay vigilant. In Germany, “they turned a blind eye,” she said. “They didn’t speak up. And then it became the norm.”

She began visiting schools to talk about her father’s experiences, and he would join sometimes. He gave oral-history interviews to museums and appeared onstage at the New York Film Festival in 2010, in conjunction with the re-release of a 1948 American film on Nuremberg that had been shown in Germany after the war. His image appeared in the film.

Around 2009, Rosenbaum connected DiPalma with people he knew at the Virginia Holocaust Museum. The museum presented him with its Legacy of Nuremberg award that year. Rosenbaum introduced DiPalma, and said his speech captivated the audience.

In the museum’s re-creation of the Nuremberg courtroom, one of the mannequins bears DiPalma’s likeness.

“He stands guard at the witness stand forever,” Aho said.

DiPalma pulled back from those engagements after about 2010, as he began to feel his age and thought he’d done what he could, Aho said. He moved into the Holyoke facility in 2018.

Aho last visited him on March 8. He already seemed in decline, she said. But she spoke to him, and he reached for her hand. He opened his eyes and smiled.

After he tested positive for COVID-19, Aho said, her sister Donna was allowed to visit a couple times. The National Guard escorted her in after she put on protective gear.

On Wednesday, DiPalma died not long after Donna got to his room, according to Aho.

“I think he was waiting for her,” Aho said.

She said a National Guardsman stood outside his door.

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