German Prisoner of War Camp

On February 13, 1945, 350 American prisoners of war arrived at a concentration camp located outside the town of Berga (population 7,000) on the banks of the Elster River. Four camps were located here: three P.O.W. camps associated with Stalag IX-C (Bad Sulza) and comprised of soldiers of various nationalities, and one civilian camp, a satellite of Buchenwald. The civilian camp held 1,800 political prisoners who had arrived in November of 1944 and who were forced to dig in tunnels to create an underground armament factory.

The American prisoners of war slept in un-insulated wooden barracks with bars on the windows, two to a bed in four-tiered, lice-infested bunks. Given no additional garments, the soldiers had only the clothes they were wearing at the time of their capture and the heat of a single stove to keep from freezing overnight. Their food consisted of ersatz tea (little more than hot brown water) turnip beet-top soup, bread made from sawdust, margarine, and an occasional piece of sausage-type meat. This was the same food regimen given to the political prisoners.

Group of prisoners
A group of concentration camp prisoners await liberation by Allied troops.

 As was the case for other Nazi concentration camp inmates, work details determined survival rates. Close to 70 of the 350 American P.O.W.s were assigned to work as carpenters, locksmiths, electricians, or medics, or on cleaning, burial, or food detail. The rest of them were sent to work in the mines, digging tunnels for the armaments factory. By the end of their time at Berga, the miners were working 12 hours a day, seven days a week. They worked without masks, overcoats, or protective footwear, and were beaten when their work did not seem satisfactory to their supervisors.

One foreman beat prisoners with a rubber hose, acquiring the nickname "Rubber-Hose Charlie." In April of 1945, inmates of Berga were sent on what quickly became a death march. The sick, nearly starved prisoners were forced to walk miles each day in the opposite direction of the quickly approaching Allied armies. Thousands died along these marches, which took place across German-occupied Europe from 1944-45 as SS authorities tried to prevent their mistreated prisoners from falling into Allied hands.

In these ways, the treatment of these American P.O.W.s was comparable to that of the civilian concentration camp inmates. The G.I.s were consistently denied the rights afforded them by the Geneva Convention. Most of the American soldiers' Red Cross aid packages were withheld. When one medic suggested that certain soldiers needed to hospitalized, he was sent to work in the mines. Almost all of the G.I.s suffered from diarrhea or dysentery. Two Berga P.O.W.s were shot dead while "trying to escape," as their Nazi supervisors claimed.

Yet these American prisoners endured this life for less than three months, compared to the years many civilian prisoners spent in the camps. While a handful of G.I.s were forced to work the night shift several times, the civilian workers usually worked at night, when temperatures could dip as low as 20 to 30 degrees below zero. One American P.O.W. attested that whenever a civilian laborer collapsed, he was shot.

The American prisoners did receive a few of their Red Cross packages, and 25 soldiers were ultimately sent to the hospital. The prisoners at Buchenwald, meanwhile, had no such safety nets. Hundreds of deaths were inflicted by medical experiments in which inmates were involuntarily exposed to viruses and contagious diseases. Some prisoners were subjected to a procedure that purported to "cure" homosexuals. (At other camps, prisoners were exposed to freezing temperatures, chemical weapons, low air pressure, and sterilization.) Those who were too sick or weak to work were either sent to extermination facilities at Bernburg or Sonnenstein or killed by a lethal injection administered by the camp doctor. All in all, some 56,000 people were murdered in the Buchenwald camp system.

-- John Uhl


Cave at Berga

A Former POW at Berga

By Anthony C. Acevedo

Grade Rate or Rank: Corporal
MOS: Surgical Technician
Decorations, medals, badges, commendations and campaign ribbons awarded: Bronze Star with 3 service stars and German clasp, Purple Heart, Victory Ribbon, Combat Medical Badge, Good Conduct Medal, American Theater, European, African, Middle Eastern Theater of Operations Ribbon with 3 bronze stars, Prisoner of War Ribbon, Begium Merit of Honor Award
Campaigns: Ardennes Campaign, Rhineland Campaign, Central Europe Campaign

The following narrative is based on a diary I wrote while being held captive by German forces during the Battle of the Bulge.

I was a Medic for the 275th Infantry Regiment of the 70th Infantry Division and assigned to Company B. My story begins with the events leading to interment in a Nazi German prison camp, January 6 1945.

As we were heading back towards Phillipsbourg we were told, "We’ve been cut off. The Germans have the place surrounded". I was still carrying all of my equipment in my backpack. My buddies yelled back to me to drop everything but my medical kits. I was scared and reluctant to leave my equipment behind. As we headed down the slope towards a gully I heard a voice, crying out, "...medic, medic. I’ve been hit! ". Then as I headed towards the voice I slipped on some branches and gunfire erupted. A shot struck my back but luckily the equipment on my back absorbed the impact and saved my life. My helmet fell off, but I was able to crawl, recover it and put it back on. I was then able to attend the wounded. Just then, down in the gully we noticed a cave with 4 to 6 Krauts that had been firing at us. One of our men shouted for mortar fire, killing all but one of them. Our men, killing the Kraut fired more shots.

It was getting dark and soon we received word that we would not be able to go back to Phillipsbourg, the Germans had taken control of it. So, we headed up the hill to Falkenberg Heights. Several of our men were wounded and a medic was killed. I identified the dead medic - A buddy of mine named Murry Pruzan. We were without food for six days, the only thing in our favor was the snow which we ate.

We were being surrounded. Our planes were bombing the hill below us to save us from being captured. German tanks had surrounded us and before we knew it, the Krauts wereon top of us.

