Soldiers and Slaves NPR coverage of Soldiers and Slaves: American POWs Trapped by the Nazis' Final Gamble by Roger Cohen. News, author interviews, critics' picks and more.
NPR logo Soldiers and Slaves

Soldiers and Slaves

American POWs Trapped by the Nazis' Final Gamble

by Roger Cohen

Hardcover, 303 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $25.95 |


Buy Featured Book

Soldiers and Slaves
American POWs Trapped by the Nazis' Final Gamble
Roger Cohen

Your purchase helps support NPR programming. How?

Book Summary

Documents the fate of 350 American POWs, captured during the Battle of the Bulge, who were singled out by the Nazis because of their Jewish origins or Jewish appearance, sent to a concentration camp as slave labor, brutalized and starved, and led on a death march that ended with liberation, and explains why their story was largely forgotten. 75,000 first printing.

Read an excerpt of this book

NPR stories about Soldiers and Slaves

Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Soldiers And Slaves

The Devil Quotes Scripture

A heavily padlocked steel door, topped by a barred vent, swings open, and from the depths of the tunnel a current of cold air is released into the summer haze. All is quiet. The White Elster River flows lazily, flies hovering at its eddying surface. On the far bank, visible through the trees, lies the small eastern German town of Berga. The tranquillity seems real. But it is an illusion.

Germany must be seen in space and in time. To see what is there, it is necessary to see what is hidden. At this spot, the tunnel extends about 150 feet into the tree-covered hillside. Water drips, some of it close by, some deep in the bluff. A few boulders and scattered rocks lie around small pools of water. The shaft, with its jagged walls of black slate, is still and damp.

But beyond the peace lies something else. The sound wells from the depths of the tunnel, advancing across the years. A sound of rending and blasting, of screeching and booming, of screams and pandemonium fills this confined space. The tunnel, perhaps twenty feet high and fifteen feet wide, is peopled now with bedraggled men, their faces blackened with dust, drilling and shoveling and heaving and loading as explosions turn the air into a lacerating gale of fine shards. The fragments penetrate the unprotected mouths of American and European prisoners of the Nazis, cutting their throats, devouring their lungs, weakening them day by day.

The Americans are young, most of them no more than twenty years old, from Ohio and Virginia, New York and California. They have been sucked into a place they cannot comprehend. It is March 1945, the war is almost over, but these GIs are dying at a rate unknown among American prisoners of war elsewhere in Europe. Each day they are herded into the tunnels. They have scarcely been fed, they have no protective clothing, and their cuts are infected, but still they must hold the heavy pneumatic drills against the rock face and bore a hole sufficiently large for the German engineers to insert dynamite.

When the explosion comes, they are pushed back deep into the tunnels. They must pick up the rocks, some of them large and unwieldy, and load them onto small carts that run on a narrow-gauge railroad track. They have no gloves. Their hands are a mess of scratches and wounds. They push the carts down to the river and empty them. If they slow down for a moment, they are beaten by the guards.

One of the Americans is Sanford M. Lubinsky of Lima, Ohio, captured by the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge and brought here because he has been identified as a Jew. Lubinsky, a private in the 28th Infantry Division, has to maneuver the drill. But sometimes his strength gives out: “My arms were coming down slowly. And so it happened that when that SS guy came through inspecting with his whip and his stick, hateful, strutting in, at that time my arms gave way and that drill came falling down. Oh, was he mad! ‘You damned Jew,’ the SS guard said.”

The SS man grabs a shovel. He hits Lubinsky in the back, crushing part of it. He kicks him when he goes down, then takes out his whip. Lubinsky curses the German; he is now beyond caring about his fate. “I didn’t care. I thought I was going anyway. The heck with him. What kept me going, I guess, was a fighting hate. I wanted to get out of there. I was going to get out somehow and kill those dirty sons of bitches.”

Every afternoon when the sun shines, four or five old women gather on a bench in the main square of Berga. The town is quiet today, too quiet. A flag flaps. Children’s voices carry from distant gardens of roses and sunflowers. An air of abandonment pervades the neighborhood. The plasterwork of the town hall is crumbling. The textile factory that once produced kit for the doped and indomitable East German Olympic team is a ghostly sprawl. A new clock scarcely uplifts a redbrick train station that has not been refurbished in decades.

