|Bernard "Jack" Vogel
106th Infantry Division
ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- For 63 years, Martin Vogel longed for information about how his only brother -- his best friend and a fellow U.S. soldier -- died in World War II.
He knew that Bernard "Jack" Vogel had tried to escape from a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp, but the details were sketchy. Martin was so devastated after the war, he didn't ask too many questions. But as time passed, his thoughts often drifted to his brother.
"A month doesn't go by that it doesn't come up in the course of my own thoughts," said Martin Vogel, now 82. "But to me, it's always there: What if this? Why didn't he do this? And what happened to him? And that's what bothered me."
The Boston resident read an article last week on CNN.com about Anthony Acevedo, a World War II medic who was among 350 U.S. soldiers held in a Nazi slave camp called Berga an der Elster, where dozens of soldiers were beaten, starved and killed. Less than half survived captivity.
In the piece, Acevedo mentioned a soldier by the name of Vogel who died in his arms.
For the first time in his life, Martin Vogel was about to learn the truth about his brother's death. By week's end, he would also learn about his uncle's undying love for his brother -- and what he believes is the ultimate betrayal by the country his brother died for, the United States of America.
"You don't know how much this means," Martin Vogel said between sobs. "You don't know how much this means."
Born February 9, 1924, in Brooklyn, New York, Bernard Vogel was in his sophomore year at Brooklyn College when he was drafted for war in 1944. He arrived in the European Theater in September as a private first class in the 106th Infantry Division. He was captured by the Nazis in December of that year and first sent to a POW camp known as Stalag IX-B in Bad Orb, Germany.
From there, the Nazis separated 350 U.S. soldiers for being Jewish or "looking like Jews" and sent them to the slave camp around February 8, 1945. To this day, the U.S. Army has never officially recognized its soldiers were held as slaves inside Germany. Survivors of the camp signed documents to never speak about their captivity.
CNN put Martin Vogel in touch with Acevedo and another camp survivor, Myron Swack. Both men were able to provide details he so desperately longed for -- although the truth was often difficult to hear.
Bernard Vogel had tried to escape from the camp in early April with another soldier, Isadore "Izzy" Cohen of California. Their escape came as a surprise to the other soldiers -- neither knew German, and typically word got around if a soldier was going to make a run for it, Swack said.
"They actually escaped. They took off across a field. I didn't know they were planning to do it," Swack said.
The Germans captured both men and were intent to set an example. They knew the war was rapidly coming to an end, and they weren't about to let two soldiers get away with trying to escape.
Vogel and Cohen, both Jewish, were forced to stand in front of the barracks at Berga, with no food or water. The two American soldiers -- who had already lost about half their body weight -- stood day and night, for at least two days, before they crumpled to the ground.
"They had to stand out in front of the barracks, and we were told if anybody tried to help them, they would be killed," Swack told Martin Vogel via phone in a conference call set up by CNN. "They stood there until they collapsed, Izzy Cohen and Bernard, both."
"It must've been at least two or three days. And they weren't that strong to start off with. When they took off, I don't know what they had with them. I was kinda surprised, because I knew Bernard and I knew Izzy pretty well. And they never mentioned the fact they were even thinking about it."
At times, Martin Vogel wept during the phone conversation with Swack. "It was such a tremendous blow to me," he said.
"Yes, it was," Swack said. "I promised Izzy Cohen that I would write a letter to his wife, which I did."
By the time Bernard Vogel came into the care of Acevedo, he was near death.
"I was holding him," Acevedo told Martin Vogel in a separate call. "We were in the barracks on one of the bunks, lower bunk. And I had him in my arms. I had some food that I wanted to feed him. And he didn't want to answer. He didn't want to say nothing -- but just go. He didn't feel like he was gonna make it. He felt like he was dying. He said, 'I want to die, I want to die.' "
"Oh, my," Vogel said softly.
"I wanted to feed him, to make him eat. And he wouldn't eat at all. He was very weak. ... When he died, he went into a zone, a sleep, very slowly because he couldn't make it anymore."
It was April 9, 1945, agonizingly close to the end of the war in Europe.
At that very time Martin Vogel was guarding a German prisoner-of-war camp inside Germany, under the mandates of international law. Martin Vogel, then 17, had volunteered for service, because he wanted to be like his older brother. "We did everything together," he said.
How does it feel after six decades to learn his brother had died in the arms of a fellow soldier?
"I have been so emotional today finding it out," Vogel said. "It just brought back all these old memories. I remember my brother so well. He and I got along so well; we were only a year and a half apart. And all of a sudden, a whole past has come up in the present, and it's a very emotional situation right now."
But the story doesn't end here.
