Given Up For Dead

American GI's in the Nazi Concentration Camp at Berga


By Flint Whitlock

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In December 1944, the Ardennes Forest on the German-Belgium border was considered a “quiet” zone where new American divisions, fresh from the States, came to get acclimated to “life at the front.” No one in Allied headquarters knew that the Ardennes had been personally selected by Hitler to be the soft point through which over 250,000 men and hundreds of Panzers would plunge in the Third Reich’s last-gasp attempt to split the Americans and British armies and perhaps win a negotiated peace in the West. When the Germans crashed through American lines during what became known as the “Battle of the Bulge,” in December 1944, thousands of stunned American soldiers who had never before been in combat were taken prisoner. Most were sent to prisoner-of-war camps, where their treatment was dictated by the Geneva Convention and the rules of warfare. For an unfortunate few – mostly Jewish or other “ethnic” GIs – a different fate awaited them. Taken first to Stalag 9B at Bad Orb, Germany, 350 soldiers were singled out for “special treatment,” segregated from their buddies, and transported by unheated railroad boxcars with no sanitary facilities on a week-long journey to Berga-an-der-Elster, a picturesque village 50 miles south of Leipzig. Awaiting them at Berga was a sinister slave-labor camp bulging with 1,000 inmates. The incarceration at Berga is the only known instance of captured American soldiers being turned into slave laborers at a Nazi concentration camp. Given Up for Dead is the story of their survival. For over three months, the American soldiers worked under brutal, inhuman conditions, building tunnels in a mountainside for the German munitions industry. The prisoners had no protective masks or clothing; were worked for 12 hours per shift with no food, water, or rest; were beaten regularly for the most minor infractions (or none at all); were fed only starvation rations; slept two to a bed in ghastly, lice-infested bunks; and were never allowed a bath or a change of clothing. Of the 350 GIs in the original contingent, 70 of them died within the first two months at Berga; the others struggled to survive in a living nightmare. As the Allies’ front lines moved inexorably closer to Berga, the Nazi guards forced the inmates to endure a death march as a way of keeping them from being liberated; many died along the route. Only the timely arrival of an American armored division at war’s end saved them all from certain death. Strangely, when the war was over, many of the Americans who had survived Berga were required to sign a “security certificate” which forbade them from ever disclosing the details of their imprisonment at Berga. Until recent years, what had happened to the American soldiers at Berga has been a closely guarded secret.



Also by the Author:

The Fighting First: The Untold Story
of the Big Red One on D-Day

The Rock of Anzio:

From Sicily to Dachau
A History of the 45th Infantry Division

Soldiers on Skis: A Pictorial Memoir of
the 10th Mountain Division (with Bob Bishop)


American GI’s in the Nazi
Concentration Camp
at Berga


Author of The Fighting First

A Member of the Perseus Books Group
New York

Dedicated to the memory of the millions who never made it home.


MANY PEOPLE DESERVE credit for helping me tell this story, which had gone virtually untold for half a century. First and foremost, the late filmmaker Charles Guggenheim must be acknowledged, for it was his documentary, broadcast over PBS stations on Memorial Day weekend, 2003, that first made me (and millions of others, I’m sure) aware of this incredible tale.

The next person needing to be thanked is Mel Rappaport, of Douglaston, New York—a World War II veteran, a liberator of Buchenwald, and a person with very good connections. It was he who first put me in contact with some of the survivors, who then introduced me to others.

I am deeply grateful to the surviving veterans of Berga and Stalag IX-B who allowed me to interview them and told me their often painful stories. Without their willingness to share, the unspeakable things that went on in these terrible places may have passed into obscurity, dismissed as fantasy simply because the reality is so horrific and unbelievable.

Once I had decided to visit the locales written about in these pages, one person provided immeasurable assistance: Frau Sabine Richter, Berga-an-der-Elster’s finance director. It would have been virtually impossible to find the relevant sites in Berga without her generous assistance. She devoted many hours to escorting me to the sites of the camps and the sealed-up tunnels, and to answering my endless stream of questions. I am also indebted to the current mayor of Berga, Stephan Büttner, for his kindnesses.

