Suzanne Simon Dietz, MS'90
January 23, 2012 by Lisa McMahon, '09
“How did the Americans treat the German prisoners of war in Europe at the end of WWII?” This simple question was the starting point for a project that became a spiritual journey for Suzanne Simon Dietz, MS'90, a journey that started one spring day decades ago on the Niagara University campus and ended in 2008 with the publication of her book, Honor Thy Fathers & Mothers: Niagara Frontier's Legacy of Patriotism and Survival.
It was May 6, 1970, and students at Niagara University had erected barricades at the campus entrances to protest against the Vietnam War. Suzanne, a freshman at that time, had received a ride to campus from her father, John, a veteran of WWII who had attended Niagara on the GI Bill. Upon seeing the students, John told them to get out of the way and then proceeded to drive through the group when they refused to move. That evening, for the first time, John talked to his daughter about his war experiences. He told her about the atrocities of the Holocaust, about being part of the unit that liberated one of the concentration camps, and about seeing the two-story piles of bodies inside the camp.
The conversation instilled a longing to learn more about her father's military service, one that was further kindled by the book Good Soldier by Richard P. Matthews. The book details the history of the 353rd Infantry Regiment, with which her father had served. Suzanne was surprised to learn that her father's unit was the one that liberated Ohrdruf, a subcamp of the Buchenwald concentration camp. “I realized then that he wasn't only part of the liberating troops, he was one of the first,” she says.
About that same time, while doing research for a book on the Town of Lewiston, Suzanne was given a photo of German POWs from Fort Niagara who had worked at a local farm. Although she had been told that only German soldiers were at the fort the photo showed men who looked to be of Asian ethnicity. Her curiosity about the men in the photo and her desire to honor her father led to the book, a two-year project of collecting stories and researching events. And as she worked on the book, she became aware of the role Niagara University, and its people, had in the war.
Her research led to conversations with veterans like John Jircitano, '42, who shared his experience of being a B-24 pilot on what was supposed to be his last mission. Instead, he was shot down by German soldiers and taken as a prisoner of war. He recalled his days in the camp and his liberation after nine months as a POW. She spoke with Edward Feigenbaum I, '48, who served with the Third Ranger Battalion, and with Frank Nicolette, '53, MSEd'72, who was part of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force when Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower was in command of the organization. She learned about Lt. Col. William Hunt, an assistant professor of military science and tactics at Niagara from 1941-42, who worked with the War Crimes Commission in Germany, and whose Youngstown house Suzanne's parents had purchased in the mid-1960s; and heard stories that connected Niagara County's Fort Niagara and Bell Aerospace with Russian labor camps and concentration camps in Poland. She notes that an underlying thread tying these stories together was Niagara University. “I thought it was interesting that all these connections led back to Niagara,” she says.
In all, the book contains more than 75 stories, and copious endnotes provide additional information for people who want to learn even more about the Niagara Frontier's legacy of patriotism and survival. Suzanne says that these stories offer a different perspective of the war than normally presented in books about this time in history and hopes that they give readers “a greater awareness of the incredible people our parents were.”