ST. PETERSBURG — For eight weeks in late 1938, Werner Von Rosenstiel was a soldier in Adolf Hitler's army. But Mr. Von Rosenstiel didn't care for Hitler.
He fled to the United States, where FBI agents questioned him as a possible German spy. He later enlisted in the U.S. Army, rose to the rank of lieutenant, fought at the Battle of the Bulge and investigated the leaders of the Third Reich for the Nuremberg Trials, during which he served as a translator.
Decades later, Mr. Von Rosenstiel settled in St. Petersburg, where he crafted a legacy as a generous philanthropist, entertaining lecturer and devoted historian.
Mr. Von Rosenstiel's incredible life ended on Sunday evening (July 6, 2008) when he died in his sleep at his Snell Isle home. He was 97.
"What fired him up was having a challenge, right up until the end of his days," said his wife, Anne. "He had supreme self-confidence and enormous courage."
Mr. Von Rosenstiel, who wrote about his amazing journey in a 2006 book, Hitler's Soldier in the U.S. Army, was born into Prussian nobility. He studied law in Germany and came to the United States in 1935 to study at the University of Cincinnati. He fell in love with a young woman he met at school named Marion Ahrens.
By this time, he was beginning to hear awful things about Hitler. He returned to Germany and saw the country was increasing its military might. He thought of leaving, but his father required he stay two years to finish his legal education.
He was drafted into the armed forces and was in Berlin for the Kristallnacht, a night in which Jews were imprisoned and killed and their shops were burned. Mr. Von Rosenstiel was appalled.
After finishing law school at the top of his class, he was offered a job in Hitler's judicial administration, but asked for permission to return to the United States for 30 days to improve his English before taking the job.
He would not return for five years. And when he did, he was an American soldier.
Those five years were not easy. Mr. Von Rosenstiel married Marion, with whom he would have four children. He got a job unloading boxes and studied law.
But after the Pearl Harbor bombing, he was fired, questioned by the FBI and tried as an enemy alien.
At a hearing, Marion read a letter that he had written to her after the Kristallnacht, in which he condemned the activity.
"It was so very, very disgusting to see all these riots, the smashed windows and the cruelty," he had written. "My feeling of humanity and my belief in the human race is almost gone."
Mr. Von Rosenstiel was set free. The U.S. Army inducted him in 1943, but were suspicious of him and relegated him to laundry duty.
But they came to trust him. His career culminated during the Nuremburg Trials. His ability to speak English and German, as well as his legal training in both countries, helped him uncover documents and interview witnesses for the trials. He found material that led to the execution of two of Hitler's generals.
During the trials, he translated for Hermann Goering, second-in-command for the Third Reich. Goering took his life the day before he was to be executed.
Afterward, Mr. Von Rosenstiel worked in the pharmaceutical industry for 30 years, then, at age 60, opened a law firm in Philadelphia with one of his daughters. His wife died in 1987 after 48 years of marriage.
He worked in law well into his 90s. While visiting friends in St. Petersburg, he met his second wife, Anne. They married in 1989 and he moved here.
He became a sought-after speaker and lecturer. At local schools and at the University of South Florida, he spun stories about his life and the history of World War II. Students often came to his home to hear him tell more.
"He just drew people toward him," his wife said. "He was like a beacon."
In 2001, he donated an endowment and many of his materials from the Nuremberg Trials to the University of Cincinnati, which has a reading room named for him.
Family members say Mr. Von Rosenstiel had an insatiable curiosity and voracious appetite for knowledge. He read books, listened to history tapes and watched movies. He loved going to Fort De Soto or art exhibits to read the informational signs about wildlife or art.
He took up painting in his 80s. His impressive works hang on the walls of his home.
He also was fascinated by marine science and gave lectures at the Marine Science Institute that combined history and science. He provided fellowships that have helped more than 30 USF students.
Mr. Von Rosenstiel was "one of the most remarkable and insightful people I've ever met" and "really a true intellectual omnivore," said Peter Betzer, former dean of USF's College of Marine Science. "And certainly in terms of historical significance, the greatest St. Petersburg has ever known."
Mr. Von Rosenstiel suffered a stroke about a month ago and spent time in the hospital, but returned home under hospice care. He continued wanting to learn up to the end, so Anne read him the newspapers.
Though Mr. Von Rosenstiel was happy and energetic, he had become disturbed over the past few years as American democracy began embracing some practices that he saw in prewar Germany.
He didn't like how American Muslims were treated after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He disapproved of the erosion of personal privacy.
He winced when U.S. Supreme Court justices seemed to be picked based on ideology over qualification. He recalled how the courts in Germany became Hitler's instruments and hoped they would remain apolitical here.
At age 96, Mr. Von Rosenstiel, a lifelong Republican, changed his party affiliation to Democrat.
In a profile of Mr. Von Rosenstiel published in the St. Petersburg Times a few weeks after the terrorist attacks, he summed up his thoughts.
"What I saw within my life has motivated me to talk about it," he said, "because I think it is necessary that people realize that the events that Hitler created can very easily be duplicated by gifted and dangerous people."
Times staff writer Casey Cora contributed to this report.