Shrapnel hit me and a Kraut poked me with his bayonet because I was too slow to walk. They made me take off my boots and walk on the snow bare footed. I don’t know how far nor how long I walked that day, but whatever it was it seemed endless. We were then put into box cars used for cattle. We were not able to sit or squat for several days and nights. The train was being strafed due to the "dog fights". Suddenly the train came to a stop, we got out of the box cars and walked to a place full of German soldiers. We were ordered to march to the gates of a concentration camp called Bad Orb-Stalag 9B. The camp consisted of prisoners from different nationalities, Africans, Spaniards, French, and Arabs to name a few. Hereafter I was designated as prisoner number 27016.

One morning we were rushed out of the barracks and lined up along trenched dugouts. Behind us, the Krauts stood with their machine guns pointing to our backs. We had to stand outside all day in the snow. It was cold and some of us were bare footed. The Germans refused to let us put on our boots and as the day wore on some were so weak that they collapsed and fell into the trench filled with excrement. We later learned that the Germans wanted to know who had hatched the head of a cook with a meat cleaver. Food was so scarce that many were at the point of starvation and attempts were made to steal food. At the end of the day, a chaplain was able to convince those involved to step forward. Soon a couple of guys gave themselves up and immediately were put into confinement. They were not killed but punished severely. The rest of us were sent back to the barracks and placed under closer watch.

A few days later, in the morning, we heard the sound of barrack door chains rattle. Three SS troopers walked in with their machine guns pointing in all directions, behind them a Gestapo Field Marshall walked in wearing a long leather black coat, tall boots and a monocle over his eye. It was just like in the movies; he looked all around studying each of us while he smoked a cigarette with holder at the other end. Finally he motioned towards me pointing with his finger. The German guards pushed me to follow him. I was the only one singled out. We entered a room furnished with only two chairs and a table. He sat on one side and I at the other, then immediately began to interrogate me. He said, "You medics know what’s going on behind the lines!" I told him I knew nothing and said all I know is my name, rank and serial number. He just laughed at my answers and said, "No, no , know something!". I repeated I knew nothing of what was going on, "I’m only a medic". He countered with, "Oh yes you do! I’ve heard this story many times. You know something. Look, I know all about you." To my amazement he proceeded to tell me that I was born in San Bernardino, California and lived in Pasadena, California, with my cousins; that my parents moved us to Durango, Mexico; knew that my father was a civil engineer and had been commissioned by the Mexican Government to construct airplane landing strips for U.S. forces and was also involved in a PT boat project with an associate out of Texas; and knew of two employees that worked for my father. He added, "Isn’t that the truth?". I said, "I don’t know. How do you know?". "Look, I’m not dumb!", he responded and spoke in both English and Spanish, fluently. At this point I felt pinned but maintained my composure as best I could. He continued, "You left Mexico when you were 17 to return to the U.S. to study medicine. You decided to enter the Army. That we know. I also know that your father had his two employees arrested"

Two friends and myself discovered that two of my father’s employees were spying for German U-Boats docked in the Sea of Cortez, Baja California, Mexico. One of my friends had studied Morse code and had detected the messages while we swam next to a building where the code was coming from. When my father made the discovery he had them immediately arrested.

As the field Marshall continued his interrogation, he told me he also knew of a Schweader family and a sailor cousin of theirs who deserted from the Graf Spee German battleship which fought the battle of Montevideo. He made it to Durango and subsequently sold my father a rifle. The family was part of a colony of German families living in Mexico.

The interrogation went on. I was coerced and tortured with needles inserted in my fingernails. I felt numb all over. It was very painful. Realizing he wasn’t getting anywhere with torture, he gave up, then made promises to send me to medical school in Munich and give better treatment to my buddies and me. He told me to think about it.

On February 6, 1945, we heard fighter planes over our barracks. A dogfight ensued. It was a P-47 with a German fighter. Bullets sprayed all around and some hit a brick wall. Two of our men were hit and killed. In the course of that event the clock tower was hit and stopped at exactly 12:00 noon. That afternoon, plans were being made to move us out and divide us into several groups from camp Bad Orb to other areas. We had heard that their intent was to segregate American Jews from the other prisoners and that this new location would be a better place to stay. There would be more food, better living conditions and more freedom. For some unexplained reason I was included among them.

Shortly thereafter, we had orders to stand outside of our barracks. About Three hundred-fifty of us were assigned to move out to God knows where. The Krauts spat, kicked and swung rifle butts at us because we wouldn’t move fast enough. We were ordered to get into boxcars and traveled several days and nights. On February 8, 1945, we arrived at the new camp. It was called Berga an der Elster.

Berga was considered a mining center with caves and excavated tunnels for what appeared to be gun emplacements. We soon realized that it was nothing but a SLAVE labor camp. The worst was yet to come. Prisoners were being murdered and tortured by the Nazis. Many of our men died and I tried keeping track of who they were and how they died in my diary. During this time of confinement, we only ate 100 grams of bread per week made of saw dust with redwood bark. Just enough to barely stay alive. At 3:00 AM they had me and another buddy go for the "tea run". The tea was nothing more but dry weeds and shrubs boiled in water. I was told that the soup we ate was made from cats and rats.

Conditions were so poor that disease was prevalent and many soldiers were very ill. One of our men was dying of diphtheria I tried convincing the Germans to let me perform a tracheotomy operation by boiling and sterilizing my fountain pen. I told them that his life could be saved. Instead, one of the guards responded by striking a fellow medic and me on the jaw with the butt of his rifle.

On one occasion I remember a Commandant named Metz presenting us with a supposedly famous German boxer who had fought Joe Louis. He was dressed in a SS uniform and told us he was going to help us, which he lied since we never heard from him again.

On March 20, 1945, a fellow prisoner named Goldstein was shot and killed for attempting to escape. That day, when his body was brought in, I was ordered to testify that I witnessed Goldstein’s escape and to claim he was shot for that reason. Not only had he been shot in the upper torso, but I also noticed upon closer examination, a shot to his forehead. The hole had been filled with wax to cover up the SS troops use of wooden bullets. I managed to acquire some of these bullets, but during my hospitalization I lost track of them. Others had been shot in the same manner as Goldstein. This I knew after having also examined them as well.

