Ex-GIs recall Nazis singling them out as Jews Experience of U.S. POWs at Berga considered an anomaly

January 02, 1993|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Staff Writer

NORTH CALDWELL, N.J. -- Mike Swack rarely spoke of it. What was there to say beyond this: that, as a prisoner of war, he had survived the brutality of a Nazi labor camp, the near starvation, the evacuation march that littered the German roadside with emaciated, dead GIs.

In the 47 years since Mr. Swack, a lice-bitten, malnourished Army infantry private, stumbled into the arms of his U.S. liberators, this former Ohio farm boy has seen little reason to speak of his days at Berga on the Elster River in eastern Germany. "I was happy for having survived. . . . I never looked back," he says.

But now Myron J. Swack, a department chairman at a suburban New Jersey college, and a small group of Americans do want to talk about the unique place they hold in the annals of World War II: They were among the only U.S. prisoners of war to be singled out by the Germans because of their religion, 100 or so Jewish American POWs who were herded off to a slave labor camp to spend the last months of the war.

Mr. Swack and the others had lived through the Battle of the Bulge only to be segregated from the ranks of the captured, herded into box cars with another 200 "undesirable" POWs and shipped to a work site within a subsidiary camp of the Buchenwald concentration camp.

Why these 351 men -- including Roman Catholic and Protestant soldiers of Italian, English and Irish descent -- spent from February to April 1945 at a labor camp, hauling the blasted insides of a pine-covered mountain to the banks of the Elster River, remains a riddle.

"It's the most striking example of American [military] Jews being mistreated because they were Jews," says Mitchell G. Bard, who has written a book about the Nazi treatment of U.S. civilians and prisoners of war. "Over 70 died in this one camp alone."

The suffering of the soldiers is documented in military records. Confined for slightly more than two months at Berga, men worked 10-hour shifts digging out underground tunnels with barely more than a few hunks of bread and a canteen cup of turnip soup in their stomachs each day.

They were beaten with rubber hoses and denied medical treatment. At least 35 prisoners died in captivity; many more died during the camp evacuation when Germans marched columns of prisoners into the countryside to evade the encroaching U.S. and allied forces.

When U.S. soldiers found Mike Swack and nine other POWs in late April 1945, the commanding general of the 90th Infantry Division noted in a memo to his commander that "the physical condition of all of these men was appalling."

"All were suffering from malnutrition. Some of these men were in a coma and others were in a condition bordering on hysteria," wrote Lt. Col. Leslie V. Dix.

To some researchers, the experience of the U.S. POWs at Berga -- an anomaly of U.S. military history -- raises more questions than answers.

Sybil Milton, resident historian at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, says prisoners of war generally were not segregated by religion, although there were some instances.

While the Berga survivors attest to the segregation of Jewish prisoners, Ms. Milton is unaware of any records that explain why the commander of the stalag, a German prisoner of war camp, shipped the Americans to the Berga slave labor camp in the first place.

Satellite of Buchenwald

Berga is listed in the International Red Cross' directory of concentration camps as a satellite of Buchenwald.

But the camp where the U.S. military prisoners were held, while located at the same work site, was under the command of a German stalag and provided labor for a construction firm commanded by the "Schutzstaffel" (SS), Hitler's political police force that administered the concentration camps.

"It's part of the unfinished agenda that has to be researched by people concerned with it," says Ms. Milton. "It's part of the history of the American aspects of World War II . . . an interesting story, a story that definitely should be told because it's a story of Americans who got trapped in the concentration camp system."

It's the story of men like Myron J. Swack and Daniel D. Steckler, Bernard Melnick and L. Dale Patrick, U.S. infantrymen who were routed from the battlefields of the Ardennes campaign nearly 50 years ago. They had left their homes in places like West Salem, Ohio, Brooklyn, N.Y., Waltham, Mass., and Lititz, Pa., to fight.

But, in the days surrounding Christmas 1944, they joined another select group -- Germany's prisoners of war. As many as 73,759 Americans would be captured before the war ended in Europe.

After his capture on Dec. 17, 1944, Dan Steckler walked for miles under guard before being packed in a box car for a 17-day trip to a German prisoner of war camp, Bad Orb, Stalag 9B. About a month after Mr. Steckler arrived, he says, the Jewish U.S. soldiers were ordered to break from the ranks of the 3,000 to 4,000 prisoners confined there.

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