World War II vet who stood guard at Nuremberg trials dies during COVID-19 outbreak at Soldiers’ Home

  • U.S. Sen. John Warner, left, and Leo DiPalma, standing beside a life-size replica of DiPalma, at the Virginia Holocaust Museum in Richmond, Virginia.  COURTESY PHOTO

  • Leo DiPalma with this wife, Louise DiPalma.  COURTESY PHOTO

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    Emilio "Leo" DiPalma, right, guards Baldur Von Schirach, head of the Hitler Youth, during testimony.  COURTESY PHOTO

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    Emilio "Leo" DiPalma, right, at parade rest, and Walter "Squeaky" Zador, left, guarding Alfred Rosenberg, chief Nazi philosopher, in the witness box.  COURTESTY PHOTO

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    Emilio "Leo" DiPalma at the entrance of the Palace of Justice, site of the Nuremberg trials in Germany in 1945.  COURTESY PHOTO

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    Emilio "Leo" DiPalma, at home in Springfield, Massachusetts, four days before he was shipped out to Germany.  COURTESY PHOTO

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    Emilio "Leo" DiPalma and his wife, Louise DiPalma.  COURTESY PHOTO

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 4/12/2020 11:18:43 AM

Emilio “Leo” DiPalma, a World War II veteran and a guard for some of the most notorious Nazi prisoners during the Nuremberg trials, died Wednesday along with several other veterans who contracted COVID-19 at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke.

DiPalma is one of 37 deaths since March at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, with at least 31 of those deaths recorded as due to COVID-19, according to state officials. As of Saturday, 76 veteran residents of the facility have tested positive for the virus, as well as 78 employees.

Emily Aho of Jaffrey, New Hampshire, DiPalma’s daughter, said her father tested positive for the virus a week before his death.

On Friday, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts and the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division announced that they had opened an investigation into the crisis. In addition, Gov. Charlie Baker earlier hired a former fedeal prosecutor to conduct an investigation, which was followed by an announcement by Attorney General Maura Healey that her office was launching a probe of the Soldiers’ Home.

Aho said her father had been under the care of the Soldiers’ Home for several years, after his dementia had advanced to the point he could no longer live alone or care for himself. She said while she was disturbed by some of the news relating to how the outbreak was handled, he had received excellent care while there.

Aho said that for most of her life, she had no idea what kind of role her father had played in one of the most significant trials in world history. He was a guard at the Nuremberg trials, a series of 13 trials charging high-ranking Nazi party members and military officials with war crimes.

DiPalma was drafted into the Army in 1944, near the end of the war. He was on the front lines for a year. He was 19 when the war ended, a sergeant, and assigned in Nuremberg, assisting for preparations for what would later be known as the “greatest trial in history.”

Initially, his duties included making copies of German documents and photographs of Nazi war crimes. But he also appeared in photographs of the Nuremberg trials, serving as sergeant of the courtroom guards, standing behind the witness stand as Nazi higher-ups were tried.

One of his duties was to run the prison elevator, bringing prisoners into and out of the courtroom each day.

In photographs of the historic event, DiPalma can be seen standing behind the witness box, guarding the likes of Rudolf Hoess, the commandant of the Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp, and Hermann Goering, Adolf Hitler’s designated successor, as a 19-year-old soldier.

But for the majority of his life, Aho said, he didn’t talk about that part of his past.

“He didn’t talk about it. Not until the last 20 years. A lot of them didn’t,” Aho said.

DiPalma returned from the war, settled in East Longmeadow, Massachusetts, and married his wife, Louise, and had four daughters. He settled into a career as a hoisting engineer, running cranes to build skyscrapers.

“Both my parents were Italian immigrants. They were not wealthy, but they had class. They had dignity,” Aho said. “He was a dedicated, hard worker and dependable. That was my dad.”

He was often driven crazy by his household of girls, Aho said, and even built himself a separate bathroom under the cellar stairs, which was designated solely for his use.

“Even his dog was a female. That was the family joke,” Aho said. “He was an awesome dad. Whenever you needed him, he was there.”

He joined the local fire department and thrived on the softball rivalry between the police and fire departments. He loved to hunt, fish and play golf.

He had some documents from the trial, said Aho, who growing up had been vaguely aware her father had served during the war, but she didn’t really understand his role until she was an adult. And even then, she said, she didn’t fully understand it until she took a trip to Germany with her father in 2002, intent on writing a children’s book about a funny story her father would often tell her and her sisters about a man he had interacted with while stationed there.

But that trip ultimately revealed a much deeper story — one DiPalma realized he needed to start to tell.

A trip to Nuremberg wasn’t on their itinerary initially, but the pair decided to make a last-minute detour there. A trip to the Palace of Justice was even more last minute — so much so, in fact, that the pair arrived late for a historic presentation that was going on and almost weren’t allowed in. But when DiPalma explained to officials there who he was, and the role he had played in the trials, he was welcomed in, and introduced to the audience, even answering questions about his experiences.

One of the historians there begged him to tell his story more widely. The story of World War II was being taught less and less in German schools, he was told, and historians were fighting to bring it more into the curriculum.

After that visit, Aho said, her father changed his mindset about sharing the story of his military service. She gave him a tape recorder for his birthday, and together, they wrote a short memoir aimed at fifth graders to help the students learn world history.

“That’s what he had to share, and it was very hard for him to do it,” Aho said. “But it was what was important for him to share.”

Before the end of the war, DiPalma served as part of the 79th Infantry Division, fighting on the Belgium border and chasing German troops across the Rhine River. The memoir touches upon his time in combat, but much of it covers the trials and the small part DiPalma played in the historical moment.

The memoir doesn’t tell his whole story, Aho said. Even many years after, it was hard for him to talk about. But it does share the core of it, and Aho said her father’s main goal was not to let the story die with him.

He broke his long silence about his wartime experience, conducting interviews with the BBC, military museums, and appearing at the New York Film Festival for the debut of a restored wartime movie, where his younger self could be spotted behind the witness stand.

He has been recognized for those efforts. In 2009, he was presented with the Legacy of Nuremberg Award by the Virginia Holocaust Museum, which rendered a life-size likeness of him standing guard at the witness stand in the museum’s mock Nuremberg Trial Courtroom 600.

“The biggest message my dad wanted to get out, and why he did that book, is because he doesn’t want people to forget,” Aho said of that history. “He wanted to keep it alive and known so it can never happen again. That’s what he really wanted.”

Aho said that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the family is not able to attend DiPalma’s burial, and they plan to hold a memorial service for him at a later date.


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