Since efforts were being made to escape, we were ordered to remove our clothing before bedding down to prevent anyone from escaping. While naked I was ordered to take the clothing outside to a shack. We slept unclothed, two to a bunk and without heat, constantly threatened by the Germans.

Sometimes we were able to find broken glass and use it to shave with, but better yet to help remove the white lice. We were always breathing and eating dust and dirt from those tunnels. Many of us could not tolerate the torture. On April 3, 1945, we had learned that American and Russian troops were about 100 km away and were closing in. The Germans were preparing to evacuate us. On April 6th we started to march out of the camp. Many of the men were becoming increasingly ill and suffering from malnutrition. Rumors circulated that we were heading towards the Bavarian Mountains, Hitler’s Eagles Nest. It turned out to be a death march. Up ahead of us we saw many political prisoners, women and children. They were being machined gunned down while trying to escape. Shots were fired from both sides of the highway in what appeared to be an ambush. It was a massacre. The Krauts also made use of remote controlled miniature tanks.

Our men started to die one by one. It happened so fast that I couldn’t keep track of all of them. We continued to march and took turns pulling and pushing a cart of 10 to 20 injured and sick soldiers. The night was spent in a barn outside the town of Hof. Ground activity had now escalated and we knew that our boys were getting closer. The Germans made us keep marching and I fell back to help the sick.

The march lasted and continued until April 22, 1945. That day while I waited in a soup line, one our interpreters cried out that we were to move out immediately! We could hear small arm fire in the distance. The guards yelled out, "Rouse! Rouse!", but we acted as though we were too ill to move. I laid down on the ground as a German Captain pulled out his pistol yelling for everyone to get up and go. By now General Patton’s tanks had moved in. The guards started running and the officers did the same. Some of the guards came up to us and gave up their weapons pleading for mercy. We were finally free! Everyone was excited and breathed a sigh of relief. We had been liberated! I had lost so much weight that I was down to 85 lbs. but thankful to God I had made it.

Today April 24, 1945 we had our first good meal. I was in the hospital and reflected on the men who had not made it. Of the original 352 prisoners from Berga, only 170 survived [Editor's note: The actual total number of prisoners was 350 and the total number who survived is not certain, but probably closer to 270].

Source: The 70th Infantry Division Association

From: Andi Wolos & Bob Necci
(POW-MIA InterNetwork)
Re: POWs and the Holocaust

Date: April 17, 2001

"A Filmmaker Remembers G.I.'s Consumed by the Holocaust's Terror
By ROGER COHEN The New York Times

The little-known story of American soldiers imprisoned and worked to death in Berga, Germany, during World War II has become something of an obsession for Charles Guggenheim.

BERGA, Germany Four plain wooden crosses stand in the cemetery above this quiet town in eastern Germany. One of them is inscribed "Unknown Allied Soldier." He is unlikely to be an American, because the G.I.'s who died here were exhumed after World War II and taken home. But the mystery of this soldier's identity is only one of many hanging over Berga and its former Nazi camp.

On a cold, late March day, with snow falling on the graves, a thin, soft-spoken American stands filming in the cemetery. He has hired some local volunteers, one of whom is portraying a Nazi guard, as two others turn the earth in preparation for the burial of the simulated corpses whose limp feet dangle out of sacks. The scene has an eerie luminosity in the silence of the snow.

The weather is cinematographically perfect. It is also unseasonably cold and infernally damp. The American, Charles Guggenheim, shivers as he says: "This is a slow business, filming something like this. Sort of like watching grass grow."

But for him the fate of the American soldiers imprisoned and worked to death more than a half-century ago in Berga has become something of an obsession.

Time may be needed for an obsession to take hold, time for the half-thoughts, nagging regrets and suppressed memories to coalesce into a determination to act. Mr. Guggenheim, a documentary filmmaker who has won four Academy Awards, waited a long time to embark on this movie. His daughter, Grace Guggenheim, has a theory as to why. "This is sort of a survivor's guilt story," she said.

In September 1944 Mr. Guggenheim, now 77, was with the American
106th Infantry Division, preparing to go to Europe. But when the other soldiers embarked, he was immobilized with a foot infection. He remained in Indiana while his fellow infantrymen were plunged, within weeks, into the Battle of the Bulge; two regiments were lost. Thousands of American soldiers were captured, and several hundred who were Jewish or who "looked" Jewish ended up in Berga. Up to now their fate has received relatively little attention, partly because the surviving soldiers long tended to repress the trauma.

"I could have been among the captured or the killed," Mr. Guggenheim mused. "I never wished I had come to Europe. Anyone in the infantry who wishes for war has something wrong with them. But I've thought a lot: why in the hell am I here and they not? Perhaps in the next life they'll get even. I'm trying not to believe in a next life."

Even this life seems incredible enough when gazing at little Berga, a place outside time. It was exploited by the Nazis before being taken over by the Russians, who mined uranium in the area. In 1990 it was made part of a united Germany.

Unemployment here stands at about 24 percent, so Mr. Guggenheim had no problem finding volunteers for his film. To conjure an atmosphere of desolation was not difficult either: beside the unused red-brick textile factory of a vanished Jewish family (named Englander), stray cats wander through junkyards, watched by old men standing huddled against the cold. Germany's ghosts, its myriad secrets, are almost palpable in a place like this.

Among the onlookers near the cemetery is Sabine Knuppel, a municipal worker. She says she has photographs of the "old days" in Berga: a lighted swastika glowing among trees heavy with snow. None of the old people in town like to talk about those days, she says, when the Nazis set up a satellite camp to Buchenwald in the middle of town and used the slave laborers imprisoned there to dig tunnels into the rock cliffs bordering the Elster River.

