Berga: American P.O.W.'s Nazi Inferno
by Staff Writer
Charles Guggenheim who died recently was one of the great acclaimed internationally celebrated documentary film director-writer-narrator based on Washington, D.C. He won many prestigious prizes and the Oscar as well. But for almost fifty years, he has entertained a personal dream, a mission, to return to his experience as an American P.O.W. in World War II, a victim of the Nazi POW inferno, a victim of the Nazi practice to divide POW's to Gentile and Jew or those poor gentiles who looked Jewish, classified as Jews according to the Nazi "race science." Charles Guggenheim was one of these POW's victims of the Nazi de-humanization process, satanic behavior. There was a story that the Nazi's often restrained their cruelty because they were afraid of retaliation against German POW's. But Charles Guggenheim knew the truth. The Nazis never had mercy for their victims, for the Jews. Almost two weeks before his death, Guggenheim managed to finish his last documentary film, his fifty year old dream. He wrote and directed Berga Soldiers of Another War, which celebrates its national premiere on Channel 13 (WNET), NYC, Wed., May 28th at 8:00 PM.
It is certainly a unique touching illuminating original documentary made by a film genius. This is Guggenheim's professional will, a legacy to us who espouse the slogan: "Never again." Of course, anti-Semitism is alive and well. Muslim terrorists, Arab-Palestinian terrorists still repeat the Nazi practice of dividing their victims to Jews and Gentiles. The recent example was the murder of Daniel Perl, the Wall Street Journal's journalist who was first signaled out as a Jew, murdered in Pakistan.
The Berga's story is based on the fact that in December 1944, the Germans captured thousands of American soldiers. Although the Nazis realized that the war was over (May 8, 1945) they did not change their minds about murdering the Jews. They searched for Jewish looking people, Jewish sounding names and then segregated them from the other POW's. These Jews were transported to Berga, a satellite of the concentration camp of Buchenwald. The POW's found themselves in the belly of the Nazi inferno. Many died because of malnutrition or disease, many were murdered by the Nazi guards who never hears about the Geneva Convention or international law. Many also died during the process of the camp's evacuation. This inferno was stopped only on April 23, 1945, only two weeks before the end of World War II. The story of this POW inferno has not been told until Charles Guggenheim decided to journey into the past which many survivors have tried to forget. He researched, wrote, directed, and narrated. Grace Guggenheim, a famous producer, was the producer of this film. Stephen Seagaller, Executive Producer for Channel 13, also contributed to the success of this film. The film has a companion website (www.pbs.org/berga) which includes the following highlights: GI stories, interactive experiences, what would you do?, what did they do?, interactive map, Berga and beyond, war crimes, issues about the film, educational components and resources. Also stimulated by this film, New York Time's foreign editor, Roger Cohen, wrote a book about Berga to be published by Alfred Knopf later this year. Berga, today, is a small town on the Elster River, in the eastern part of United Germany.
Guggenheim took a tough challenge. Many of his POW friends died. But he was lucky to find 124 survivors. Only 40 agreed to tell their testimony. Others refused to share their World War II experiences even with their own families. Guggenheim himself was in the 106th Division, Infantry Regiment, Company E, Second Battalion Company. Indeed Guggenheim invested a huge energy in his field research. He told historian David McCullough, who asked him about the state of cooperation with the POW survivors: "Most of them, with mitigating circumstances did. The thing that saved us was the National Archives, which had a list of everybody who was at Berga at the slave labor camp some obscure document. And we knew there are still records at the Veterans Administration. They said, "We'll tell you if they're living, but we won't tell you where they are, because that's a violation of privacy." So we took a circuitous route we had help from someone on the Hill who wrote to them to see if they'd be interested in doing this film. We got a pretty good response 30 or 40 percent said they'd participate. And we had great help from an army captain, Mac O'Quinn, who I'll always be indebted to. He was doing a thesis on this story and he helped us find these people."
