Shortly before marrying his sweetheart, Norman Fellman reached into the darkest corner of his memory to tell her a secret he had wanted to repress - his harrowing internment in a Nazi slave camp called Berga am Elster.
"I wanted her to know what she was getting into, that I was damaged goods - mentally, anyway," recalled Fellman, now 73, living in Bedminster, and still married to Bunny after 49 years. "We didn't talk about it again for a very long, long time."
Thousands of other Holocaust survivors - many of whom settled in America after World War II- had talked, and talked loudly, about their experiences in occupied Germany. But Fellman wasn't like most survivors.
Though Jewish-he wasn't a European. He was an American, a GI from Virginia who was captured in battle. And for decades, as he went about building a life and family in New Jersey, he avoided elaborating about his wartime experiences.
"The things that you saw, the things we experienced, were so unspeakable that you wanted to bury the past, you wanted to go on," said Fellman. "There's some things you just didn't want to talk about."
For Fellman, the memories of breathing thick granite dust in a tunnel where he and other captured soldiers toiled day after day were too much to recount. Others, like Myron Swack, tried hard to forget the barbarity - the beatings by the guards, the frozen bodies of dead comrades. Eugene Krygier repressed the painful memories of his lost youth, how his family was torn apart as he and relatives were shipped from one Nazi camp to the other.
Now these New Jersey men and other Americans caught up in the Holocaust - captured Army soldiers, Americans living in Europe when world war erupted, the children of citizens trapped in the terrifying German blitzkrieg - are recounting in vivid and, often horrifying details months of captivity in Adolf Hitler's camps. In the process, they're shedding light on one of World War II's little-known episodes-and the American government's failure in assisting U.S. citizens trapped in occupied Europe.
Their stories have surfaced as a result of a 1995 agreement between the United States and Germany that allowed survivors held in concentration camps to apply for reparations from Germany as long as they could prove they held U.S. citizenship at the time of their internment. For years, victims of Nazi atrocities - mostly Jews, but also others from various countries occupied by Germany - have received pensions or reparations from Ger- many. But Americans had been excluded.
Though the deadline for filing with the Justice Department's Foreign Claims Settlement Commission was in February, chairwoman Delissa Ridgeway said the commission would do its best to process applications filed since. The claims must be presented to German authorities by Sept. 19, after which a lump payment will be made to the United States for disbursement among the claimants
For many of the survivors - dozens of whom live in New Jersey - the agreement between Washington and Bonn has opened a door that has less to do with money than with personal validation.
"There are some people who have felt the need to talk, but most felt that they wanted to put it behind them," said Mitchell Bard, author of the 1994 book "Forgotten Victims: The Abandonment of Americans in Hitler's Camps." "It was too horrible an experience for them to talk about. Many of them didn't say anything for 40 years, to anybody.
Bard said many of those Americans did not reveal their stories after the war out of fear they wouldn't be believed. According to Bard, the U.S. Government did not welcome publicity on the matter. The State Department had known Americans were imperiled in German-held territories, but bureaucratic indifference, red tape and the inability to comprehend the scope of the horror ensured that hundreds of U.S. citizens would be mistreated by the Nazis.
"The agreement is important because it's a recognition, not just by the German government but by the American government, that these people are telling the truth about what happened to them," Bard said. "The money issue is largely irrelevant. Nobody is going to make a lot money off this anyway. They see this as a recognition that they knew to be true but nobody would believe."
For Fellman and some other men the truth was the hell at a site inmates believe was a subcamp of the infamous Buchenwald concentration camp
Like other U.S. soldiers captured in the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944, Fellman was first sent to Stalag 9B, a prisoner-of-war camp, But then the Germans separated Fellman and the other Jewish soldiers- as well as other GIs - and shipped them in boxcars to a small town on the Elster River. They were housed in barracks, sleeping two or three to a lice infested bunk. They also worked under forced labor conditions - like Jews and other "undesirables" in Nazi Germany but unlike most American POWs.
At Berga, some were put to work as electricians, carpenters, locksmiths. The worst duty came in the mines, where the Germans were excavating tunnels for a munitions plant. The POWs dug through slate for hours on end, breathing fumes and mine dust. Their diet consisted of hardened bread heavy on sawdust, an occasional slice of meat and a nearly inedible soup.
Within weeks, most of them were walking skeletons. Some had blisters and open wounds, respiratory ailments and dysentery. They were being worked to death.
Of the 350 American POWs who had emerged at Berga from boxcars on Feb. 13, 1945, about 70 would perish from malnutrition, disease and beatings . "Where we were, a lot of us died," said Swack, 71, who lives in North Caldwell with his wife. "The bodies were all over the place. They didn't bury them.... The problem was there was death all over the damned place."