All that, she continues, constitutes a "lost world." But once there were perhaps 1,000 prisoners working in the tunnels, where the Nazis planned to install a factory producing synthetic fuel. But until now, nobody in the town knew there were Americans among the prisoners, Ms. Knuppel says.

After the war the Russians blew up many of the tunnels. In their vestiges bats established a vast colony now officially designated as a German nature reserve. Along the wooded banks of the Elster, a dozen entrances to the tunnels may still be seen; they are barred with steel doors.

Layer upon layer of German secrets: more tangible in a place like Berga than in the west of the country, where postwar prosperity wiped away most traces of tragedy. Mr. Guggenheim, whose award-winning documentaries include "J. F. K Remembered" and an account of the civil rights movement called "A Time for Justice," has been digging into the secrets for two years now. He has interviewed 40 American survivors of Berga for a documentary tentatively titled "G.I. Holocaust."

The film, a co-production of Mr. Guggenheim's company and WNET, the public-television station in New York, centers on what happened to a group of American soldiers captured by the Germans after the Battle of the Bulge (which began on Dec. 16, 1944) and later transported to Berga.

This group of about 350 men was selected from among the more than 2,000 American prisoners initially taken to the Stalag 9B prisoner of war camp at Bad Orb, 50 miles north of Frankfurt. Among them was William Shapiro, now a retired doctor living in Florida. A medic attached to the 28th Infantry Division, he was captured on Dec. 17, 1944, the day after the battle began.

"On arrival at the prisoner of war camp, we were interrogated," Dr. Shapiro said in a telephone interview. "With a name like Shapiro, it was quite evident I was Jewish. I was then pushed into a particular barracks, mostly for Jews and other undesirables. Our job was to clean the latrines. We were guarded by the SS with dogs, rather than the Wehrmacht. I'd never even trained with a gun. I thought the Geneva Convention would protect me as a medic. At that time I knew nothing of Auschwitz or the planned extermination of European Jewry, although of course I knew of Hitler's hostility to Jews."

In the special barracks he was eventually joined by the other 350 Americans who would go to Berga. Their identities had not been as immediately obvious. Many were selected in a grim process recalled to Mr. Guggenheim by several soldiers of his own 106th Division.

They described how prisoners were ordered to stand at attention in the parade ground. The commandant then gave the order for all Jews to step forward. "Nobody moved," said Joseph Littell, one of the survivors. "He said it again. Nobody moved. He grabbed a rifle butt and hit Hans Kasten, our leader, with a blow you couldn't believe. Hans got up. He hit him again. The commandant said he would kill 10 men every hour until the Jews were identified."

The group of 350 was eventually assembled of some Jews who identified themselves under pressure; some soldiers, like Mr. Kasten, who volunteered; and some who were picked by the Germans as resembling Jews. Mr. Kasten, an American of German descent, suffered repeated taunts, being told that the thing worse than a Jew was a German who turns against his country. After several weeks the group was loaded into boxcars without food or water, arriving at Berga on Feb. 13, 1945.

The Nazis had a policy, "annihilation through work," and these Americans learned what this meant. Housed in a barracks beside the prison camp, fed only on bread and thin soup, sleeping two to a bed in three-level bunks, deprived of water to wash, urinating and defecating into a hole in the floor, regularly beaten, the soldiers were herded out to work 12 hours a day in the dusty tunnels.

"The purpose was to kill you but to get as much of you before they killed you," Milton Stolon of the 106th Division told Mr. Guggenheim. Gangrene, dysentery, pneumonia, diphtheria did their work. In the space of nine weeks about 35 soldiers died.

The persecution of American prisoners at Berga has remained little-known because many of the victims, like Dr. Shapiro, chose not to speak of it for a half-century after the war. With the cold war to fight and West Germany a postwar ally, the United States government had little interest in opening its archives and inflaming conflict between Americans and Germans.

In recent years, however, the research of an Army officer, Mack O'Quinn, who investigated the events at Berga for a master's degree thesis, and a 1994 book by Mitchell Bard, "Forgotten Victims" (Westview Press), have thrown light on the treatment of the G.I.'s. Still, many of the soldiers said they spoke about their experiences for the first time to Mr. Guggenheim; the notion that American prisoners of war were persecuted as Jews or Jewish sympathizers has not received broad attention.

Mr. Guggenheim said it was still a shock that this happened to Americans, bringing home the realization that if the Nazis had won the war, "they would have gotten us, too."

A descendant of German Jews, he grapples with ambivalent feelings about the country, unable to forget what a "civilized nation" did to its Jews even as he is surprised by how civil postwar German society is.

He also grapples with how to find an appropriate treatment of a Holocaust movie, troubled by what he sees as the frequent trivialization of the Holocaust in film. Too often, he said, Hitler's crimes have become a "quick fix for involvement" and a good fix for raising money from Jewish families. Like sex and violence, the Holocaust "demands people's attention, even if they do not feel good about it."

His answer to the ethical dilemma is the sobriety of his research and treatment: painstaking interviews, careful reconstruction of a little-known chapter in the war, attention to detail. The scenes filmed in Berga will supplement a core of archival film, photography and interviews. "What is most moving to me is the way the survivors have talked about themselves and about each other, often for the first time," he said. "In many instances they had never talked about this before."

Dr. Shapiro was among those who suppressed his memories. "It took 50 years for all of us to begin to come to terms with this," he said. In early April 1945, with the American and Soviet armies closing in, the camp at Berga was ordered evacuated, and a death march began for hundreds of prisoners. At least another 50 Americans died in the ensuing days before advance units of the American 11th Armored Division liberated the prisoners on April 22, 1945, near Cham in southeastern Germany.

