Richard Sonnenfeldt made landfall in Jones Bay, Pyrmont, on 6 September 1940 aboard the notorious MV Dunera. At the end of his long life, he penned this striking understatement: ‘I would call my Dunera voyage the start of a very interesting life.’ Like many other German-Jewish refugee ‘Dunera boys’, he made the 750-km rail journey from Pyrmont to an internment camp in Hay, southwestern NSW. But only a few weeks later, he returned to Pyrmont – his second contact with our illustrious suburb – and reboarded the Dunera to sail back to Britain and join up for the fight against Nazism.
However, the ship diverted to Bombay, where he gained a visa to the USA. He ended the war as a 22-year-old GI on active service in Europe. While waiting to be demobilised and sent back to his new homeland, senior American prosecutors discovered him and his formidable linguistic talent, and whisked him off to Nuremberg for the first trial there 1945-6. He was soon promoted to become the American prosecution’s chief interpreter, and facilitated the interrogations of such front-rank Nazis as Rudolf Hess and Hermann Göring. Much later he published a memoir of this period in his life, Witness to Nuremberg (Arcade, 2006).
But Sonnenfeldt was a tinkerer at heart, and his first love was electrical engineering. In 1946 he left Nuremberg to qualify in this profession at America’s elite Johns Hopkins University. This move led to a long and successful career, including his helping RCA to develop colour TV, and then NASA with its preparations for the first moon landings. In his seventies he took up ocean sailing, and made three transatlantic crossings in his 14-metre open-cockpit yacht, Peregrine. Also in his retirement, he made several trips back to Germany, to speak about the Holocaust and the first Nuremberg trial, on German TV and in schools.
Sonnenfeldt’s third brush with Pyrmont was a posthumous one: he became a focal character in an historical novel written here, one about the first Nuremberg trial (Winton Higgins, Rule of Law, Brandl & Schlesinger, 2016).