Berga: Soldiers of Another War
World War II. My company… I can remember their faces just like yesterday. They went overseas and I didn’t, and some of them didn’t come back. I’ve been thinking about it for 50 years, wondering why it didn’t happen to me. That’s why I had to tell this story.
– Charles Guggenheim, Filmmaker
BERGA: SOLDIERS OF ANOTHER WAR, a documentary film revealing Nazi Holocaust atrocities inflicted on 350 American POWs “classified” as Jewish, airs on PBSWednesday, May 28, 2003, (check local listings). The 90-minute film is the final work in the long and distinguished career of the late documentary filmmaker Charles Guggenheim. The four-time Academy Award-winner wrote and directed the film, and because of his personal connection to the story, also narrated in the first person for the only time in his career.
Thousands of American GIs, including soldiers in Guggenheim’s 106th Infantry Division, were captured by the Nazis during the Battle of the Bulge. Those “identified” as Jewish — along with fellow GIs who “looked Jewish” or had“Jewish-sounding” last names — were selected to fulfill a quota and shipped off to a satellite of the notorious concentration camp at Buchenwald, where they suffered harrowing atrocities as slave laborers. Guggenheim, who had remained stateside with a debilitating infection during the final months of the war, carried with him a personal and moral obligation for more than 50 years to tell this untold story for his comrades who did not return and for those who have lived with the horror of their experience. While completing the film, Guggenheim faced a heroic battle of his own with terminal cancer. He died six weeks after the film was finished.
BERGA: SOLDIERS OF ANOTHER WAR sheds light on a little-known fact of World War II: imprisoned American GIs were forced to work alongside slave laborers from Nazi concentration camps. The film, shot entirely in black and white, tells the story through on-camera testimony by survivors and eyewitnesses, archival photographs and film, and re-enactment footage. Many scenes are recreated at original historic locations, using young East German locals to portray the American soldiers. The recreations capture the inhuman boxcar transport, slave laborers tunneling through quartz rock, brutal Nazi guards, austere prison conditions, abandoned corpses, makeshift burials in bleak and snowy fields and churchyards, the massive, forced slave labor march of prisoners away from advancing Allies and finally the GIs’ liberation.
After the war, Guggenheim tried to locate a friend from the 106th Division, but discovered he had died in captivity in a German salt mine. The salt mine turned out to be the slave labor camp at Berga, a small town in eastern Germany. After two-and-a-half years of extensive research, Guggenheim found 124 survivors and witnesses. Forty agreed to be interviewed. Many revealed that they had repressed their memories for more than 50 years and never talked about their imprisonment, not even to spouses and family members.
In December 1944, thousands of American soldiers captured during the Battle of the Bulge were transported to Stalag 9B, a prisoner-of-war camp northwest of Frankfurt, Germany. A military order commanded all Jewish soldiers to identify themselves. After the Americans refused to comply, Nazi guards selected GIs they “identified” as Jewish, thought “looked Jewish,” had “Jewish-sounding” last names or whom they classified as undesirables. Fewer than one-third of the American soldiers selected were, in fact, Jewish. Packed into railway boxcars with no food, water or toilets, they were transported further into the German countryside. Five days later, they arrived at Berga, a satellite of the concentration camp at Buchenwald.
The Americans were put to work alongside European concentration camp prisoners and forced to dig tunnels into rock cliffs that together would form an underground military factory. They were ridiculed, intimidated, beaten, denied heat, given insufficient water and fed substandard provisions. Many died of injuries, malnutrition, disease and exhaustion. Several were fatally shot by guards for no apparent reason. Some went mad.
By April 1945, as the Allies advanced, the S.S. ordered the evacuation of the camp. Surviving prisoners were marched through rain, snow and bitter cold on a 150-mile procession of death. Those unable to keep up were abandoned or shot, and those who died were buried in roadside graves or Christian church cemeteries. The nightmare finally ended on April 23, 1945, when advancing American units came upon and liberated the surviving prisoners. The war in Europe was over five weeks later.
Charles Guggenheim received 12 Academy Award nominations and won four Oscars for his films Nine From Little Rock, RFK Remembered, The Johnstown Flood and A Time for Justice. He also won the George Foster Peabody Award.
Quite an interesting program on the use of Jewish American POWs (350 taken, but according to one on the show, only 80 were actually Jewish...the rest were "suspected" as being Jewish or classified as "undesirables").