American Holocaust Victims Still Wait For Justice

While the artwork stolen by the Nazis now hanging in the world's museums and the pilfering of bank accounts by the Swiss has generated banner headlines in the press, the case of American citizens seeking compensation for being imprisoned in concentration camps went unnoticed. After years of delay by both the State Department and the Germans, it appears an agreement has been reached to compensate fewer than 300 of the thousands of Americans mistreated by the Nazis. While this is a victory of sorts, it still falls far short of what is required for justice to be served.

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 Auschwitz, Dachau, Buchenwald, 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.

In addition to civilians, hundreds of American prisoners of war were sent to concentration camps and singled out for special treatment. For example, prisoners of war who escaped from POW camps were often sent to Mauthausen 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 little-known concentration 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, fewer 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. It has taken nearly two years for an agreement to be negotiated, during which time several of the applicants have died.

The American victims spent much of the last two years fighting the State Department, which seemed more concerned with its relations with Germany than in securing justice for the U.S. citizens — men and women, Jewish and non-Jewish, soldiers and civilians — who were mistreated by the Nazis. Thanks to a ruling by State, many of the American victims of the Nazis were 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 were excluded, as were the families of victims who passed away after the war. The narrow agreement also prevented more than 5,000 Americans who were placed in internment camps from seeking reparations.

The search for justice for the American victims of the Holocaust continues.