'Soldiers and Slaves' Details Saga of Jewish POWs

Image of captive American soldier from cover of Cohen's book

Image from the cover of Roger Cohen's book. Knopf hide caption

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Roger Cohen's book Soldiers and Slaves tells the story of 350 American GIs sent to labor camps by the Germans during World War II. They were Jewish or suspected of being Jews. More than 70 died in captivity. Cohen and camp survivor Gerald Daub discuss the book.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Of the American soldiers captured by Germany in World War II, one group suffered more than most. This group of several hundred was taken aside because they were Jews or suspected of being Jews. The journalist Roger Cohen investigated their fate by traveling to the town where they ended up.

Mr. ROGER COHEN (Journalist): So I went down to Berga, a little town in the East. It was a snowy day. Berga is kind of last place you can feel 1945 almost as if it was yesterday because everything had been frozen in time by communism. And I saw these sealed tunnels where the US GIs had been put to work as slave laborers.

INSKEEP: These Americans had become part of the Holocaust. They were being worked to death digging tunnels for a secret underground fuel plant. Their work began in the war's last months, and German guards forced them to continue even as Nazi Germany collapsed all around them. For this Memorial Day, we spoke to Roger Cohen and to one of the Americans who survived, Gerald Daub, a native of Brooklyn.

Mr. GERALD DAUB (Brooklyn Native): I was an infantryman in World War II. And during the Battle of the Bulge, I was captured with the rest of my infantry company in a little town called Rimling(ph), which was on the marginal--just between the marginal Seigfried lines. And I was brought to a...

INSKEEP: This is the middle of winter, brutal battle, a brutal German attack.

Mr. DAUB: It was January the 8th to be exact, the day I was captured. And the rest of my company was captured the next morning.

INSKEEP: What did you see when you first arrived at Berga?

Mr. DAUB: We got off the boxcars in the middle of town at the railroad station. And almost immediately, as we walked away from the boxcars, we saw a compound with political prisoners, assumably mostly Jews, behind a wire fence looking ghostlike, deathlike, very little reaction, no smiles, no talking, nothing; just staring.

INSKEEP: It must have taken a little while to sink in that you were looking at these forlorn people on the other side of the wire that was pretty much you, that was going to be you.

Mr. DAUB: That was going to be us. We didn't know it at the time, but that was going to be us in a very short period of time.

Mr. COHEN: In fact, one survivor, Sidney Lipson, who was brought to Berga, told me that he asked himself as he went by, `Is that going to be us?' And within a matter of weeks, he got his answer. The fact is when the number of calories going in is so much less than the amount being expended when you're being worked in absolutely cruel conditions in tunnels, it doesn't take very long to go down from the 160 to 170 pounds that most of these American GIs weighed on arrival at Berga to the 80 to 90 pounds that they weighed upon their release, those that survived, 10 weeks later.

INSKEEP: What was the work like?

Mr. DAUB: Basically, the mountain was a rock mountain, and we were digging these stone tunnels through it. The working conditions were absolutely horrible. As we would pass by groups of Jewish political prisoners or working along the side of this mountain, they were organizing gangs, lifting rails, extending these little rail cart lines. They were forced to beat each other when they fell, and they made each other work until they could work no more. It was my vision of hell. It was Dante's inferno.

Mr. COHEN: The cruelty also of Erwin Metz, who was the German in direct command of the US GIs at Berga, was something quite extraordinary. Metz had been a petty criminal before the war. But war, as you know, Steve, is not only hell; it's also opportunity. And this mediocre criminal rose to a level where he was in command of the Americans. And when, after a week or two, they started complaining of sickness and weakness, what he would often do would be to empty a bottle of ice cold water over them to see how they would react. How they would react would very often be to die within the next day or two.

INSKEEP: What do you think the difference was between those of you who survived and those of you who did not?

Mr. DAUB: Some of it willpower; some of it just not being willing to die. You could actually see a man on the night before that he would be dead by tomorrow. He had this ghostlike, drawn look in his face, vacant eyes, and you just knew that he would not survive through the morning. So I think one of the things was survival. For me, probably the greatest thing was a young man by the name of Bob. He was captured the day after I was, and he was my best buddy in prison camp. We protected each other, we helped each other. When one couldn't walk, the other one would help the other one.

INSKEEP: Roger Cohen, having interviewed so many survivors, what do you think about that?

Mr. COHEN: I think there were two essential emotions that helped in survival as far as I could make out. One was love, the love of families that these guys--again, mostly age between 18 and 22--wanted to see again. They were damned if they were not going to see their families again. And the other was hatred, hatred of their tormentors, hatred of these Germans lording it over them and forcing them to work in these bastille conditions. And there's a man named Sandy Lubinsky in the book, and for him, hatred really came to him in moments when, as Gerry just described, he wanted to drift away because drifting away in those circumstances is often--seems, I think, like the easier thing to do, a form of relief. But Lubinsky would say to himself, `I'm not going to be buried in German soil. I don't want to be buried here.' And that roused him to push forward and survive.

INSKEEP: Roger Cohen is the author of the book "Soldiers and Slaves: American POWs Trapped by the Nazis' Final Gamble." Thanks very much.

Mr. COHEN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Gerald Daub was an American soldier and a survivor of the Berga Camp. Thank you.

Mr. DAUB: Thank you, sir.

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American POWs Trapped by the Nazis' Final Gamble

by Roger Cohen

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