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Given Up For Dead

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Given Up For Dead
American GI's in the Nazi Concentration Camp at Berga. By Flint Whitlock. (Westview Press, A Member of the Perseus Books Group: New York: 2005. Pg. xvi, 283. Illustrated) ISBN: 0-8133-4288-0.

Reviewed by Anna Dogole - June 13, 2005

For many people, the first time they ever heard of the concentration camp at Berga came via a PBS documentary that first aired in 2003, called Berga: Soldiers of a Different War. For decades, information about this camp, and the American service men that were incarcerated in it, has been shrouded in mystery. The horrific events that occurred there were obscured by secrecy agreements and a political consensus to cover up the truth about the 350 American prisoners-of-war that lived, and were worked to death, in the Berga concentration camp, located near Berga-an-der-Elster, in Germany.

In Given Up For Dead. American GI's in the Nazi Concentrations Camp at Berga, Based on the personal testimonies of the GI's enslaved at Berga, Flint Whitlock provides a candid and in-depth overview their experiences. He details who the men of Berga were, how they came to be Prisoners of War, the slave labor they were forced to perform, the horrific conditions under which they struggled for survival, and the aftermath of their liberation. For the prisoners of Berga, their travails began in December of 1944...

The 106th Infantry Division consisted of ill trained, ill equipped, and untried soldiers. When the Division arrived in France the men where immediately transferred to the front, without a chance to get acclimated to being on dry land or to be issued winter gear. The 106th was deployed near the town of St. Vith in Belgium, and within days of reaching their position, they found themselves taking the full brunt of the enemy's Operation Nordwind, a last ditch offensive by the Germans. Despite being taken by surprise, and despite their inexperience, the men of the 106th fought bravely and managed to delay the German's entry into St. Vith. This offensive was later to become known as the Battle of the Bulge.

Thousands of American soldiers were killed, and thousands more captured as German soldiers overran their positions. For the men of the 106th that were captured, most of the enlisted soldiers wound up at Stalag IX-B, a POW camp located in Germany near Bad Orb.

Whitlock provides compelling details about how the 106th Infantry Division was formed, why they were rushed to St. Vith, and a detailed overview of the battle that led to so many men being captured. He also provides brief biographical sketches of some the men of the 106th. From here, he follows the men as they are transported to Stalag IX-B. He examines what life was like for them in the POW camp, and how conditions deteriorated as the fighting in the Ardennes Forest intensified and more soldiers were taken prisoners.

For most of the prisoners, being taken as a POW was disheartening and uncomfortable, but for many of the Jewish soldiers, an added fear permeated their capture. They had to have asked themselves; "Will I be treated like an American POW, or like any other Jew that had the misfortune to fall into the clutches of the Nazis?" This was a fear that was all too real. As conditions at the POW camp deteriorated, the Germans demanded that all Jewish prisoners identify themselves as such. A few men stepped forward, but many more tried to keep their religious identity secret, having heard of the atrocities being carried out against the Jews of Europe.

To this group of men who identified themselves as Jewish, the Germans also singled out all men with what they thought were Jewish sounding names, or Jewish features, and isolated them in a special, barbed-wire enclosed barracks. To this group were added soldiers that were identified as Catholic and a handful of 'misfits' that were causing trouble in the camp. When the ranks of this contingent reached 350, the men were shipped to the concentration camp at Berga.

The men arrived in Berga, a sub-camp of the Buchenwald Concentration camp, on 13 February, 1945. In Berga the men were systematically starved, denied medical care, and forced to perform grueling and dangerous labor digging tunnels along side of political prisoners from a nearby camp. Whitlock chronicles the conditions that they were forced to endure, the brutal treatment they received from their guards, and the general disregard for the rules for treatment of POWs as outlined in the Geneva Convention. The slave labor that the men where forced to perform, and the conditions that they lived in, took both a mental and physical toll on the men, and many did not survive.

In gripping detail, Whitlock illustrates the thin line that separated life from death at Berga, and the efforts that men made to survive just another day longer. Whitlock also chronicles the forced death march (Totenmarsch) that the German's forced the remaining POWs to endure during the last few days of the war, and how the men came to be liberated. For most, this occurred on April 13, 1945. Of the 350 American GI's that entered Berga, only about 140-60 were still alive when they were liberated five months later.

Given Up For Dead provides a telling account of the events leading up to the capture of these men, and the hair-raising account of what they endured during their time as slave laborers. Perhaps most telling, Whitlock provides an account of how the men where treated after they were liberated, ranging from the efforts extended to help them recover from their physical wounds to the coercion used to make many of the men sign secrecy agreements that prevented them from ever talking about their experiences while POW's. Whitlock provides some insights into why the United States wanted Berga kept secret, but is unable to fully answer the question as to why knowledge about the Nazi concentration camp at Berga is only now beginning to come to light. It is a question that may never fully be answered.

Given Up For Dead is a compelling, hard-hitting book that is instrumental in helping to tell the stories of the soldiers who endured the horrors of Berga, and what their lives were like afterwards. The testimony and courage of these men is awe inspiring and their story adds another piece to the puzzle regarding the full extend of the Nazis' hatred of Jews and other groups that they deemed unsuited for life in their hellish utopia. The story of the GI's that were imprisoned in Berga is an important one, both as a detail of military history and as an account of courage under the worst of conditions. Whitlock's account of their travails is well written and does honor to the men of Berga who have, until recently, been all but forgotten.

Related Reviews:

Soldiers and Slaves: American POWs Trapped by the Nazis' Final Gamble, by Roger Cohen.
The unforgettable story of the 350 mostly Jewish, American POWs, captured during the Battle of the Bulge, who were sent to the Nazi Concentration of Camp at Berga where they were forced to work as slave laborers.

Ghost Soldiers: The Forgotten Epic Story of World War II's Most Dramatic Mission, By Hampton Sides.
Ghost Soldiers chronicles the daring rescue, from behind enemy lines, of 513 survivors of the Bataan Death March.

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