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 t_he 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 become 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.