Holocaust Survivors’ Torment After Liberation
Shocked by the horrific manner U.S. troops were treating survivors, two Jewish American soldiers took matters in their own hands.
For many Holocaust survivors, their torment didn’t end after the Allies defeated Nazi forces in May, 1945 and liberated the camps. Shockingly, it took two Jewish privates in the U.S. Army to make sure the United States lived up to its obligations and save the lives of thousands of concentration camp survivors.
In many sectors, American troops overseeing the concentration camps continued to imprison starving Jewish inmates. “What’s the difference between you and Americans and the Nazis” a concentration camp survivor asked a young soldier named Robert L. Hilliard, a few months after the Allies’ victory “except that you don’t have gas chambers?”
Robert Hilliard wrote about his experiences in his memoir Surviving the Americans: The Continued Struggle of the Jews After Liberation and has spoken about his struggle to help Jewish survivors publicly.
In 1945 Pvt. Robert Hilliard and his friend Pvt. Ed Herman were two low-ranking young recruits who were stationed with the American Army in Bavaria. Hilliard was tasked with editing an army newspaper and on May 27, weeks after American troops had liberated Nazi concentration camps and death camps throughout Germany, he went to cover a “liberation concert” being given by concentration camp survivors in a hospital being operated on the grounds of a monastery called St. Ottilien, near Munich.
St. Ottilien, photo Dr. Alec Savicky
The hospital housed 400 concentration camp survivors, as well as some German soldiers who’d ostensibly been wounded. In reality Pvt. Hilliard found some of the German soldiers were using the hospital as cover to evade reprisals for their role in the war, and the Jews were occupying part of the hospital grounds unofficially. They were denied any medical care and both the German hospital staff and American troops governing the area turned a blind eye to these emaciated survivors, ignoring them and refusing to help them in any way.
Dr. Zalman Grinberg, a recently liberated concentration camp survivor himself, organized the unofficial hospital at St. Ottilien with no help from Allied forces.
In fact, Hilliard described, the “hospital” he ran - with no supplies - was the only hospital in all of Germany devoted to caring for concentration camp survivors in those crucial weeks after liberation.
When Pvt. Hilliard arrived at the hospital complex for the “concert”, he could scarcely believe his eyes. “Rows of wooden chairs were set in front of the stage. In the aisles, on the chairs and on the grass, standing, sitting, walking, leaning, lying, were hundreds of stick figures, emaciated, pale, skeletal, expressionless, all dressed in the black and white striped uniforms of the concentration camps.” The sight made Pvt. Hilliard think of Dante’s Inferno. “Then, off to the side, I saw other people. In an area separated from the survivors’ quarters were dozens of men wearing the green-gray military uniforms of the German armed forces, walking about in the careless manner of the privileged, smoking cigarettes, some with bandaged limbs, some leaning on white-uniformed female nurses, the hands and arms of enlisted men shooting out and up in prompt salutes to the German officers and doctors who passed by.” Despite the area being under the control of the U.S. Army, nothing was being done to help the concentration camp victims. “They were without food, without clothing, without medical aid”. Those amenities were being given freely to German soldiers exclusively.
Gen. George S. Patton
Pvt. Hilliard was one of very few U.S. soldiers outraged by the situation. In his memoirs, he described how, in town after town under American control, Jewish prisoners continued to be confined to the concentration camps, watched over and sometimes brutalized by their new American captors. Some soldiers harbored anti-Jewish hatred. Even General George Patton denigrated the Jews under the U.S. military’s care, writing in his personal diary: some people “believe that the Displaced Person is a human being, which he is not, and this applies particularly to the Jews who are lower than animals.” Patton wrote, “We entered the synagogue, which was packed with the greatest stinking mass of humanity I have ever seen. Of course, I have seen them since the beginning and marveled that beings alleged to be made in the form of God can look the way they do or act the way they act.”
On July 25, two and a half months after VE Day, representatives from concentration camps throughout the British and American occupation zones of Germany gathered at St. Ottilien to discuss the dire situation facing their communities. Jews from the French zone faced such intense anti-Semitism that they were not able to travel freely and could not send representatives to Munich. Those who could attend this grim meeting issued similar reports: in all concentration camps represented at the meeting, Jews continued to die each week due to illness, malnutrition, and in some instances the brutality of their new Allied oppressors.
Robert Hilliard as a young man in the 9th AF, 2nd disarm wing, Kaufburen Germany, 1945.