The rate of attrition more than 70 American dead in just over two months after arrival at Berga was among the highest for any group of G.I.'s taken prisoner in Europe. Dr. Shapiro weighed 98 pounds on his liberation; he cannot recall the last days of the forced march despite repeated efforts to do so. "I had become a zombie," he said.

Time has passed, but Dr. Shapiro's voice still cracks a little as he thinks back. Periodic nightmares trouble him. "I traveled the same road as an American prisoner of war as the Jews of Europe," he continued. "I was put in a boxcar, starved, put on a death march. It was a genocidal type of approach."

That road might also have been Mr. Guggenheim's. After the war he asked a returning member of the 106th Division about a Jewish soldier he had known and was told the man had died in a German mine. But where, how, why?

The questions lingered in his mind for more than a half-century before taking him where an infected foot prevented him from going in 1944: to a remote town in Germany where the bat-filled tunnels are now sealed and snow falls on a cemetery where an "Allied Soldier" lies."

Captured GIs lived death camp horrors firsthand
by joanne palmer

Drafted into the U.S. Army in 1944 and taken prisoner in Germany soon before the end of World War II, Norman Fellman didn’t know much about the way the Nazis were treating Jews.

He had heard that “there had been discrimination, and I might have heard of Kristallnacht, but we had no idea” of the extent of the murderous rage directed at the Jews, Fellman, who is Jewish, said. “Certainly we felt that as American prisoners, we would not be treated the way they were.”

He was soon to learn that though the Germans treated no one well, they didn’t share Fellman’s belief that his American identity trumped his Jewishness.

Fellman, who was 20 when he was drafted, was one of 350 American GIs — Jews, non-Jews the Germans thought were Jewish, troublemakers and even some random prisoners taken to fill the barracks — who were sent to Berga, a concentration camp about 60 miles from Buchenwald.

Their story is told in two new books, “Soldiers and Slaves” by Roger Cohen and “Given Up for Dead” by Flint Whitlock.

Fellman was sent to Europe in December 1944, Europe’s “coldest winter in memory.” Defending a hill near the Rhine River, his company lost contact with its battalion.

After six days of fighting and five days after running out of food, members of the company destroyed their weapons and surrendered.

The prisoners were herded onto a boxcar originally designed to hold 40 men or eight horses.

“These cars had been used to move cattle, and hadn’t been cleaned,” he said. “These were the same cars that were used to take Jews to death camps.”

Each car was packed with 60 or 70 men and the doors were closed, not to be reopened for four or five days.

The low-ranking prisoners, including Fellman, were taken to a camp called Stalag 9B in the town of Bad Ohr, later said to be one of the harshest of the prison camps. A few weeks after their arrival, the prisoners were herded into the center of the camp, and any Jews among them were asked to step forward.

Some Jews had thrown away their dog tags, which were marked with a telltale “H” for Hebrew. American prisoners assigned to do the paperwork when prisoners entered the camp “logged everyone in as Protestant,” Fellman said.

But he didn’t want to hide who he was: “I don’t know if it was more pride than brains or whatever, but I had determined to step forward.”

In February 1945, the men, including 80 Jews, were packed onto another cattle car and sent to Berga. They had to walk past a camp that housed civilian prisoners from Buchenwald.

In Berga, the prisoners had to dynamite a hole through a mountain for an underground manufacturing facility.  “You went in before the dust settled. The Germans had masks but you had nothing,” Fellman said. “If you didn’t work fast enough, you got hit. If you looked at one of them cross-eyed, you got hit. If the guy guarding you,” an SS man, “didn’t feel good, you got hit.”

“We worked 12-hour shifts. We didn’t talk,” Fellman continued. “Guys were dying. We lost 40 or so men in the tunnels.”

And then, “one morning we looked around and there were no guards. And then I looked over the crest of the road and there was an American tank with some GIs,” he said. “They were the best-looking ugly guys I ever saw.”

Fellman was sent to an overcrowded Paris hospital.

“People would look at me and I’d see horror in their eyes,” he said. “I hadn’t realized how bad I looked until I saw it in their eyes.”

He survived, he said, because he had been in prime physical condition when he was taken prisoner. He had gone to Germany weighing 178 pounds but was down to 86 pounds when he was liberated.

Fellman has gone on to have a good life. He retired after many years in the shoe business and, with his wife, Ruth, bought a farm in New Jersey’s horse country.

Though Fellman is not fond of organized religion, he is deeply Jewish.

“A refrain used to go through my head,” he said. “It’s from the camps. I’m a Jew born and a Jew bred, and when I die, I’ll be a Jew dead.”

The Soldiers of Berga

By Mitchell G. Bard

In 1945, more than 4,000 American GIs were imprisoned at Stalag IX-B at Bad Orb, approximately 30 miles northwest of Frankfurt-on-Main. One day the commandant had prisoners assembled in a field. All Jews were ordered to take one step forward. Word ran through the ranks not to move. The non-Jews told their Jewish comrades they would stand with them. The commandant said the Jews would have until six the next morning to identify themselves. The prisoners were told, moreover, that any Jews in the barracks after 24 hours would be shot, as would anyone trying to hide or protect them.

American Jewish soldiers had to decide what to do. All had gone into battle with dog tags bearing an "H" for Hebrew. Some had disposed of their IDs when they were captured, others decided to do so after the commandant's threat.

Approximately 130 Jews ultimately came forward. They were segregated and placed in a special barracks. Some 50 noncommissioned officers from the group were taken out of the camp, along with the non-Jewish NCOs.

The Germans had a quota of 350 for a special detail. All the remaining Jews were taken, along with prisoners considered troublemakers, those they thought were Jewish and others chosen at random. This group left Bad Orb on February 8. They were placed in trains under conditions similar to those faced by European Jews deported to concentration camps. Five days later, the POWs arrived in Berga, a quaint German town of 7,000 people on the Elster River, whose concentration camps appear on few World War II maps.

