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The Holocaust: The Last Chance for American Victims

(1994)/Mitchell G. Bard

In 1939, more than 80,000 American citizens were in Europe. Many returned home when the war broke out, but not all. Thousands who stayed were arrested and put in internment camps. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, were sent to concentration camps. Americans were in virtually every major concentration camp, including AuschwitzDachauBuchenwald,Mauthausen and Bergen-Belsen. Americans were also in the Warsaw Ghetto. The reason American citizens wound up in camps has much to do with what the U.S. Government did, and, more often, did not do to save its own citizens.

Mauthausen was a death camp. Prisoners of war who escaped from POW camps were often sent there to be executed. Spies, such as one group of OSS agents, were also murdered at Mauthausen. Some soldiers did survive, however, including one OSS agent who later testified at the war crimes trial of those responsible for Mauthausen. Among other things, that agent, Lt. Jack Taylor, was forced to build a crematorium.

In August 1944, 168 Allied airmen (82 Americans) captured in France were put in boxcars with civilian prisoners and sent to Buchenwald. One American and one Englishman died in the camp. The rest were later transferred to a POW camp, but the two months in the concentration camp left many of the men permanently scarred, physically and psychologically. According to the National Archives, approximately 60 Medical Corps personnel also spent time in Buchenwald.

Thousands of Americans were captured in the Battle of the Bulge and sent to Stalag 9B. The Jewish GIs were segregated and sent to a special barracks. Later, those Jews and about 270 non-Jews were sent to a slave labor camp called Berga where they worked in mines with political prisoners from a Buchenwald sub-camp at Berga. This prison had the highest fatality rate of any camp where Americans were held -- 20 percent. Of the 350 men who were sent there in February 1945, less than 280 survived the forced labor and subsequent death march.

These brave American soldiers -- Jewish and non-Jewish -- were not treated as POWs; they were treated the same as other victims of the Holocaust. They witnessed and experienced similar inhuman cruelty, but never received recognition for their heroism or compensation for their suffering.

Most American victims of Nazi persecution never applied for reparations. Even if they had, they would have been ineligible because they did not meet the criterion of being stateless after the war. After decades of fighting for justice, Hugo Princz, a survivor from New Jersey, and his supporters in Congress and the Administration succeeded in getting Germany to sign an agreement to consider requests for compensation from American victims of Nazi persecution who suffered a loss of liberty, or damage to body or health as a result of that persecution. In 1995, Princz and ten others were awarded $2.1 million in compensation. The Germans agreed to consider compensation for one more group of claimants in 1997.

Unfortunately, many of the American victims of the Nazis are ineligible for compensation because the agreement only provides for payment to those who are still living. The relatives of Americans who were killed in the camps cannot apply, neither can the families of victims who passed away after the war. The narrow agreement further excludes more than 5,000 Americans who were placed in internment camps.

One of the big questions is whether American prisoners of war who were sent to concentration camps or singled out for special treatment will be eligible. The agreement does not say anything to preclude POWs from applying, but the fear is the Germans will try to deny their claims because they were soldiers rather than civilians. The truth is many POWs were treated the same way as civilians. The most notable examples are of servicemen sent to Mauthausen, Buchenwald and Berga.

The U.S. Justice Department's Foreign Claims Settlement Commission has reviewed claims by Americans and determined who should be eligible for compensation based on the narrow agreement signed with the Germans, and the even narrow interpretation of that document made by the State Department. Sometime in early 1998, negotiations will commence between the U.S. and German governments and a determination made as to how much money the latter will pay. All the Americans with valid claims will receive some compensation, however, the amount will be divided proportionally depending on the amount received from Germany

Sources: Mitchell G. Bard. Forgotten Victims: The Abandonment of Americans In Hitler's Camps. CO: Westview Press, 1994.