Hilliard recalled one representative named Mr. Roisen who came from the infamous concentration camp Mauthausen. There, he reported, American troops in charge of the area provided the dying inmates no medicine, no doctors and no nurses. After Jewish survivors begged for better housing, American troops gave them permission to move into other buildings within the camp, but these were so infested with lice and other insects that the survivors refused to move. Angered at being defied, local American officials ordered no more food to be allowed into Mauthausen. Individual American soldiers who defied the ban and smuggled in food were their only source of rations.
A survivor named Mr. Reichhardt represented Austria. Local American officials ordered that concentration camp survivors be allowed 1,200 calories a day, though they only delivered 700 calories, selling the rest on the black market. Even these meagre rations were often withheld unless women in the camp agreed to do the bidding of the soldiers in charge. Hilliard recalled that Mr. Reichhardt also recounted an instance of a Jewish survivor being shot by an American Military Police officer, who later excused his actions saying he’d merely been “playing” with his gun.
After hearing a catalogue of horrors for much of a whole day, the Jewish survivors decided to draft a list of resolutions. Since help was not forthcoming from any quarter, Dr. Grinberg, the survivor in charge of the hospital at St. Ottilien, said, “We resolved to build our future with our own means.” The group agreed on a number of goals, first of which was to work to create a Jewish state to which they could emigrate.
In the immediate aftermath of this meeting, Hilliard recalled, little changed. In fact, he wrote, conditions at St. Ottilien deteriorated. Denied adequate food, a Jewish survivor snuck out of the hospital and was shot by an American guard, resulting in the survivor losing his leg. A few weeks later, Hilliard wrote, another survivor was shot in similar circumstances. Seeking to keep the Jewish survivors inside the hospital complex, American authorities ordered a barbed wire fence erected around the area, and American soldiers patrolled, making sure no Jewish survivors escaped. After the first survivor was shot, a local American lieutenant confronted the Military Policeman (MP) who’d shot him. “He’s only a %#&* Jew,” Hilliard recalls the MP explaining; “That’s what all Jews deserve!” The lieutenant stared at the MP for a moment, then turned and simply walked away.
These odious incidents weren’t isolated. Author Rob Morris describes a Jewish survivor at Feldafing being shot by American troops as he tried to sneak back into a DP camp after leaving it in order to look for food. (Untold Valor: Forgotten Stories of American Bomber Crews Over Europe in World War II by Rob Morris, Potomac Books: 2006).
The two privates became horrified at the conditions their own commanding officers were forcing on Jewish survivors.
In these first chaotic months after VE Day, another Jewish private joined Hilliard’s company: Ed Herman, a 25 year old from Philadelphia who’d dropped out of the University of Pennsylvania to fight in World War II. Pvt. Herman and Hilliard became fast friends. As the weeks passed, both became horrified at the conditions their own commanding officers were forcing on Jewish survivors. Both began smuggling food into St. Ottolien and encouraged other soldiers to do the same. Ed Herman, in particular, became adept at trading goods on the black market and spending his profits on supplies for the survivors.
One day Pvt. Herman made an audacious proposal: the Post Exchange (PX), or supplies store, at a local American air force base was being shut down while the base was relocated. Ed wondered if the PX would be willing to sell its entire inventory to him so that he could deliver its contents to St. Ottilien. His fellow soldiers thought the idea was crazy but Pvt. Herman was determined to do what he could. He found a sympathetic officer, Lt. Albert L. Cusick, who was one of the soldiers active in donating supplies to the survivors, and somehow managed to buy the entire PX for the then-large sum of $450. Immediately, the survivors who were still imprisoned in St. Ottilien had cans of juice, candy bars, boxes of snacks, and toiletries.
It still wasn’t enough. Even the 1,200 calories a day that General Eisenhower had demanded American troops to supply survivors was too low to nurse them back to health. And in much of that paltry amount of food was sold on the black market and didn’t even reach Holocaust survivors.
“The only way we’re going to get what we need for St. Ottilien is directly from the States,” Herman said to Hilliard in frustration; going through the American military clearly wasn’t working.
Hilliard was skeptical. “That means getting to every synagogue, every YMHA, every B’nai B’rith Golden Chain chapter in the country. That means setting up a new JDC of our own,” referring to the Joint Distribution Committee, a major charity. “How...can we do that?”
