Soldiers and Slaves

Soldiers and Slaves

American POWs Trapped by the Nazis' Final Gamble

Book - 2005 | 1st ed.
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In February 1945, 350 American POWs captured earlier at the Battle of the Bulge or elsewhere in Europe were singled out by the Nazis because they were Jews or were thought to resemble Jews. They were transported in cattle cars to Berga, a concentration camp in eastern Germany, and put to work as slave laborers, mining tunnels for a planned underground synthetic-fuel factory. This was the only incident of its kind during World War II. Starved and brutalized, the GIs were denied their rights as prisoners of war, their ordeal culminating in a death march that was halted by liberation near the Czech border. Twenty percent of these soldiers--more than seventy of them--perished. After t_he war, Berga was virtually forgotten, partly because it fell under Soviet domination and partly because America's Cold War priorities quickly changed, and the experiences of these Americans were buried. Now, for the first time, their story is told in all its blistering detail. This is the story of hell in a small place over a period of nine weeks, at a time when Hitler's Reich was crumbling but its killing machine still churned. It is a tale of madness and heroism, and of the failure to deliver justice for what the Nazis did to these Americans. Among those involved: William Shapiro, a young medic from the Bronx, hardened in Normandy battles but, as a prisoner, unable to help the Nazis' wasted slaves, whose bodies became as insubstantial as ghosts; Hans Kasten, a defiant German-American who enraged his Nazi captors by demanding, in vain, that his fellow U.S. prisoners be treated with humanity, thus committing the unpardonable sin of betraying his German roots; Morton Goldstein, a garrulous GI from New Jersey, shot dead by the Nazi in charge of the American prisoners in an incident that would spark intense debate at a postwar trial; and Mordecai Hauer, the orphaned Hungarian Jew who, after surviving Auschwitz, stumbled on the GIs in the midst of the Holocaust at Berga and despaired at the sight of liberators become slaves. Roger Cohen uncovers exactly why the U.S. government did not aggressively prosecute the commandants of Berga, why there was no particular recognition for the POWs and their harsh treatment in the postwar years, and why it took decades for them to receive proper compensation. Soldiers and Slaves is an intimate, intensely dramatic story of war and of a largely forgotten chapter of the Holocaust.
Publisher: New York : Knopf, 2005.
Edition: 1st ed.
ISBN: 9780375414107
037541410X
Branch Call Number: 940.5472 COHEN
Characteristics: 303 p. : ill., facisms. ; 25 cm.

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Justinian537
Sep 22, 2018

To add to the excellent reviews above, which more than adequately convey the uniquely tragic story of Jews and GI's at Berga, the following:

1) Much of the German high command (and the SS), largely out of fear of the Fuehrer and Himmler and because of the propaganda of Josef Goebbels, plus pure fanaticism, persisted in the belief that the war could be won long after it was clear that it was lost; they lacked the courage to admit it to themselves. To this end, the goal was set at Berga to have the underground synthetic-fuel factory (mainly to provide fuel for the Me-262 jet fighter, introduced way too late in the war to affect its outcome) ready to go by the fall of 1945, and fully operational by 1946 – as if the armies of the western allies and the Russians were not rapidly closing in from both sides and the end of the Reich was not imminent. The digging of the tunnels was a totally pointless exercise in futility, except for the fact that it provided an opportunity to eliminate additional Jews, and many other "undesirables", by working and starving them to death; likewise the death march when Berga was abandoned as the Americans closed in from the west.

2) "Befehl ist befehl" – an order is an order – and the orders from Adolf Eichmann implementing the Final Solution had to be carried out to the very end, even, as at Berga, when to carry them out was beyond all humanity or reason. This rationale of "just following orders" was universally used in an attempt to escape responsibility (it's exactly what Eichmann claimed at his trial), and the willingness of many of the Germans to carry out their orders, even at the cost of their own humanity, is hard to explain even to this day (see "Hitler's Willing Executioners" and "A Moral Reckoning" by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen). From a military standpoint, the scarce (by late 1944) resources used to keep the trains rolling into Auschwitz from Hungary and elsewhere could have been better employed to attempt to hold back the Russian hordes – but continuing to round up and murder as many Jews as possible was still an even higher priority.

3) The need to have the Federal Republic of Germany as an ally against the Soviet Union and the DDR (East Germany) was deemed more important by the United States than continuing to pursue Nazi war criminals and bring them to justice. This was an exact parallel to the situation with Japan, where many of the perpetrators of atrocities against the Chinese people and allied prisoners of war went unpunished because Japan was needed as a bulwark against the Russian Far East. Private individuals and NGO's had to take up the pursuit (and eventually Father Time accomplished what they could not).

The touching accounts of Mordecai Hauer returning to Hungary to try and find his mother and other family members, and of the unattended Jewish cemetery in Demmelsdorf, where "alles in ordnung"-- all is in order – (since there is a sign suggesting the cemetery not be disturbed) – are a haunting postscript to the story of Berga, and serve to drive home the truth that "no man is an island"...and we already know for whom the bell tolls...but how long would it take, John Locke, for the bell to toll six million times?

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