Given Up for Dead
American GI’s in the Nazi Concentration Camp at Berga
During World War II, prisoners of war were required by the Geneva Convention of 1929 to be treated to established rules of warfare. For the most part, the Nazis followed the rules. But in late 1944, when a large number of Americans were taken prisoner during the Battle of the Bulge and elsewhere, their captors had different plans for those Americans who were Jewish or from some other “undesirable” ethnic or religious group. Instead of being incarcerated in regular POW camps, several hundred were separated from their fellow captives and sent to the brutal slave-labor camp at Berga-an-der-Elster in southeastern Germany.
Until now, the story of what these men endured has been largely untold. Given Up for Dead chronicles the experience of Americans at Berga. Here is an incredible tale of survival against overwhelming odds, inhuman living and working conditions, and the imminent prospect of annihilation during a 300-kilometer death march in the last few weeks of the war designed to keep them out of the hands of the approaching, liberating Allies. That these men willed themselves to stay alive is an amazing testimony to the resiliency of the human spirit.
Using gripping first-person accounts and definitive factual narration that was hidden for so many years (the soldiers were ordered never to speak of their treatment at Berga for reasons that are still unclear), Given Up for Dead exposes a little-known chapter in the history of World War II.
The train from Bad Orb arrived at the Berga bahnhof on 13 February 1945. The unloading from the boxcars followed the familiar routine: orders being shouted in German by armed guards, the barking of dogs, the quick inspection of the foul cars to see if anyone inside was dead or feigning death, the usual roll call. The POWs were then herded at bayonet point down a ramp at the south end of the station and sent marching along the street.
Almost directly across from the station was a large concentration camp that held a thousand gaunt European political prisoners–European Jews–dressed in the traditional blue-and-white striped uniforms.
To Sergeant Norman Fellman, the faces of the faces of the political prisoners staring as the Americans trudged by burned themselves indelibly into his psyche. “There were these civilians packed in there with their striped pajama-type uniforms,” he said. “They were packed against the fence–there must have been a thousand of them. They were deathly silent, not a sound out of them. Skinny human beings with huge eyes. Their eyes were the most dominating feature–just watching us in total silence. I will never forget it–the saddest eyes I’ve ever seen in my life.”
“Whitlock is to be applauded for retelling this grim but gripping tale in this compelling narrative. The dramatic story is on a small scale, but the issues touched go to the heart of history harshest war.”
– Eric M. Bergerud
Professor of military and American history, University of Oakland
“The subject of American prisoners of war incarcerated not in POW camps but in Nazi concentration and slave-labor camps has been under-researched until now. Flint Whitlock has changed the situation…. He tells not only the broader contextual story, but more importantly the many individual stories that make this book a powerful and moving experience for the reader.”
– Brewster Chamberlain
Former Director of Archives, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum,
“Military historian Flint Whitlock offers an account enriched by the voices of many of the GIs who, captured at the Battle of the Bulge, were spirited away to work in the mines of southeastern Germany…. He provides useful backstory on the Battle of the Bulge and how the GIs were captured in the first place. The best parts here…are straight from the mouths of the inmates. One remembers, for instance, that when the Americans objected to the segregation of Jewish soldiers, a German came back with: ‘Well, after all, don’t you separate blacks from whites in [your] own army?’ Another, a Catholic, recounts that the non-Jews among the contingent of GIs sent into slavery could not understand how he had been picked for the duty. ‘We all had one thing in common, though,’ he concludes, we were all “undesirable.” ‘ A third recalls that the slaves of Berga worked on rations of 400 to 600 calories a day–and, as if that were not bad enough, had to deal with brutal guards. ‘There were no gas chambers in Berga,’ one German Jew who had survived Auschwitz and then been moved there noted, ‘but there were other killings.’
– Kirkus Reviews
“Whitlock provides a fine account of the Battle of the Bulge and experiences of the POWs. Relying on oral testimony by Berga veterans, augmented by documentation from the U.S. Army’s Dachau Trials, he tells the prisoners’ stories from their moment of induction into the U.S. military through liberation and repatriation. Numerous photographs and maps lend immediacy to the text. The author took many of these photos while visiting Berga and related sites in 2004.
“Berga was the deadliest work detachment for American captives in Germany. 73 men who participated, or 21 percent of the detachment, perished in two months. 80 of the 350 POWs were Jews…. In this work, Whitlock provides a case study in the breakdown of the Geneva Convention of 1929 that integrates the POWs’ training and combat experiences into the narrative, a factor often overlooked in POW studies.”
Joseph Robert White, University of Maryland
H-Net Humanities and Social Sciences Online
ISBN 0-8133-4288-0 (hardcover)