Conditions in Stalag IX-B were the worst of any POW camp, but they were recalled fondly by the Americans transferred to Berga, who discovered the main purpose for their imprisonment was to serve as slave laborers. Each day, the men trudged approximately two miles through the snow to a mountainside in which 17 mine shafts were dug 100 feet apart. There, under the direction of brutal civilian overseers, the Americans were required to help the Nazis build an underground armament factory.

The men worked in shafts as deep as 150 feet that were so dusty it was impossible to see more than a few feet in front of you. The Germans would blast the slate loose with dynamite and then, before the dust settled, the prisoners would go down to break up the rock so that it could be shoveled into mining cars.

The men did what they could to sustain each other. "You kept each other warm at night by huddling together," said Daniel Steckler. "We maintained each other's welfare by sharing body heat, by sharing the paper-thin blankets that were given to us, by sharing the soup, by sharing the bread, by sharing everything."

Photo courtesy of Mack O'Quinn

"Surviving was all you thought about," Winfield Rosenberg agreed. "You were so worn down you didn't even think of all the death that was around you." He said his faith sustained him. "I knew I'd go to heaven if I died, because I was already in hell."

On April 4, 1945, the commandant received an order to evacuate Berga. This was but the end of a chapter of the Americans' ordeal. The human skeletons who had survived found no cause to rejoice in this flight from hell. They were leaving friends behind and returning to the unknown.

Fewer than 300 men survived the 50 days they had spent in Berga. Over the next two-and-a-half weeks, before the survivors were liberated, at least 36 more GIs died on a march to avoid the approaching Allied armies. The fatality rate in Berga, including the march, was the highest of any camp where American POWs were held—nearly 20 percent—and the 70-73 men who were killed represented approximately six percent of all Americans who perished as POWs during World War II.

This was not the only case where American Jewish soldiers were segregated or otherwise mistreated, but it was the most dramatic. The U.S. Government never publicly acknowledged they were mistreated. In fact, one survivor was told he should go to a psychiatrist. Officials at the VA told him he had made up the whole story.

Two of the Nazis responsible for the murder and mistreatment of American soldiers were tried. They were found guilty and sentenced to hang, despite the fact that none of the survivors testified at the trial . Later, the case was reviewed and the verdicts upheld. Nevertheless, five years after being tried, the Chief of the War Crimes Branch unilaterally decided the evidence was insufficient to sustain the charges and commuted the sentences to time served — about six years.

Source: © Mitchell G. Bard. Forgotten Victims: The Abandonment of Americans in Hitler's Camps.. CO: Westview Press, 1994.

'Berga: Soldiers of Another War'
With Grace Guggenheim
Wednesday, May 28, 2003; 3 p.m. ET

The documentary film "Berga: Soldiers of Another War," the final work in the long and distinguished career of the late filmmaker Charles Guggenheim, reveals Nazi Holocaust atrocities inflicted on 350 American POWs "classified" as Jewish. Thousands of American GIs, including soldiers in Guggenheim's 106th Infantry Division, were captured by the Nazis during the Battle of the Bulge. Those "identified" as Jewish were shipped off to a satellite of Buchenwald concentration camp, where they suffered harrowing atrocities as slave laborers.

Producer Grace Guggenheim, daughter of the filmmaker, will be online Wednesday, May 28 at 3 p.m. ET, to discuss the film and this little known story of World War II.

Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.

Ms. Guggenheim has produced over 20 documentaries for both television and theatrical release. In addition, she acts as Vice President of Guggenheim Productions, Inc., overseeing and managing all business and personnel transactions for the company. She graduated from Carleton College in 1982 and currently lives in Washington, D.C.

"Berga: Soldiers of Another War" airs on PBS Wednesday, May 28, 2003 at 8 p.m. ET. (check local listings).

Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. Grace, thank you so much for joining us today. Why was telling this story so important to your father?

Grace Guggenheim: Oh boy, my father felt profoundly obligated to tell the story because he wanted to give back to his fellow infantry men. And the complicated part of it, as you know it's mentioned in the Post article, when I was growing up, Charles always felt introspective about the fact that penecillin saved his life at the last minute. Through training he'd developed an infection in his foot and it turned into blood poisoning. I remember because it was from his lymph node in his ankle to his hip. He described how the doctor came in and said "put this man on penecillin right away." My guess is that he was in the hospital for about three weeks. In those days penecillin was given by an injection in your glute, so you really remembered that. SO I only learned recently that penecillin was only being given to infantrymen going back into battle. SO that was his first introspection. Knowing how he is -- you learn later what could have happened and he learned that his division had been in the battle of the bulge and the 106th had the highest casualty rate -- so as he probably aged, that really hit him also. The question was always what would it have been like for him. He was always inquiring about friends and tried to find an army buddy of his who was a Jewish friend and found out he'd died in a salt mind. And that thought never left his mind.

The interesting thing is that when we were researching. The images of the tunnels at Berga were categorized as salt mines, but they weren't. So the connection was literally there and went backpedaling again and Charles put this story together when he read an article by a Fla. Newspaperman who interviewed four survivors in Florida. And Charles realized his friend had been at this place and that made him want to learn more about it and there were several memoirs and "The Forgotten Victims" by Mitchell Barnes about Americans in WWII, but wrote the most in-depth description of the experience and this confirmed there was a story. So when you're a filmmaker, you're an investigator and Charles had found out another person tried to make a film and didnt' and then we found this military guy named Mack O'Clim who was doing his masters on this topic. He hadn't written his thesis yet, but he moved to Baltimore, so we hired him for six months to help us pull together where these guys were and were able to locate 101 people at Berga and witnesses. And also we cleverly got someone in the Senate to get us permission to get the VA to send a letter on our behalf to the guys. These guys participate in an association and you know what division had the experience, but a lot of guys don't participate in the association. So we spent a number of years pulling together the names. All that.