Then, in no particular order of importance (for they are all important) are Will Mahoney of the Modern Military Records Branch of the National Archives II in College Park, MD; Dr. Mitchell Bard, author of Forgotten Victims; Helen Fowler, who lent me her late husband’s memoirs; the operators of the website; Dr. Patricia Wadley, national historian of the American Ex-POW organization; Peter House, Jr., for his father’s memoirs; Barbara Geisler; and my good friend Dr. Richard Sommers and the staff of the U.S. Army Military History Institute in Carlisle, PA. I thank my agent, Jody Rein, and my editor at Westview Press, Steve Catalano, for their keen insights and unflagging desires to see this project through.

Last but certainly not least, my wife, Dr. Mary Ann Watson, and the members of her Denver book club, also deserve recognition for their careful reading of the rough manuscript and their thoughtful comments. To them and everyone else involved in this endeavor, I humbly offer my deepest appreciation.

Flint Whitlock


A LONG FILE of olive-drab American tanks, the vanguard of the 11th Armored Division’s “Task Force Wingard,” rumbled southward across eastern Bavaria along the Czechoslovak border. The April air was alive with a wild mixture of fragrances: engine exhaust, burning villages, torn-up earth, new spring growth, decomposing corpses, and victory.

Riding high in the turret of a well-worn, thirty-three-ton M–4 Sherman tank was a sergeant whose name has been lost to history. Like the battle-scarred tank, the sergeant had seen plenty of combat since the 11th Armored Division first ran into the enemy in Belgium at the end of December 1944. Then came pitched battles at Herzfeld, Leidenborn, Sengerich, Roscheid, Es-chfeld, Reiff, Ormont, Lissigen, Kelberg, Andernach on the Rhine, Worms, Hanau, Fulda, Gelnhausen, and so many other towns that they all began to blur into an indistinct, amorphous mass. Then Bayreuth fell on 14 April, the big German armored training camp at Grafenwöhr on 19 April, and the city of Weiden on 21 April.

The last couple of days, the going had gotten a little easier. Instead of bullets and tank-busting panzerfaust rounds flying in deadly profusion from the windows of every town and village they approached, the “Thunderbolts” of the 11th Armored were now greeted by silent white bedsheets fluttering from every window, a sign that the Germans—at least the civilian townsfolk—had had enough of war and were finally admitting defeat. The German army, if one could even call it an army, was retreating faster than the Americans were advancing.

Sherman tanks of the 11th Armored Division roll down an autobahn in eastern Germany, April 1945. (Courtesy National Archives)

Heading toward the multi-spired Bavarian city of Cham, Task Force Wingard suddenly sped up and struck out for the village of Rötz. The sergeant in the lead tank looked across a fresh-green expanse of farm fields and saw a most unusual sight. Up ahead, the tank commander could make out what appeared to be a couple hundred stick figures, some of whom began waving their scarecrow-like arms at him. He ordered the driver to halt and raised his binoculars for a closer look. Strange, he must have thought; the stick figures appeared to be wearing the same mustard-colored wool uniform that he wore, except that their uniforms were torn and stained and covered with patches of mud. Many of the stick figures were also long-haired and some were bearded. If they were soldiers, he thought, they certainly looked like no soldiers he had ever seen.

One of the stick figures staggered toward him, waving its arms, a ghoulish grin spreading across its emaciated, unshaven face, tears streaming into hollows that were once its cheeks. Who was this sepulchral figure? The sergeant wanted to know.

The tanker put his hand on the grip of his holstered forty-five-caliber pistol, unsure of what was happening, of what to do. As the figure drew closer, the sergeant could hear words—unbelievable words—rasping from the gaping hole that was its mouth: “Don’t shoot! We’re Americans!”

And then another aroma filled the spring air, one that blocked out the fragrance of the verdant April countryside: the terrible stench emanating from the living skeleton.

What Task Force Wingard had stumbled upon were the remnants of a group of American GIs who had been taken prisoner some four months earlier and who had been on a death march to nowhere since being removed from their slave-labor camp at Berga, 300 kilometers to the north three weeks earlier.

In the autumn of 1944, Nazi Germany was being crushed from three sides. From the east, Joseph Stalin’s huge Soviet army, burning with hatred to avenge the atrocities Hitler’s forces had been committing within the Motherland since June 1941, was slowly pushing back the Wehrmacht and SS divisions like a glacier pushing back a mountain range.

From the west and south, American, British, and Free French forces, too, were on the march, inexorably forcing the German army into a massive retrograde action. From overhead, daily raids by thousands of Allied aircraft were pounding the Third Reich into shattered, smoldering, unrecognizable rubble. The whirlwind that Hitler had unleashed against Poland and the world on 1 September 1939, when he began history’s most devastating war, was being reaped tenfold.

