Soldiers and Slaves
American POWs Trapped by the Nazis' Final Gamble.
By Roger Cohen.
(Anchor: 2006. Pg. 336.)
Reviewed by Anna Dogole - August 22, 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.
Soldiers and Slaves - American POWs Trapped by the Nazis' Final Gamble, by Roger Cohen, is only the second book to have been written about the men enslaved at Berga. The first was Given Up For Dead - American GI's in the Nazi Concentration Camp at Berga, by Flint Whitlock which was released just a few short months before Soldiers and Slaves. The two books share a lot in common. Both provided a strategic overview of the events that led to the capture of the men who were eventually sent to Berga and both are based in large part upon eye witness testimony and recently released documents. While both these books cover much of the same ground, they serve to compliment each other, rather than to dilute the message of each. Of the two, Given Up for Dead focuses more on the military aspects that led to the capture of the men who were eventfully sent to Berga, and the bravery and perseverance that they displayed while prisoners. Soldiers and Slaves, on the other hand, takes a more personal approach, looking at the emotional response the men had to their enslavement, and the toll that these events took upon them. Cohen also provides detailed descriptions of the day-to-day life of the men in Berga.
The American POWs sent to Berga were selected by one of three criteria - they were known to be Jewish, they looked 'Jewish' or had a Jewish sounding name, or they were non-Jews who the Germans deemed to be trouble makers. The POWs sent to the Berga Concentration camp where first housed in a regular POW camp. However after their 'selection' they were removed from the general population as they awaited transportation, in cattle cars, to their new 'home' where they were transformed from American POWs to nameless Jewish slave laborers who were to be worked and starved to death.
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 with political and Jewish prisoners from a nearby camp. 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. Of the men sent to Berga, at least 73 men died, and the death toll was likely higher. Had they not been captured in the waning weeks of the war, it is likely that few if any of the men would have survived. Even worse, as liberation approached, the survivors were forced on death marches to nowhere. Those lucky enough to have survived, like all survivors of the Holocaust, had to live with life long scars, both mental and physical.
One of the most astonishing aspects of Soldiers and Slaves was not the atrocities that the Nazis carried out - their persecution of the servicemen at Berga was similar to that meted out to Jews throughout Europe - although it was unique in that this was the only case in which the Nazis sent American POWs to a concentration camp. What is astounding is that fact that after the war, the American government and the military took active steps to cover up the events that occurred at Berga. The survivors were forced to sign confidentiality statements swearing never to speak of their captivity, the perpetrators were let off with, at most, a slap on the wrist, and steps where taken to severely curtail any investigation into the atrocities at Berga.
In Soldiers and Slaves, Cohen provides an in-depth overview of how this cover-up was carried out - and why it was deemed necessary to do so. In addition to detailing the lives of the men enslaved at Berga, and what they endured there, Cohen also offers a glimpse into their lives after Berga, and the different means by which the men dealt with what they had endured and witnessed.
Soldiers and Slaves is an important addition to the body of knowledge about the Holocaust and American Military history. The narrative is compelling and gripping. The only drawback to this book is that it is written in a very staccato style that prevents the narrative from flowing smoothly. Overall, Soldiers and Slaves helps to expand our knowledge about one of the more under-reported aspects of the Holocaust and belongs along side such important works as Forgotten Victims - The Abandonment of Americans in Hitler's Camps, by Mitchell Bard.
Given Up For Dead, by Flint Whitlock.
The history of the mostly Jewish 'American GI's in the Nazi Concentration Camp at Berga'.
Auschwitz: A New History, by Laurence Rees.
A sweeping history Auschwitz, the notorious death camp. This account includes information garnered from more than a hundred interviews that Rees conducted with both camp survivors and Nazi perpetrators.