So that's really what happened. He was possessed by his own inner fate of what could have happened to him and over the years it just grew. The interesting thing is that so many people have tried to tell the story, but it hasn't gotten much notoriety. This is the first time its been told on film.

I think also still now we are still unraveling the real facts of what happened. Because they were really lost due to the fact that people age and I think no one believed this event took place.

Washington, D.C.: Grace, your dad was unmatched in his ability to move audiences to tears with his films. But I know that he couldn't have done it without your incredible digging and investigative reporting, plus being at his side during the editing process. Can you tell us something of how you went about digging up information and names at the national archives, how you found the guys to interview, what that basic investigative process was like for you?

Grace Guggenheim: You might want to refer to my previous answer because that sort of explains it a bit. Never any one route to unfolding a story and you really have to be open to leads. The Archives were significant because they confirmed the names of the men that went to Berga. The original roster was there. It confirmed names, but not what division they were in. It had their prisoner assignment number. So we had to go through associations and word of mouth and the VA. And then you have to have some luck, too. Some we interviewed were witnesses at Berga, for example, one of the civilians we got through the Holocaust Museum in Washington. And that's why things like that are so helpful.

A sidenote, I just went to the Stalag IX-B reunion in Florida and there was a civilian slave laborer there who worked at the soup kitchen in Berga and he was classically Hungarian and was only 14 and was there as the Americans got their food from the civilians.

I'm hoping that Roger Cohen, who is writing the book, will interview him.

I met a guy at the reunion who was Jewish and he was in the Jewish Barracks at Stalag IX-B and they thought he was dead and they left him there and he wasn't. So he could have been sent to Berga, but didn't because they thought he was dead.

Richmond, Va.: Ms. Guggenheim,
Why do you think this story took so long to tell? Do you think there are more stories from this period that remain untold even with so many WWII films from the past 50 years?

Grace Guggenheim: I only learned about a month ago that there was a film on allied airmen imprisoned. THey were Brits, Americans -- I haven't seen the film, but what's interesting is that it's a small group of men who were separated from their divisions and got -- the French resistance took them in and they got sent eventually to Buchenwald. So there's another story no one knows that's even smaller than ours.

I met a PR guy who -- apparently there were Americans put to forced labor in Japan, too. These guys -- I think there's another story out there. The name "World War" -- it's hard for our generation to understand it. There were so many countries affected and the story of the Holocaust is a huge part of it, but the stories are endless. Look what happened in the Pacific alone.

Pittsburgh, Pa.: Grace,
My father was one of the soldiers sent to Berga. He was in the 106th Infantry Division when he was captured during the Battle of The Bulge and initially sent to Bad Orb (Stalag IX-B). He died in 1956 at the age of 40 from his war-related injuries. I was only eight at the time of his passing and have just recently discovered the fact that he was detained in Berga. I am trying to locate those who have survived the atrocities of this camp and who are still alive today. Is a list of survivors and their addresses available? I'm attempting to try and locate anyone who may have remembered my father and who could give me information about him and his injuries.

Grace Guggenheim: You can contact me at my office.

Chicago, Ill.: Thank you for presenting this story and discussing the film today. Did you research for the film take you back to Berga, or what was once the site of Berga? What kind of feeling did that bring you? Your father?

Grace Guggenheim: Good question. We did go back to Berga. We made a big effort to back to the places that remained. We did film at the original cemetary where the GIs were buried and there were pictures of the original SS headquarters which is now the town hall and the reenactment footage -- along the same road they walked down every day. It was eerie going back to Germany. I thought it might be kind of awkward. I started to feel a question in mind -- because we look Jewish and have a Jewish last name. We'd done a pre-scout before and made friends with people in the town of Berga. And they could not have been more helpful. We could only communicate through a translator, but without their help we would not have had the cast of eastern Germans who played the GIs. There is some resistance to older people because they don't want to be labelled SS. When I did interview a man in his 70s, his reaction was that I wasn't around during the war, so it didn't make sense to him to continue the conversation. There's a lot of German guilt and understandably. You have to live with that burden and I feel for them and in contrast, the survivors who have to use a certain amount of hate to get over their feelings of what happened to them, too. I think overall, once they met us and realized we were nice people... but also things weren't talked about either.

A sidenote... my roots are that my family left in 1847 from Bavaria -- close to where we filmed at the end and the cinematographer who I've worked with for 17 years -- Erish Roland -- it wasn't until we worked on this project that he realized his name had been changed from Rosenberg. So there we were with our pasts. And the location field producer we hired out of Berlin, he was very open to tell me his relative had been under Hess. So the three of us worked together very well and symbiotically, yet we all had a different link to this part of history. Though hopefully with our generation hopefully there's some healing.

Falls Church, Va.: How many survivors of Berga were you able to talk to for the show?

Grace Guggenheim: Obviously, we've located six years ago a lot of them. But we were only able to AFFORD to interview on tape 40 of them and from those 40 we chose about 12 and about five of those were witnesses. We would have interviewed more.

Not everybody you locate you can interview. Sometimes their unwilling to talk about it in a way you can use. I think that's the hardest thing for the GIs. Some wished they were all on camera, but you can't do it all.

Alexandria, Va.: What has the response to this film been like?

Grace Guggenheim: I appreciate you asking. Obviously it's such a personal interpretation. But all the GIs we interviewed were sent copies of the film because Charles was still alive. But then he became ill quite quickly and that was an important thing for both parties. But all of them felt indebted to Charles for telling the story and they are grateful to him overall.

In terms of the screenings, we did one at the MPAA for our donors and one at the Center for Jewish History in New York in one Boston and L.A. We had on average between 100 - 250 people at each screening and I think people are speechless basically because it's very intense. I think the film brings different dimensions so it's not all explained. I think it takes you through an experiencal journey.