But the more they discussed the idea, the less far-fetched it began to seem. “My brother Lennie is back in the States after a tour with air force and is traveling around the country. I think he’s involved in War Bond drives,” Herman mused. “He’ll get the letters to important people, people who can get something done.”
The two privates drafted an emotional letter many pages long. It was an incredibly powerful cri de coeur, raging against the horrific situation Holocaust survivors faced every day. “The Jews of Europe are a dying race. Even now, even after the defeat of Hitler and Nazism, they are slowly being exterminated from the face of the earth. YOU ARE TO BLAME!”
The letter laid out the horrible neglect being perpetrated by Allied soldiers, telling the American people: “By your unconcerned neglect, you are just as responsible for the present death of the European Jews as the most diabolical of Nazis was in the past.” Herman and Hilliard headed to the camp’s newspaper printing office to run off enough copies to send to every person and institution they could think of back home in the U.S.
The initiative caught on. GIs in the company helped print and send the letters to everyone they could think of. “We mailed them out by the hundreds,” Hilliard later recalled. “To wives, friends, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters and neighbors, to synagogues, clubs, organizations, fraternities and sororities, to Jewish community groups, to YMHAs and YWHAs, to everybody and anybody who might care enough to send a package, to organize support within their organization, to contact a senator or congressman or any other politician who might by conscience or constituent pressure be goaded into asking questions and getting action.”
Pvt. Herman’s brother, Leonard, made it his personal mission to spread the letters in the United States, distributing them far and wide. In 2007 he was publicly commended and praised as a “true hero” for his role in spreading the letter on the floor of the US Congress.
For weeks after the first letters went out, the soldiers back in Munich wondered why they were getting no response. They’d pleaded for supplies, yet not one single package had arrived. Were the American people really so heartless as to ignore this plea to help the ill and malnourished survivors of Nazi genocide?
Unbeknownst to Herman and Hilliard, donations were pouring in, but they were being held up in New York. The pair was disappointed but undeterred. Each week, more letters went out. Soon, a representative from Gen. Eisenhower visited Pvts. Hilliard and Herman, ordering them to stop sending out the letters. The pair spoke with the officer, then ignored his order, continuing to surreptitiously send their potent letter to every contact in the US they could think of.
“We appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them, except that we do not exterminate them.”
After weeks, Hilliard believes one of the letters finally fell into the right hands and was shown to President Harry Truman himself. The President asked Dean Earl Harrison, the U.S. Representative on the Intergovernmental Committee for Refugees, to look into the matter and find out what was going on and who these two unknown privates were. He also authorized the release of the shipment of the packages addressed to St. Ottilien. Harrison’s report was damning: “...we appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them, except that we do not exterminate them.” He personally delivered his report to Pres. Truman, saying they made him physically ill.
Pres. Truman swiftly ordered Gen. Eisenhower to make sweeping changes to the way survivors were treated. On Sunday, September 30, 1945, the New York Times ran a front page headline “PRESIDENT ORDERS EISENHOWER TO END NEW ABUSE OF JEWS”. Other headlines included “Acting on Harrison Report, He Likens Our Treatment to That of the Nazis” and “Conditions for Displaced in Reich Called Shocking”.
Eisenhower had already expressed his disgust with the horrors he uncovered in Nazi camps. "I think I never was so angry in my life," he told reporters on June 18, 1945 about what had gone on in the concentration camps. Eisenhower ordered his own fact-finding mission and quickly increased the rations given to camp survivors, removed barbed wire around camps, replaced military guards with unarmed civilians, and provided better housing and medical care.
In St. Ottilien, conditions changed quickly. Within days, packages from all over the United States started pouring in. Within a few weeks over 1,500 packages had been delivered to the survivors. Hilliard later recalled the scene when the first supplies arrived for the survivors: “Laughing, crying, dancing, hugging and kissing each other, it was as if they were showering in the first rain after years of drought.” At long last, food, medical supplies and clothes had eased the survivors’ plight, months after their liberation. Throughout the American zones, conditions for survivors began to ease.
Following the war, Pvt. Herman stayed in Europe for a few years, working to help smuggle Holocaust survivors to the Land of Israel. He died in 2007 after being honored by the State of Israel for his role in helping Holocaust survivors. Robert Hilliard became a professor of Communications at Emerson College near Boston, and has spoken about his experiences after the Holocaust extensively. Today, untold hundreds or even thousands of Jews around the world owe their existence to the tenacity of these two men who, though they were only young lowly privates, managed to change U.S. government policy to aid survivors.