POWs Held In Concentration Camps Still Seek Justice

Germany has reportedly agreed to pay compensation to Americans who were sent to concentration camps in World War II. For one little-known group of soldiers who were sent to one of the worst of these camps, the settlement marks the end of more than 50 years of seeking recognition for what was done to them not only from the Germans, but from the United States government.

American Jewish soldiers were sent into battle with an “H” on their dog tags identifying them as “Hebrews,” thereby putting them at grave risk if they were captured. Hundreds were taken prisoner during the Battle of the Bulge and sent to Stalag 9B, the POW camp at Bad Orb near Frankfurt. In January 1945, the commandant ordered all Jewish prisoners to identify themselves. When they did not quickly come forward, the commandant threatened to shoot any Jews in the barracks after 24 hours, and anyone trying to hide or protect them.

Approximately 130 Jews came forward. The Germans had a quota of 350 men for a “work detail,” and filled the remainder with prisoners considered “troublemakers,” those they thought were Jewish and others chosen at random. On February 8, this group was placed in trains under conditions similar to those faced by European Jews deported to concentration camps.

The POWs were taken to Berga, a small German town on the Elster River near the Czech border, where 1,800 slave laborers from a Buchenwald subcamp were assigned to dig a series of tunnels for an underground armament factory. This was to be the principal job of the Americans as well. Unlike POWs in other camps — and in total disregard for the Geneva Convention — the inmates of Berga were forced to perform the kind of slave labor used by the Nazis to kill Jews slowly.

The POWs were made to work twelve hours a day; they were frequently beaten and suffered horribly from malnourishment and disease. Two men were shot “trying to escape.”

The Americans understood the risk of capture, but still were not psychologically equipped to become victims of Hitler’s campaign to rid the world, not just Europe, of Jews. It was hard enough for a soldier to see a comrade die suddenly on the battlefield, but it was something else again to see a once vital young man worn down to the point where he expires.

By the time the POWs were liberated, less than three months after arriving in Berga, nearly 20 percent of the men were dead, the highest fatality rate of any camp where Americans were held in Europe.

None of the former POWs were recognized for their courage or the ordeals they endured, and medical science was inexperienced in dealing with their emotional trauma. Many found their tales of horror were met with disbelief or denial. One Berga survivor was sent to a psychiatrist because the army thought he was fabricating the whole story.

Two German officers were eventually tried for crimes committed against the POWs in Berga. Not one of the American victims was brought to the trial to testify. Still, the Germans were found guilty and sentenced to hang. Six years later, their sentences were commuted to time served.

For nearly four years, the Berga survivors had to battle their own government for recognition. It became clear to everyone involved that the State Department was far more concerned with avoiding upsetting the Germans than in seeking justice for its citizens. Even now, we are told that the reparations payments may be delayed for months while the German government dithers over the total amount it will send to the United States. The delaying tactics of both governments have meant that many POWs did not live to hear that their suffering was finally acknowledged and several more will probably not be around when the checks finally arrive.

What is even more outrageous is that the victims in the truest sense, those who died in Berga, were not even eligible to apply for compensation. Their families have only the proud memories of the sacrifices their loved ones made for this country and the agonizing knowledge that the government of that country was unwilling to seek justice on their behalf.

We like to say that justice delayed is justice denied. Well, for the POWs and other Americans who were sent to Hitler's camps, compensation cannot be equated with justice.