Germantown, Ohio: My father was held and escaped from Berga during the Death March on April 20th. He is looking forward to watching the documentary tonight. I am always telling my children how proud and thankful they should be for their grandfather and others like him. Do you think your documentary helps people in being more respectful and patriotic? I think we have let our youth forget what it took to get us to this point of freedom.

Grace Guggenheim: I think it's an important question. I think this gets into a complicated area. I think you're right in that -- first of all, World War II -- the world would have been a different place. We would not live in a democracy now. And our current generation and people today, it's hard to completely embrace the war we've currently gone into. No one wants a life lost. It's complicated when you're in the moment and we don't have full information. All I can say is that we are so lucky to have men, women and journalists willing to serve our country. I hope people get from the film that whether war is justifiable or not -- I think that's the thing about Memorial Day we've forgotten, that those who serve our country need to be given the credit they deserve. We have the freedom because of those who served our country.

All the stories on the news about women whose husbands died, they all talked about how their husbands wanted to be there -- that's what they believed and you have to support them. We would not be this great country.

Washington, D.C.: What recourse did the U.S. government have when they found out the fate of these soldiers? Were any diplomatic efforts made to have them freed?

Grace Guggenheim: It's just like this story -- not very well known. These guys were liberated around April 20 and 23 of 1945 in two locations, and exactly a month later there was a war crimes investigation committee that went back to Berga to exhume the bodies. There were a lot of unmarked graves. They also went along the deathmarch to find more who died. They collected evidence for a war crimes trial a year later. Depositions were taken -- a man named Vogel whose nephew died at Berga -- he was a lawyer and pulled together a lot of information. The conclusion of the trial, which took place in Dachau, Lieut. Willie Hack was tried by the Russians and hung. He was basically the guy in charge of the construction effort at the tunnels and under him were the two SS that ran the camp, Metz and Marz, and Hack was tried in a different place by the Russians and Metz and Marz were tried at Dachau by the allies. And they were sentenced by hanging. And then their sentence was commuted to life in prison and then again to 15 years for one and five years for the other. My guess is that their sentences were immuted because the U.S. government was bartering for information. My guess is that we still had American POWs in Japan... I don't know. But their sentences were lifted because there was a lot of bartering going on. Lieut. Hack was given over to the Russians and they hung him. So they were known for being really vicious. When we were in eastern Germany and traveled south and stopped off at a restaurant and the rumor was that the home was owned by the SS and that the Russians came in and killed him. Their depositions are available at the National Archives in College Park.


Grace Guggenheim: 1999, there were German reparations transferred to the U.S. for the prisoners of Berga. Until that took place we were held back from interviewing some of the survivors. They were, a lot of them, represented by a lawyer.

The reparations were very uneven and based on primarily how they filed, if they filed, how long they were in the camp, what kinds of injuries they had. And then I just got something from one of the survivors, there was a filing for these guys -- The Conference on Material Claims AGainst Germany. It looks like a group for people who deal with people who have been in slave labor camps. Some of these guys have been rejected because they feel there is no proof. One files and gets money and another is rejected. It's just crazy. They say they've conducted research into their names with lists at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum during the war. The museum doesn't have the material from the war crimes trial -- that's crazy. So because their not using sources without the paperwork. So they are still having to fight for themselves.

My quest is to try -- hopefully the lawyer from 1999 might help -- so I'm going to try to lobby this group on their behalf.

Washington, D.C.: Grace, that's interesting what you said about the survivors feeling hate. I happened to talk with one of them, just a wonderful old guy, and asked him how he survived the ordeal. He looked at me and said, "Hate. You had to hate to survive, then later you had to get rid of the hate because it would eat you up. I realized there were good Germans, and some of them actually helped us." How was it for these guys, talking with you and your Dad? Was it tough for them, or cathartic?

Grace Guggenheim: First of all, all of these things are journeys and first of all, you do have to create some form of confidence with people before they will talk to you. Charles was a master conversationalist. He was one of these people that made anybody feel at home. He was also a veteran himself. I would say for most of these guys, they never had talked about it. Milton in our film, he died three weeks after we interviewed him, had never talked about this with his family. Phil Shapiro had blocked it out so severely, that when we wrote him in 1996 it opened the floodgates for him that this had happened.

You go through different phases of hate and grief and openess and we're lucky these guys were in a good place to talk. I felt kind of guilty about it because several of these guys really broke down with us. One guy told us he was depressed for three days after he talked with us. We owe so much to them -- they're willing to talk about it and for many of them it's still so hard. Shapiro, has been so dear about taking on interviews from reporters, and you realize they're stepping out on a limb for us to describe what happened. It's a gift they've given to us. Who wants to talk about something that's that awful.

The hate part is interesting, because Phil McCombs talks about it in his article. He's the most loving person, but you realize this one guy had to go through so much hate and forgiveness to be able to talk. It's complicated for everybody.

Pittsburgh, Pa.: Dear Grace,
Is your telling of the story of the Soldiers of Berga finished, or do you have any future plans to search for more information?

Grace Guggenheim: Unfortunately, it is finished, but because of the publicity of the film -- which we're so lucky to have -- not only Phil's wonderful article, but generosity from other papers -- people are contacting me with information and I'm holding onto it because Roger Cohen is writing this book on it and I want to make sure he has everything he needs. There are still many mysteries. We estimated how many died at Berga based on a medical journal and other peoples' observations. One man went back to find where a relative was buried and because of that we have those names. Another person wrote and said their father died at such and such a place, and that's piecing together the puzzle that no one can find out about. You want to know all the answers but not know if you ever will.

If you know of anyone who wants to have episode two, send them my way. I'd love to see more of these stories recorded and put at the Holocaust Museum. The story has not all been preserved. It would be interesting to get someone from the military to talk about it.

Page last revised 11/29/2005