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 the 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 becoming 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.
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