The Nazi death camps were populated by “Jews and so-called troublemakers”—and at the very end of WWII, writes Cohen (Hearts Grown Brutal, 1998), by Americans who fit the description.
Award-winning New York Times correspondent Cohen opens still-fresh wounds at a time when influential German historians are calling for closure to the inconvenient matter of the Holocaust. “Germany wants to look forward. It wants above all to be ‘normal,’ ” he writes. “But in almost every German family there is a locked drawer, a place where some secret is kept.” The eastern German town of Berga harbored more than its share of secrets, for as the Allied armies were advancing on all sides, the SS hastened to build an underground synthetic-fuel production facility there. A low-level officer named Willy Hack was put in charge of the operation, and when the emaciated Jewish prisoners he requisitioned from nearby Buchenwald proved “incapable of productive effort,” he found a new supply of slave laborers in Americans taken prisoner at the Battle of the Bulge. Throughout the winter of 1944–45, some 350 of them worked alongside European prisoners in the mine galleries of Berga; most were American Jews carefully singled out for extermination, but the rest were those alleged troublemakers “and others simply grabbed at random.” The conditions were among the most brutal American POWs were ever forced to endure, though odd moments of humanity punctuated their captivity, as when the citizens of Berga sent the prisoners Christmas cookies and occasionally smuggled other food to them. While the Russian army advanced, the surviving Americans were marched west; dozens died along the way. Amazingly, Cohen writes, only days after being liberated by US troops, the survivors were required to sign security clearances that demanded that they remain silent about their imprisonment; one later guessed that the order “was expedient given the desire not to embarrass the German government” at the dawn of the Cold War—and so the men of Berga were forgotten.
Cohen’s superb history restores them to memory.