There is no dearth of literature on World War II and the Holocaust. But events so cataclysmic, even 60 years later, continue to inspire research into stories not yet fully told. Such is the case with Roger Cohen's Soldiers and Slaves: American POWs Trapped by the Nazis' Final Gamble. In early 1945, as Allied bombers began to wreak havoc on Germany's major cities, Nazi soldiers were ordered to construct a synthetic fuel facility outside the quaint East German village of Berga. To accomplish the necessary hard labor, 350 American GIs captured during the Battle of the Bulge were transferred to the construction site, along with a detail of Hungarian Jews who were otherwise destined for concentration camps.
Berga, it turns out, became little more than a concentration camp itself, where prisoners were beaten, starved and driven beyond their physical endurance, primarily doing the dangerous work of digging underground tunnels. Approximately 25 percent of the captured U.S. soldiers were Jewish, a fact that does not appear coincidental, and it is the intersection between the GIs and the Hungarian internees that drives this account beyond the mere numerical facts and recalls the ugly ghost of Nazi anti-Semitism.
Cohen, a former European bureau chief for The New York Times, followed the human trail of this story with the assistance of the late documentary filmmaker Charles Guggenheim, whose work helped lead Cohen to Berga survivors. Their testimony fills in the blanks about the horrific experience and the fate of those who perished. Cohen also draws upon a few published accounts as well as the records of the National Archives, which well document the awful Berga reality. That evidence includes photographs of the camp when liberated by Allied troops, reproduced here in all their stark grimness. Cohen also provides some background on individual Nazi officers at Berga, and catalogs the policies of such heinous Third Reich figures as Josef Mengele and Adolf Eichmann. This volume certainly functions as yet another reminder of the horrors of war, but its ultimate value exists as a testament to the courage of the men who endured and learned to forge on with their lives.