Swack was an 18 year old farm boy from Ohio when he was captured in the Battle of the Bulge. Later, when the Germans began to look for Jews among the American soldiers, some of the GIs threatened their Jewish comrades, saying they'd reveal who was Jewish unless the Jews gave up some rations, Swack recalled.
"It was bad all around," Swack recalled. "It was a matter of survival. It was a brutal scene."
Another POW, Jerry Daub, who for years lived in Bergen County and now resides in Rockland County, N.Y., said one of' his worst memories stemmed from a beating he took from a civilian overseer. Unable to defend himself - fighting back could have ensured his death - Daub simply took the pummeling.
"I was really just a pawn, an animal," he said. "To think that somebody could do what they want to...When this man hit me, beat me, I had to stand there and do nothing."
Others, like Eugene Krygier of Demarest in Bergen County, had experiences that more closely parallel those of Jews, Gypsies, Russians and others who were caught up in the German occupation.
Born in America to Polish parents, Krygier and his family moved back to his parents homeland in 1930, when he was 3. The German war machine came in 1939 and the Catholic family was uprooted, fleeing with others. Suspected of supporting the Polish underground, his father was beaten, tortured and imprisoned. At 15, Krygier was sent to a munitions factory. An older sister was sent to prison and an internment camp.
"It was terrible, let me tell you," Krygier, now 70, recounted. "It was like at one moment you have a normal life, and the next thing you know your parents are taken away from you."
Like the American servicemen, Krygier for years said little to anyone about his experiences. And he never for a moment thought he'd receive compensation.
Then in 1995, Hugo Princz of Highland Park and 10 other Americans who survived Nazi camps won a $2.1 million award after a years-long legal battle with Germany. The result was the agreement that opened the door to hundreds, and possibly thou- sands, of others who were victimized by the Nazis.
"My victory created all that," said Princz, 74, who was born in Czechoslovakia to an American father. "It was a tough fight. It lasted to long. Forty years is too long for anything, anything. But I didn't give up."
As of last week 860 applications had been received, 260 of them after the Feb. 23 deadline.
Most observers - author Bard and lawyers for survivors - believe many of the applications eventually will denied because the survivors were not Americans at the time of their internment or because they were held in internment camps, not in concentration camps or the equivalent. There's even some concern whether the Americans at Berga will be compensated, because it's unclear whether the camp was a subcamp of Buchenwald; as the POWs contend. Berga does appear on German lists of concentration camps, Bard said, and doesn't appear on lists of POW camps.
William Marks, a Washington lawyer who specializes in helping Holocaust victims in their claim for compensation and pensions from Germany, said: "These guys may or may not have been in the civilian camp called Berga. If they weren't inside the four walls, they were effectively at Berga because of what they were forced to do and who was overseeing them" - the SS command.
"You have guys who lost, routinely, 50, 60, 80 pounds in a matter of months, subjected to the most barbaric slave conditions. They were literally left to die," Marks said.
Another problem -especially in the case of those who weren't soldiers -is the difficulty in acquiring the documentation necessary to build a strong case.
"Many people have no documentation whatsoever, nor do they have any witnesses," said Anne-Marie Kagy, a lawyer who works nearly full time researching cases for Washington attorney Steve Perles, who represents about 15 claimants. "With a 50 year-old claim, there are limitations on what you can find and what you can reconstruct."
But Kagy and others are making headway by scouring photographs, maps, charts, inmate lists and other documents in the Holocaust Museum, the Library of Congress or the National Archives. By drawing claimants into revealing small details-the year the Germans forced them to wear the Star of David on their clothing, for in- stance, or the name of a camp guard -researchers are able to identify the name of a camp, the year of imprisonment and other key facts.
For many clients, recounting their nightmare for a lawyer has proven cathartic. Often it's the first time the client has elaborated on the experience.
Still, remembering is often painful.
Daub, who is an architect, said his hands start to sweat and his pulse quickens when he recounts the past.
"One was never very comfortable talking about it. It revived memories that I really wanted to repress," said Daub, who was classified as 80 percent disabled by the Veterans Administration for post traumatic stress disorder. "I'm never really comfortable with it."
Joseph Mark, 77, a former POW at Berga, said he still avoids discussing it. "I still have strong feelings against the Nazis and what they did, exterminating my buddies and people that I knew," he said.
But Fellman says he'll speak about his experiences as never before. "Once you've said it and then you've said it two or three times, it gets easier," he, said. "It gets easier as you talk about it."