Compensation Without Justice

While major Jewish organizations, congressmen, and other government officials have conducted a high-profile campaign to collect money and property stolen from Holocaust victims, a handful of lawyers, scholars and dedicated Justice Department officials pressed the case for compensating a small group of American civilians and POWs who were held in Nazi camps. Now, after two years, the objective of winning a settlement from the Germans has been achieved. While this was a victory for the victims and their supporters, the result fell short of doing justice for the American victims of the Holocaust

Americans were killed in concentration camps. American Jews were subject to the same anti-Semitic regulations and dangers as any other Jews who came under the control of the Nazis. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of lives could have been saved had the United States government taken action to rescue people claiming American citizenship. Often it did just the opposite, creating obstacles that impeded Americans from obtaining the necessary documents to escape from the Nazis.

In 1939, more than 80,000 American citizens were believed to be living abroad. State Department officials held that citizens who had no apparent intention of returning to the United States could not expect their government to feel any obligation to protect them. An even deeper prejudice lay behind this viewpoint: the belief that citizens returning from abroad would become “welfare” cases.

Initially, U.S. officials thought American Jews were safe. In 1941 Secretary of State Cordell Hull said he expected Americans to be exempt from anti-Jewish laws. A few months later, he was explicitly told the Germans would make no distinctions based on nationality.

In places like France and Hungary, American property was confiscated. As early as January 1942, the State Department learned that Americans were being arrested. In one case, a group of 35 American Jews was threatened with deportation from Slovakia and another 70 Americans sought repatriation. The Department refused to help them because it believed Slovak authorities were trying to use the Americans to pressure the United States to recognize Slovakia. Once that decision was made, the State Department was forced to cover up its failure to act out of fear of public reaction. A top official admitted that “if the Axis propaganda mill should give publicity to the proposed ill treatment of American citizens of Jewish race in Slovakia there may be considerable criticism of the Department by Jewish circles in the United States.” This is perhaps the clearest statement that the State Department was aware of the seriousness of the plight of Jews in Eastern Europe, was sensitive to public opinion and still was unwilling to act.

One State Department official suggested that the Passport Division provide a list of passports issued in Europe during 1941, as well as a list of Americans whose passports were validated in 1940 or 1941 for continued stays in Europe, so the Department could check for Americans in Europe who might be entitled to repatriation. The idea was vetoed. Swiss officials in charge of American affairs were left to identify U.S. citizens, but, contrary to the usual practice, were refused access to American files. The official responsible for helping U.S. citizens overseas, Breckinridge Long, said in June 1942 that Americans in Germany awaiting repatriation “ought to be examined and only those we want should be accepted” (emphasis in the original).

Most American citizens who were arrested — more than 5,000 — were imprisoned in internment camps. There were more than a dozen such camps. Some Americans spent years in them, but little publicity was given to their plight. None of these citizens were eligible for compensation under the agreement with Germany.

Americans were also in every major concentration camp: Auschwitz, Mauthausen, Dachau, Buchenwald. Americans were even in the Warsaw Ghetto. The U.S. government consistently denied any Americans were in the camps, but officials knew this was a lie.

At the very least, U.S. officials could have shown flexibility and leniency in the evaluation of claims of American citizenship. Instead, the Department adhered to a strict policy that required claimants to prove their citizenship. Simultaneously, the Department adopted an equally inflexible policy to obstruct Americans from obtaining the necessary documentation, prohibiting the transfer from the United States to enemy territory of any documents, including those that could substantiate claims to American nationality. The absurdity of this position was to place the burden on the Jew in Nazi hands, as occurred when the government demanded proof of citizenship from a man held in Auschwitz. Many Jews may not have had legitimate claims, but the State Department knew that rejecting applicants effectively condemned them, initially to persecution, and later to death.

Sadly, the State Department has not changed a great deal in the last half century. Embarrassed by its failures during the war and concerned with its present-day relations with Germany, officials were reluctant to help their own citizens. Even now, after negotiating an agreement to compensate them, State insists on a veil of secrecy to hide both the American role in their mistreatment and the documentary record of the Nazi atrocities committed against them.

Apparently fewer than 300 Americans will receive any money from the settlement with Germany. Hundreds, perhaps thousands more citizens and their heirs are due a public apology from both the American and German governments and their cases for compensation remain to be heard.