The following is the story of the inferno of Berga, a Nazi slaughter house for those who were Jews, for those who were not Jewish but their fate was to suffer and die as Jews, an irony of history which could have been born only in the degenerate mind of Nazi Germany: "The first prisoners arrived in Berga on November 12, 1944, pitiful, emaciated creatures in striped pajama-like uniforms, their faces hollow, eyes haunted, movements halting. Most of them were Jews who had been dispatched from Buchenwald. Still, the appearance of these frail figures, aged between 13 and 60, more dead than alive, was shocking. Some of the prisoners stuck newspapers in their pants to keep warm; others put papers around their necks. As a slave labor force, brought to Berga to dig tunnels into the hills, these men left much to be desired. Still, their number grew to over 1,000 inmates by the end of 1944. "In the vast complex of the Nazi camps, the great sprawling labyrinth of detention and death, mayhem and murder, Berga, code name "Schwalbe 5," amounted to a detail. It was dwarfed by the Buchenwald camp alone, which held 84,500 prisoners at its Weimar complex by the fall of 1944. The Berga camp did not appear on most World War II maps, its activities were secret and its existence little known. After the war, Berga was subsumed into the Soviet-controlled part of Germany; nobody asked too many questions about its ephemeral little hell. But the camp lived on in these old women's minds, a discomfiting memory shoved aside, awakened only occasionally, perhaps by a wartime photograph of a lighted swastika in the main square flowing among trees heavy with snow.
A memory, as these women like to describe it now, of helplessness. "Mann muss mit alles mitmachen" - "One must live through everything somehow." The prisoners were behind barbed wire, after all, or cordoned off by guards and dogs as they marched. It was impossible to talk to them, let alone help them. When shifts changed they could be seen crossing the Elster, trudging slowly out toward the tunnels being mined in the hills. If ever they passed nearby, the prisoners would put their hands to their mouths, a silent shriek for food. When they could, they would pick from the streets oats intended for the horses, or a discarded piece of potato peel, or an eggshell. Some local women, like Marie Scheffel, would spill buckets of oats as the prisoners passed. But that sort of impetuous gesture the women shook their heads could get you in trouble with the authorities. Throughout the days and nights of that bitter winter, the dynamite charges detonating in the tunnels in the hills could be heard. Hundreds of the prisoners laboring there died an average of more than two a day during the brief existence of the Berga camp. The dead, often enough, could be seen as they were trundled on wheelbarrows past the goods station, half covered with pieces of cloth, a frail limb, already stiff, protruding here or there. It was best not to look too closely. War makes you mute in the end. Most of the corpses were dumped in a mass grave in the woods on the other side of town, a place still known as the Jewish cemetery. The old women do not know if all the dead were Jews; the place simply took, and kept, that name. But, when asked, they say they do know that many American GIs were among the imprisoned at Berga and among those who died here.
In fact, Berga's little secret is that it was perhaps the most intense killing field for American prisoners of war in Europe, a place where Jewish American soldiers, and others deemed to resemble Jews, or simply to be "troublemakers," were sent by the Nazis soon after their capture, most of them at the Battle of the Bulge that began on December 16, 1944. Arriving here on February 13, 1945, three months after that first trainload of starving prisoners from Buchenwald, these Americans, too, were worked to death in the last months of World War II. The Americans stronger on arrival than the European captives sent from Buchenwald initially called the pajama-clad, concentration camp prisoners they saw "zombies," as they were so disembodied, unseeing and skeletal. But the GIs, too, quickly learned the inexorable arithmetic of Nazi "Vernichtung durch Arbeit" -- "Destruction through work": when, day after day, the outlay of energy exceeds that consumed, the body wastes away. In the end, survival came down to calories, calories and, of course the mysteries of the mind. So it was that beside the gently flowing Elster River, as virtually nowhere else in Europe, the fate of captured GIs and persecuted European Jewry intersected, middle America and Mitteleuropa briefly joined in a dance of death. To almost all Americans, the Holocaust was an idea that coalesced after 1945: the immensity of the Nazi crime against European ~Jewry took form in its full proportions once it was completed. But to a group of 350 American soldiers brought to Berga in Hitler's last months, the crime was an immediate, agonizing reality. Of those 350 men, 70 would die in the space of two months, an attrition rate of 20 percent, one unknown among American prisoners of war elsewhere on the European continent."
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