The war in Europe, however, was far from over. Millions of soldiers and civilians had already perished; within the next six months, hundreds of thousands more would join those already dead. The most cataclysmic conflict of all time was racing toward its bloody dénouement. In Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods), the final work of German composer Richard Wagner’s monumental series of operas known as the Ring Cycle, the spirits ruling the world meet a fiery end; if Germany could not be victorious, Hitler, a great devotée of Wagner’s music and anti-Semitic philosophy, was determined to bring his nation, and perhaps even civilization itself, down with him.

Although many of his generals and most of his soldiers had long ago abandoned the idea of a German victory and were merely trying to save their own skins, Adolf Hitler continued to live in a dreamworld, or, as one of his minions put it, in a “cloud-cuckoo-land.” In his delusional state, he ordered divisions and armies that no longer existed to rush to the front on trains that no longer ran and throw themselves in an orgy of self-immolation against the advancing enemy hordes. His fifty-five-year-old body, still wracked by injuries sustained in the 20 July 1944 assassination attempt at Rastenburg, East Prussia, was old and feeble now, his reasoning by turns shrewd and delusional. His raspy voice railed against those traitors who had plotted to kill him and who had been agonizingly hung from meathooks as punishment for their perfidy. Even his favorite general, Erwin Rommel, had given tacit approval of the plot and would soon be forced to commit suicide; Hitler could trust no one but the shrinking coterie of loyal members of his Fascist family—Heinrich Himmler, Josef Goebbels, Martin Bormann, Eva Braun.

No matter where on the maps he looked, the German chancellor saw that his Reich—the empire he had created with nothing but his own indomitable will—was crumbling, but he refused to believe the evidence. Now, in September 1944, arrows drawn on the maps showed that the Russians—those subhuman Bolsheviks Hitler had boasted he would conquer and enslave before the winter of 1941 came on—were driving westward along a thousand-mile front that stretched from the Baltic to the Caspian Seas. Slowly, like being sucked into a continent-wide threshing machine, his best troops were being pulverized by the advancing Soviets.

Only in the west, Hitler thought, was there any hope of redemption. The Americans and British and French, while militarily powerful, were squabbling allies. Perhaps they could be divided, both physically and emotionally. Their peoples, like the German civilians, were war weary. But, unlike the Germans, they were products of soft democracies; Hitler could order his people to fight to the last bullet and the last man if need be, but Roosevelt and Churchill and de Gaulle could not. Viewing the mounting casualty lists, the American, British, and French home fronts would rise up and demand an end to the awful bloodletting. Perhaps, Hitler reasoned, if he could deliver a massive blow in the West, he could reach a negotiated peace, then turn what was left of his armies against the Soviets. Hitler knew that the Western Allies had no love of Stalin and Communism, and had come to Russia’s aid only to forestall an inevitable German victory. Perhaps he might even persuade them to join forces with him and go to war against the Bolsheviks; surely America and Britain did not want to see much of Europe dominated by Russia!1

By the summer of 1944, the Allies were on a roll. To pile on the metaphors, on 6 June, British, American, Canadian, and Free French units had landed along a sixty-mile swath of Normandy coastline and delivered a mighty blow to the German jaw. A Soviet operation known as Bagration, mounted on 22 June, was a proverbial kick in the German ass. On 15 August, another Allied landing, this one on the French Riviera, was a knife-thrust into the gut, while the continual fighting in Italy was like a pit bull with its jaws locked onto the Fascist leg. Showing no mercy, the aerial assault on Germany was also stepped up, raining millions of tons of bombs onto the Third Reich’s head.

Reeling from the massive blows, German troops on all fronts began retreating, despite Hitler’s numerous “stand and fight” orders. While the Führer’s soldiers were putting their collective shoulders against the back door that was being battered by the Russians, the Americans and British were on the front porch, kicking in the front door. Germany’s heavily fortified frontier, the Westwall, along its border with France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands, proved to be no match for the invaders.

But fierce fighting along the wall, especially at Aachen, Metz, the Hürtgen Forest, and in Alsace-Lorraine—along with ferocious winter weather and an over-extended supply line—had brought the Allied advance to a crawl.

