Roger Cohen and Charles Guggenheim have helped reclaim a hitherto unknown shameful event in U.S. history: the abandonment by our government of 350 GI POWs who were sent to German concentration camps to engage in deadly slave labor near war’s end. Cohen’s The Lost Soldiers of Stalag IX-B, appearing in the New York Times alerted me to this horrifying event about which I’d previously known nothing. In April, his new book on the subject, Soldiers and Slaves, will be published (see book link and jacket here). Charles Guggenheim directed the award-winning documentary, Berga: Soldiers from Another War which is linked below.
When the Germans launched the Battle of the Bulge they captured over 80,000 GIs. They sent them to POW camps within Germany proper. But for a select group of 350 GIs, their lives would turn into a living hell. The Nazis in the dying days of the War were desperate for slave labor to support the war effort. So they decided to try to identify the Jewish GIs and send them to slave labor camps in absolute contravention of the Geneva Convention. In addition to Jews who inexplicably self-identified themselves, the Nazis enlisted soldiers whose names sounded Jewish or whose features appeared Jewish. To these, the Germans added non-Jewish soldiers they deemed troublemakers. 20% of the group were Jews (while 3% of regular Army troops were Jewish).
This group of men were ferried by train to a concentration camp called Berga. There they worked in 17 tunnels dynamiting and breaking down rock to no clear purpose. Unlike the regular European Jewish inmates who had become inured to the hardship of camp life due to previous internment in far harsher locations like Buchenwald, the GIs were unused to such harsh conditions and a score died in camp from starvation or illness. But the worst of the worst came in the final days of the war, when the German guards, afraid of capture by the advancing Allied armies took their charges on the infamous Death Marches endured by tens of thousands of Jewish camp inmates. Conditions on these desperate journeys were far worse than in the camps. The GIs took to eating grass because there was no other food to eat. Scores died until the marchers finally met advancing U.S. troops near the Czech border.
Pfc. James Watkins at prison hospital in
Fuchsmuehl, Germany after surviving the
Berga death march (credit: NARA Photo)
For more documentary photographs of Berga, visit Jewish Virtual Library.
In the course of a mere ten weeks, these men went from being the pride of America’s fighting effort to concentration camp inmates. Those who survived, though almost none of them understood this at the time or even later, had become Holocaust survivors. But the terrible schande about this event is that the U.S. military and government told the survivors to forget what happened to them. It even forced some to sign confidentiality agreements saying they would not reveal what they suffered as it might compromise the nation.
Two of the most sadistic German guards were imprisoned, but the longest sentence was a mere seven years. The SS commandant of the camp escaped punishment entirely. All this, because by 1947 the U.S. had decided that its next major enemy would become Soviet Russia. The crimes of Nazis, even when perpetrated on our own troops were no longer important. There were U.S. commanding officers among the POWs who counseled the Jewish GIs to reveal their ethnic identity to their German captors. They in effect became unwitting collaborators with their Nazi guards. None of them were ever disciplined for their arrant stupidity.
You can imagine the psychological toll that the event has taken on the survivors made even worse by the Army and government’s conspiracy of silence. How can a soldier who’s been through that hell be brave enough to want to remember it when everyone he served with is telling him forget? For me, this is yet another nail in the coffin of the Roosevelt Administration as it pertains to its Holocaust policy. As for the Jewish inmates, one might register a scintilla of understanding for its position that saving them was not the highest priority because it would not hasten the war’s end. But here you have the case of U.S. soldiers, U.S. citizens made to endure the worst of Nazi torment. And no one in a position to do so did anything. Then, afterwards they tried to cover it up. This is an act of shame and a stain on the nation.
The events of Berga also have a contemporary resonance which Roger Cohen did not realize when he wrote this article. Since 9/11, the Bush Administration has done its best to limit the scope of the Geneva Convention as far as denial of basic rights for Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters. What Alberto Gonzales, John Ashforth and all those who wish to ignore the Geneva Conventions should remember is that if Nazi Germany could turn its back on the protections afforded by the Conventions in situations like Berga, imagine what could happen to American soldiers captured in countries that have even less respect for international law than Nazi Germany did. The stronger we argue that Geneva Conventions do not apply to such terrorist suspects, the more we are begging for some other power or nation to throw our position back in our face as they treat our soldiers the same way the Berga prisoners were treated.
GI kneels at grave of dead GI in Berga