Blood Debt

UPDATED 05/15/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 05/15/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT

AFTER 53 YEARS, HUGO PRINCZ still relives the terror in his nightmares. He is 19 and working in the backyard of his family home in Silvas, Czechoslovakia. Suddenly a police officer and a crowd of jeering townspeople arrive and arrest Princz, his parents, his two brothers and his sister. His mother is sobbing. His father is desperately trying to explain that they are American citizens, that they have visas to come to the United States. But the officer won't listen. "We don't give a damn!" he shouts. "You're Jews!"

With that, Princz and his family are hauled off to various Nazi concentration camps—-just as they were 53 years ago. The Princzes were among a handful of American citizens imprisoned by the Germans during World War II, and Hugo was the only member of his family to survive. But after tens of thousands of other Holocaust survivors started receiving reparations from the German government in the mid-1950s, Princz got nothing because he was neither a German citizen nor a refugee without a country to return to—the basic qualifications for the approximately $500-a-month stipend from the German government. "I've never understood the German mentality," says Princz, now 72 and living in Highland Park, N.J. "How can they say, 'You're an American. So what if we tortured you and murdered your family?' "

But after surviving three years in several Nazi concentration camps, Princz is not the sort of man who gives up without a fight. He has spent the last 40 years trying to persuade the German government to pay him full reparations plus interest—an amount he figures at $5.7 million. He has appealed through diplomatic channels, lobbied Congress for help and is suing corporate descendants of companies that benefited from Nazi slave labor, including the pharmaceutical giant Bayer Group and Mercedes automaker Daimler-Benz. He has even persuaded New York Congressman Charles Schumer and New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley to agree to introduce legislation that would allow him to sue Germany itself, an action currently prohibited by U.S. law. "It's totally outrageous that the German government—after all that happened during World War II—has to be forced to pay this lovely man his due," says Schumer. And Princz—who lost more than 80 relatives in the Holocaust—is resolute. "If you question my spirit and think you will wear me out, remember that I suffered every atrocity imaginable and survived—even if my family did not," he wrote in a February letter to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. "I will never give up."

In fact, he may be winning. Under pressure from President Clinton and Congress, the German government has finally begun reviewing Princz's case. In March several of Germany's top-level deputy ministers met to discuss the matter, and Kohl has said he is "interested in coming to a pragmatic solution." How soon, though, is anybody's guess. "I'm afraid to hope," says Princz. "I've been disappointed time after time, but I will not stop fighting them as long as there is breath in my body."

Born in what was then Slovakia, Princz came by his American citizenship in a roundabout fashion. As a young man in 1890, his father, Herman, immigrated to the U.S. and became a naturalized citizen. Then, in 1905, he returned to his homeland, where he became a wealthy farmer and storekeeper. When he married, and he and his wife, Gisela, started a family, all eight of their children—including Hugo—were automatically U.S. citizens from birth.

After the Nazi invasion in 1938, the family tried to leave for America, but bureaucratic delays prevented them from getting visas in time. Princz isn't sure why, but after his family's capture they were not swapped in a Red Cross-sponsored prisoner exchange as were most other American citizens. Instead, they were put on a train bound for the concentration camp at Treblinka. When the train stopped, "we were pushed out of the cattle car like animals," remembers Hugo, who, with his brothers, was eventually sent to Auschwitz. "I couldn't bear it. My family carried on and screamed when we got off. It was horrible."

At Auschwitz, Princz was tattooed on his chest and forearm with his prisoner number—36707—and given a job stacking bodies. "Life stopped," he recalls. "My heart became hardened like stone. My emotions shut down like a robot. And after a while, I couldn't shed a tear. I was in this hell."

Injured on the job, both of his brothers were beaten and starved to death at Auschwitz, and Princz later learned the rest of his family had also been killed. But Princz, young and strong, stayed alive by doing hard labor in various camps. In 1945 he was liberated by an American tank division. A soldier noticed the USA emblem on his striped uniform and sent him to an Army hospital. "It was like coming back from death row," says Princz, who came to the U.S. in 1946. It was the first time he had seen his own country. He was 24.

Although Princz, a retired supermarket manager, has tried to keep his pain from wife Sissy, 70, whom he married in 1956, and their three children, Giselle, 37, Cheryl, 35, and Howard, 29, the lingering effects of his ordeal have taken a toll on the entire family. "Each of us has seen our share of psychologists," says Howard. "It hurts sometimes seeing my father suffer. All these years it goes on and on. You feel like you should do something, but you can't do anything to help. Subconsciously it affects you."

Time has healed some of Princz's wounds, though, and so has speaking about the Holocaust to local schoolchildren. "I tell them, 'Do not take your freedom for granted,' " he says. But even if he is successful in his effort to get reparations, Princz knows he will never be free of his memories. "I've kept fighting because I refuse to let them steal so much and not pay," he says. "But I don't want to forget and forgive. No amount of money can bring those years back or give me back the family they killed."

CYNTHIA SANZ
JANE SIMS PODESTA in Highland Park

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