In the west of Germany, after World War II, the past was quickly swept away. All the putrescent ruins of war were removed to make way for shopping centers and slabs of abstract art and homes with geranium-filled window boxes, places so anodyne, so lulled by prosperity, they speak only of a placid existence and the rewards of striving. But the east of Germany is another land. Its postwar Communist rulers could not afford to neuter history with new construction. German pain and the secrets that produced it lie closer to the surface.

Even in summer a brisk breeze may descend from the hills that cradle and conceal this somnolent town, so the women, white-haired but disarmingly vigorous, wear pale cardigans. In their bags they have cushions that they carefully place on the bench when they arrive and carefully fold away upon leaving. Habits such as this are comforting: for them, German twentieth-century life proved unpredictable. The square is also frequented, at times, by spiky-haired punks with folding aluminum scooters, but most of Berga’s youth have departed to seek work in the West. Politics here is increasingly the painstaking politics of managing pensioners.

Before Germany was unified in 1990, the men of this region worked in nearby uranium mines that provided raw material for the Soviet nuclear industry; the women worked for the textile plant. Three shifts a day kept people busy around the clock. But both industries, deprived of their markets, collapsed soon after unification, leaving a pall of gloom that the promise of capitalism has scarcely lifted.

The older people here, like these women, lived under a dictatorship, Nazi or Communist, from Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The compliant habits of mind of more than a half century are not easily overcome. The charm of this new Germany of elbowing consumers, Turkish-owned kebab joints, Thrilling Drilling body-piercing stores, and widespread unemployment tends to elude them.

For the old women, the story of Berga is principally about work—

its presence or absence. Now many people are idle. But there used to be jobs in the town, even before the war, when the textile factory was in private hands and more than a thousand people worked there. At the time, the business belonged to a family named Englander—Jews, the women note in passing, who disappeared from Berga around the time of World War II. An unhappy thing, the war. But say what you like, one woman remarks, Hitler took people off the streets and put them to work. A generation of Germans had money in their pockets for the first time. They wanted to enjoy it, they wanted to live.

It seemed possible for a time. At first Hitler’s war consisted principally of the inebriation of victory, but then came the slow encroachment of a defeat never admitted by the Führer. “Victory or Siberia” said some of the last slogans as Russian and American forces closed in on Berga: desperate bravado. It was in this latter phase, in the final spasm of Nazi rule, as things fell apart, that the war visited Berga in a particular way, one that would mark these women who were witnesses.

The first indication of unusual stirrings came in the late summer of 1944, with the arrival of SS administrative staff led by Lieutenant Willy Hack, who requisitioned the central Ratskeller Hotel as headquarters. Engineers, mining experts, and land surveyors came to Berga, too, inspecting the hills on the far side of the Elster—their topography, their rock formation, their potential to conceal a production facility in a planned underground complex of tunnels and chambers. With the onset of a bitter winter, the rumbling thunder of dynamite charges detonating in the hills could be heard as tunnels were bored.

Such a flurry of activity had been unknown in the town before then; naturally it aroused curiosity. But asking questions—the old women sigh—was dangerous. The notorious Buchenwald camp was less than sixty miles away, and ending up there was easy enough. Still, in so intimate a town, it was impossible to overlook the construction of a concentration camp, on the site of part of the textile factory, between the Elster and its tributary, the Mühlgraben.

The first prisoners destined to work in the tunnels arrived in Berga on November 12, 1944, pitiful, emaciated creatures in striped, pajama-like uniforms, their faces hollow, eyes haunted, movements halting. The women learned later that most of them were European Jews dispatched from Buchenwald. The appearance of these frail figures, aged between thirteen and sixty and barely alive, was shocking. Some of the prisoners stuck newspapers in their pants for warmth. 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 because they were so weakened. Still, their number grew to more than one thousand by the end of 1944.

