Journalist chips away at hidden tales of GI agony

American soldiers who were Holocaust victims, both Jewish and non-Jewish, have captivated journalist Jeff Donaldson for the last 10 years.

He unearthed the stories of victims of German atrocity despite the American government’s order that victims remain silent about their imprisonment.

In his new book, “Men of Honor,” he recounts the experiences of 24 American veterans who survived imprisonment by the Nazis — four of them in Berga, a satellite camp of the Bergen-Belsen death camp, as well as those from several main death camps and two POW camps.

Donaldson, a Persian Gulf War veteran and Las Vegas Sun reporter, spoke about his book June 21 at the Holocaust Center of Northern California in San Francisco.

Donaldson first learned of American soldiers in the Holocaust from a World War II veteran he met after completing his service in the Persian Gulf. The vet told Donaldson he and 350 other prisoners of war were transferred to a Nazi slave labor camp, when the captors were dissatisfied with the number of Jewish soldiers in their custody.

The Nazis, believing there were more Jewish soldiers, gave the American troops an ultimatum that more Jews be identified from within the prisoner of war camp or they would start shooting detainees.

Of the 350 prisoners sent to Berga, only 80 to 90 were Jewish, the rest being termed “undesirables,” Americans who appeared ethnic, Donaldson said.

“I don’t think that people realize that the Holocaust did have an effect on the American people,” he said.

All GIs wore tags around their necks with a letter indicating their religion to ensure proper burial rites if necessary, a military practice that still occurs today.

During World War II, Jewish soldiers, whose tags were marked with an “H” for Hebrew, faced the dilemma of being killed if their religion was discovered, or throwing out their tags and risking burial without Jewish rites or being shot as a spy for lack of identification.

About 60 percent of the Jewish soldiers captured threw out their tags, Donaldson said.

“I’m not Jewish and I find it fascinating that someone would be forced to make a personal choice” about their religion, he said. “To me it was such a fascinating dilemma, and I wanted to know exactly what was going through [the prisoners’] heads.”

Donaldson said another motive for his book was to expose the fact that 68 survivors of Berga were ordered by the American government to sign an affidavit that they would remain silent about their experiences in the camp, most of whom did so for over 50 years.

The POWs may have been forbidden from speaking because the American government feared backlash for not acting to save American victims in the Holocaust, Donaldson said. American government officials may have known of the existence of concentration camps as early as 1943.

As a result, Donaldson had difficulty finding former prisoners who would discuss their stories. He was discouraged for six years until he met another survivor of Berga. He subsequently advertised in a Jewish veterans’ magazine and received numerous responses.

A Web site has since been set up for survivors to send letters, photographs and diaries. “I’d love to see this as a continual database,” he said.

Donaldson hopes his book will spread public awareness about the veterans’ suffering, and help them understand their experience and continue their healing process.

Donaldson said he knew of another book about American POWs in Nazi concentration camps, Mitchell Bard’s “Forgotten Victims.” Another recently released book, Roger Cohen’s “Soldiers and Slaves,” also deals with survivors of the Berga camp and has the same cover photo. Donaldson said he had heard of the book, but was not aware of the cover’s identical photo, which he obtained from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.