Giving him the breathing space the combination of factors had provided, Hitler made plans for one final effort to reverse the tide swelling against his beloved Deutschland. Whereas the Allies would later call the operation the “Battle of the Bulge,” the German leader code-named it Wacht-am-Rhein (The Watch on the Rhine), after a well-known German song. It was not the Rhine River, however, that Hitler planned to secure; it was the port at Antwerp, some seventy-five miles west of the front at Aachen, that he hoped to reach. Antwerp had become the Allies’ nearest port, through which millions of tons of ammunition, fuel, rations, weapons, clothing, and other vital supplies were pouring.

Antwerp also was the terminus of the dividing line between the Allies’ two great western armies: Field Marshall Sir Bernard Law Montgomery’s Twenty-first British Army Group to the north and Lieutenant General Omar Nelson Bradley’s Twelfth Army Group to the south. If his troops could split the two forces, inflict massive casualties, and capture the port of Antwerp, Hitler believed it would be possible to convince the American and British people that continuing the war was futile and that a negotiated settlement was the only logical way to end the dying.

Hitler’s eyes darted across the maps for a suitable place from which he would launch his counter-assault. Then he saw it. The Wehrmacht would plunge like a flaming spear through the dense Ardennes Forest—the same improbable place through which his divisions had begun their surprise invasion of France and Belgium in 1940. At this point, he envisioned hundreds of panzers, self-propelled artillery, and infantry divisions plunging in a violent thrust through the “impenetrable” forest and straight into the soft spot of the American front lines.2

That soft spot happened to be, for the most part, occupied by thousands of scared, fresh-faced Americans, many of them Jewish, newly arrived in Europe and strangers to combat. What happened to them during the battle—and afterward, as prisoners of war—is an incredible, virtually unknown story of fear, courage, desperation, brutality, survival, triumph, and betrayal.


“TODAY I AM a man.”

So declared thirteen-year-old Morton Brimberg,* wearing a prayer shawl and yarmulke, on a cold January day in 1939 in the Emanuel synagogue in the bustling, vibrant borough of Brooklyn. His traditional Bar Mitzvah ceremony marked the end of his childhood, the culmination of weeks of religious schooling, and the beginning of his obligations as an adult to observe the commandments of his faith.

His father, Hyman Brimberg, recited the Hebrew blessing, thanking God for removing the burden of being responsible for his son’s sins. Observing the ceremony were his proud mother, Betty, his younger, fraternal twin siblings, Max and Francine, and various relatives and family friends.

Despite the elaborate trappings of ceremony, the family was not especially religious. “My parents were somewhat observant,” Brooks recalled. “We knew what our religion was because we were born into it, but that was about it. We, as a Jewish family, did recognize the high holy days, but not very much more than that.”

The family was, however, observing the worrisome events taking place in Europe. In 1933, Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party had come to power in Germany and seemed to transform the face of that cultured nation almost overnight. Laws were passed that stripped German Jews of much of their identity, possessions, and ability to make a living. Harassment and discrimination of the Jews became accepted, even encouraged, by the Nazi authorities.

“We knew that the Jews in Europe were being persecuted and having a difficult time,” Brooks noted. “I didn’t have any relatives living in Europe; my great-grandparents came to America with my grandparents in the late 1800s or early 1900s.”

With the effects of the decade-long Great Depression still lingering, the family of the first-year student at Brooklyn College struggled to make ends meet. Brooks’s father and uncle ran a small automobile business—repairing cars, selling gas, and dealing auto parts to other mechanics. “We didn’t have a lot, but we got by,” Brooks remarked.

The family repeatedly moved from one rented place to another. “When I was about twelve, there was a house available for taxes. My uncle loaned my parents the money to pay the taxes and get the house. My father’s friends came by and, just for the cost of the plumbing parts and other stuff that was necessary, they fixed it up for us without any charge for the labor. We were finally able to settle down.”

As a teenager, Brooks pondered what to do with his life. He had been encouraged to become a dentist at some time in the future, but hadn’t fixed his plans. “Because of my family’s financial situation, I knew that I would have to work my way through school to pay for expenses, so I worked full time during the summers. ”By scrimping and saving, he was able to afford to attend Brooklyn College.

By the summer of 1943, war was raging across Sicily and the Pacific Islands. Germany had already annexed Austria; had conquered France, Belgium, Poland, Denmark, Norway, Czechoslovakia, and the Netherlands; had invaded the Soviet Union; battled the British across North Africa; and had subjected the cities of Great Britain to months of aerial bombardment.