It picks up with Charles Vogel, the uncle of Bernard and Martin. A veteran of World War I, Charles Vogel was a dogged and powerful attorney who was devastated by the loss of his nephew. At the time, he was the lead attorney for Adams Hats, with a Manhattan office at 1440 Broadway.
Working pro bono, Charles Vogel contacted more than 100 survivors of the Nazi slave camp after the war and built a case against the two Berga commanders: Erwin Metz and his superior, Hauptmann Ludwig Merz. He turned over his findings to the U.S. War Department, and the material was used against Metz and Merz in a war crimes trial in Germany. Not a single Berga survivor was allowed to testify at the trial.
Metz and Merz were both sentenced to die by hanging.
But on June 11, 1948, Charles Vogel received devastating news from the U.S. War Department. "The sentence of Metz was reduced to life imprisonment and that of Merz to a term of five years. Because of the voluminousness of the record it is not possible to set forth in detail reasons for the reduction of the sentences," wrote Col. Edward H. Young, the chief of the War Crimes Branch, Civil Affairs Division, in a one-page letter.
One week later, Charles Vogel fired off a terse, four-page response, expressing outrage and urging the government to try the men again, this time allowing Berga survivors to testify about what they endured.
"The information contained in your letter of 11 June 1948 is a surprise and shock," Charles Vogel wrote.
He spent the next few months gathering signatures of dozens of "survivors of this horror and by the next-of-kin of the G.I. dead."
Charles Vogel went straight to the top of the U.S. government, pleading in a petition to President Harry Truman, Secretary of State George Marshall and Defense Secretary James Forrestal to act against "these monsters."
"The civilian prisoners received treatment on a par with that at Buchenwald and Dachau [Nazi concentration camps]. This in itself is sufficient cause for Merz and Metz to hang. The added crime that American G.I.s were treated so inhumanly magnifies their guilt. Merz and Metz were tried by the War Crimes Court and sentenced to hang," Charles Vogel said in his petition.
"We urge that you use your full powers to procure at least a RETRIAL to which American G.I. survivors can be sent to testify, if direct reversal of the commutation of their sentences cannot be obtained, so that these two barbaric murderers can receive the full justice they merit by American standards."
It's not clear if Truman ever responded, but the justice that Charles Vogel hoped for would never come. Metz had his sentence reduced again, and by the early- to mid-1950s, both men were free.
The news couldn't have sat well with Laura M. Ryan, the mother of Pfc. Harold C. Kelly of New York. She had written Charles Vogel on July 12, 1946, telling him that her beloved boy died a horrible death at Berga, a subcamp of Buchenwald where thousands of Jews and other political prisoners were killed.
"Hoping the Beasts that caused these poor boys [to suffer] will receive their proper deserts -- as a quick death, I think, is too good for them. They should be starved and beaten the same way until they are dead," Ryan wrote.
Today, Martin Vogel explains he never knew the full details of the work by "Uncle Charlie," as he calls him. He had only known that his uncle fought a legal battle for his brother and formed a group called "Berga Survivors."
"He was sort of secretive about what he had done," he said, adding, "In those days, right after this happened, I really was in no mood to talk about that."
After speaking with CNN as well as Acevedo and Swack, Martin Vogel began thinking more about his uncle. He found, buried in a closet in his house, dozens of original documents that his uncle kept -- letters from the War Department, the petition to Truman and documents from Berga survivors.
It turns out that one of the first U.S. soldiers to provide Charles Vogel with the name of the German commander at Berga was Anthony Acevedo.
"The Commander of our prison camp was a well known man in Berga. His name is Metz (Sgt. Metz)," Acevedo wrote August 21, 1946. Acevedo had also provided the U.S. War Department with the commander's name.
Six decades later, the name of Metz brings a long pause to those who survived.
"He actually murdered several GIs -- no question about it," Swack said. "He killed a friend of mine, named Morton Goldstein. Goldstein actually escaped. He spoke fluent German, and they brought him back. ... There was a bullet hole in his head. He was shot to pieces. They threw his body in front of the barracks to set an example.
"They were real butchers. They were the real bastards of the world."
In December last year, U.S. Reps. Joe Baca, D-California, and Spencer Bachus, R-Alabama, drafted legislation to finally recognize the Berga soldiers, "honoring the heroic service and sacrifice of the 350 American soldiers detained at the Nazi camp."
"Congressional recognition of these brave soldiers is long overdue," Bachus said in a written statement. "Their story is an integral part of the history of World War II, and their conduct under the most extreme and trying conditions is an enormous credit to themselves and their country."
The bill is yet to pass. Linda Macias, a spokeswoman for Baca, says, "we will continue to push on the Berga resolution."
"I think it would validate our service," said Norman Fellman, another Berga survivor. "There's a certain amount of pain involved when the country you serve fails to acknowledge the conditions under which you were kept."
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© James D. West www.IndianaMilitary.org