In the vast complex of Nazi camps, the great sprawling labyrinth of detention and death, Berga, code name “Schwalbe 5,” amounted to a detail. It was dwarfed by the Buchenwald camp, 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, and 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 of Berga glowing among trees heavy with snow.

A memory, as these women like to describe it now, of helplessness. “Man muss alles mitmachen”—“One must participate in everything.” The prisoners were behind barbed wire 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 shake their heads—could get you in trouble with the Nazi authorities.

The explosions punctuated the night as the seventeen tunnels were mined. Hundreds of the prisoners died during the brief existence of the Berga camp. The dead, often enough, could be seen as they were trundled through town on wheelbarrows, half covered with pieces of cloth, a frail limb, already stiff, protruding here or there. Better 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 Americans 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. To this little town, Jewish American soldiers, U.S. POWs deemed to resemble Jews, so-called troublemakers, and GIs unlucky enough to be picked at random were sent by the Nazis soon after their capture, most of them at the Battle of the Bulge, which began on December 16, 1944. Arriving here on February 13, 1945, three months after that first trainload of starving prisoners from Buchenwald, many of these Americans, too, were worked to death in the last months of World War II.

Stronger on arrival than the European Jewish captives sent from Buchenwald, the Americans were appalled by the pajama-clad concentration-camp prisoners they saw, so disembodied did they seem, so unseeing, so skeletal. Some Americans said they could hear the bones of these prisoners rattling. 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 comes down to calories; calories and, in some measure, the mysteries of the mind.

So it was that beside the gently flowing Elster, 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. Here, as nowhere else, American Jews understood the fate of European Jews under Hitler. For a period of fifty-two days at Berga—from February 13 to April 5, 1945—and during a death march southward lasting more than two weeks after that, the lot of hundreds of American GIs and hundreds of Jewish survivors of Auschwitz and Buchenwald largely coincided.

To almost all Americans, the Holocaust was an idea that only coalesced after 1945, when the Nazi crime against European Jewry could be seen in its full proportions. But to this group of 350 American soldiers brought to Berga in Hitler’s last months, the crime was an immediate, agonizing reality, even if they could not grasp its scope. Of those 350 men, more than 20 percent would die in a little over two months, an attrition rate unknown among American prisoners of war elsewhere on the European continent.

These American soldiers selected for extinction did not know they were part of a last-ditch Nazi effort to offset relentless Allied bombing of German fuel facilities by building underground synthetic-fuel production centers, one of the most important of which was to be at Berga.

On May 30, 1944, in an attempt to stabilize fuel production, Hitler appointed Edmund Geilenberg as Generalkommissar für die Sofortmassnahme, or general commissar for immediate measures, at the Reich Ministry for Armament and War Production. Geilenberg’s most urgent task was the reconstruction of fuel-production factories destroyed by bombing. By June 22, 1944, German production of airplane fuel had fallen to 632 tons daily, compared with 5,645 tons on May 1. Hitler’s order called for “unrelenting energy” in the pursuit of recovered production.

Geilenberg, who had earlier been the manager of a steel factory and head of a special commission for ammunition, presented his program for the decentralization and underground production of synthetic fuel—the so-called Mineralölsicherungsplan—on August 1. It was a hugely ambitious project, given the Nazis’ plight on both the western and the eastern front by this stage of the war.

The plan called for numerous underground facilities, many with the code name Schwalbe (“swallow”), and gave the highest priority to Schwalbe 5, Berga, where jet-fighter fuel was to be produced. The tunnels were to converge on a central production facility housed in a vast underground chamber. October 1, 1945, was set as the completion date, with the last of eight Schwalbe facilities to be operational by July 1, 1946.

Hitler gave the order for thousands of concentration-camp prisoners to be used in pursuit of this fantastical plan and gave the SS the central role in the selection and exploitation of the prisoners and in the organization of construction. The SS had “full authority” to seek workers for the Geilenberg program in every concentration camp. The contractors for the project at Berga included several mining companies from the region; a firm called Brabag Zeitz was chosen to handle the future fuel production. But the SS was in charge of building the underground Berga facility and finding the workforce to do it.