Eyewitness to war

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Curator Kyra Schuster unpacks donated artifacts in 2013 at the museum’s offsite facility. Photo: Miriam Lomaskin

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

The headquarters branch of the St. Louis County Library will host a presentation by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on the unique stories of American prisoners of war who survived internment at one of Hitler’s concentration camps. 

“It is right on the heels of Veteran’s Day so we are telling a veteran’s story through the museum’s collection,” said Jed Silberg, deputy director of the USHMM’s Midwest Region.

The presentation, by museum curator Kyra Schuster, will focus on artifacts and stories from Anthony Acevedo, an American army medic who was captured by German forces during the Battle of the Bulge. But unlike many other POWs, Acevedo’s unusual story saw him used as slave labor in a subcamp of the infamous Buchenwald. 

“What is really interesting about the topic and the story is that it really underscores that the Holocaust is not just Jewish history,” said Silberg. “The Jewish experience during the Holocaust is unique and it is tragic and we focus greatly on that but it is not just to be learned by Jews.”

Silberg said that Acevedo’s diary and other items were donated to the museum in 2010.

Schuster said the diary tells not only about Acevedo’s experiences but also those of more than 300 other servicemen who were selected by the Nazis for excavation work as part of a tunneling project for a synthetic fuel facility.

“While there were other American POWs held in concentration camps, to the best of my knowledge this was the largest group held together and specifically singled out for forced labor,” she said.

Schuster said the prisoners were a remarkably diverse group. The majority were not Jews though some were. A few were Mexican-American like Acevedo but others had different roots. At least one was even a German immigrant.

“They really represent a big cross section of their backgrounds and where they come from in the United States,” she said.

Ultimately, the war came to an end before the tunnel project was completed.

“The bulk of them were held as slave laborers until they were sent out on a death march and eventually liberated,” she said.

Schuster said that the best part of the research she’s done on Acevedo’s story has been talking to the people involved.

 “Many of them never spoke about their experiences in the camp,” she said. “They all identified as POWs certainly but most of them, the majority of them I would say did not identify themselves as Holocaust survivors.”

She said that the reticence of some of the individuals to tell their stories may have been rooted in a misunderstanding of a standard non-disclosure form they signed from the military. Designed to prevent the transmission of secrets, it might have discouraged the men from talking about what happened in the camp — sometimes even to close family. After one conversation with a former POW, Schuster thanked the man’s wife only to have the wife thank her instead. Because of the conversation, the wife had learned more about her husband’s camp experiences that evening than she ever had before.

“In some cases, I was the first person they ever really told their story to in detail,” Schuster said.

She also said she still keeps in touch with some of the men.

“My husband refers to them as my second family,” Schuster said. “My biggest regret is that I did not start this research sooner and get to meet more of them because their strength, their character and their fortitude is inspiring to me.”

Schuster said that her library talk, which will mark her first visit to St. Louis, will highlight the “global” nature of the Holocaust. 

“There were so many victims in so many different forms,” she said.

Local residents Dee Dee and Eliot Simon, who act as St. Louis Wings of Memory Chairs for the event, say this is the third year that the USHMM has been able to do a program in the Gateway City.

“It is very important to our community anytime the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum can come and share any of their archives or their programs with our community,” Dee Dee Simon said, noting the unique opportunity for St. Louisans to see a program by the national institution. “Although we have our local Holocaust Museum here, which is a wonderful resource, the two museums do two very different things.”