In the Pacific, the Japanese attacks on the American military bases at Pearl Harbor, Midway Island, Wake Island, the Philippines, Adak, and elsewhere had severely damaged the United States’s ability to defend itself. But America had swiftly mobilized for war and was now taking the fight to the enemy on two fronts. The factories that had been idled by a decade of economic depression were rebuilding America’s arsenal. Millions of young men, too, were being drafted to fill the many divisions being formed and trained for combat. Slowly, Pacific island after Pacific island was being reclaimed from the Japanese, the U.S. had asserted itself in North Africa and, in July 1943, had evicted the Italian and German defenders from Sicily. But victory was a long way off and, in the autumn of 1943, was by no means assured.

To Morton Brooks, his carefree college lifestyle seemed like an extravagant luxury he could no longer afford. Two options were open to him: He could do nothing and wait to take his chances with the draft; or he could enlist and join a new program known as the Army Specialized Training Program, or ASTP, in hopes of becoming an officer.*

“Knowing that I faced being drafted shortly,” Brooks said, “and that I also learned that I was successful on the exam for the ASTP program, I enlisted in the Army.” In the fall of 1943, while Allied troops were storming ashore at Salerno, Italy, the Army sent him to Syracuse University. “In 1943, I had just started the first semester at Syracuse. I was not interested in joining the Navy, having a fear of being stuck someplace out in the middle of the ocean. So I thought I would stay in college, get a degree, and then get a military commission.”

Like most parents in wartime, Brooks’s were not thrilled with the prospect of him joining the service—even if he was headed for the ASTP. But Brooks and a friend had discussed “the war and the Germans and how they were advancing and what was going on in Europe and how, as Americans, we would have to do something.”1

The Army Specialized Training Program did not last long. Expecting heavy casualties once the Allies invaded the continent of Europe in the summer of 1944, the Army brass knew it would need a vast pool of replacement soldiers to restock the depleted divisions. And so, ASTP was dropped in early 1944, and its members were ordered to report for active duty.2

Private Morton Brooks wound up as a rifleman in the infantry and was assigned to the 42nd Infantry Division, which was in training at Camp Gruber, near Braggs, some fifty miles southeast of Tulsa, Oklahoma—an experience totally alien to his life in New York, but one which he hoped would prepare him for the rigors of combat.3

Morton Brooks, photographed in October 1944. (Courtesy Morton Brooks)

For Gerald Daub, the son of an architect, New York City was the greatest city in the world. Growing up across the East River from Manhattan, he could watch the city’s skyline change on an almost daily basis. Even though the country’s spirits were mired in the Great Depression, a building boom was sending New York skyscrapers—and their architects’ reputations—soaring. William Van Alen’s seventy-seven-story, 1,046-foot-tall Chrysler Building, at Lexington and 42nd Street, had risen with the stock market in 1928 and survived the crash the following year, opening its doors in 1930.

This Art Deco gem was eclipsed a few months later by William Lamb’s mighty Empire State Building, which climbed 102 floors (1,250 feet high; with a TV antenna added in 1953, it now stands 1,454 feet) into the sky. Opened in 1931, the Empire State Building cost $41 million to construct, and quickly became one of the architectural wonders of the world and a symbol of American strength, ingenuity, and optimism.

Of all the buildings in Manhattan, though, Gerry Daub’s favorite was famed architect and industrial designer Donald Desky’s masterpiece—the Radio City Music Hall. Opened on 27 December 1932, the Art Deco edifice enclosed what was then the world’s largest indoor theater. With its marble walls and floor to its twenty-four-karat gold-leaf ceiling in the Grand Foyer, it was a glittering jewel set in the heart of Manhattan—and one of the inspirations for young Daub to follow in his father’s footsteps. “I would go to my father’s office and play with the colored pencils and look at the drawings of the various projects his company was working on,” he recalled.

Born in Brooklyn in 1925, Daub lived in an upper middleclass neighborhood that was, generally speaking, predominately Jewish. “At the time, I was too young to realize that Brooklyn was just a microcosm of the United States. I attended a grammar school called PS-99. In fact, the neighborhood was so Jewish, we had one girl in our school who was not Jewish. Her name was Lillian Torricelli and I felt sorry for her because she had to go to school on Jewish holidays.”

On his first day in kindergarten, Daub met a shy little boy named Robert Rudnick. The two remained classmates and acquaintances through eighth grade, but were not the closest of friends. The two then lost contact, with Daub going to a special school known as Brooklyn Technical High School while Rudnick attended the local James Madison High School; World War II would see them reunited—in a most unusual way.


On Sale
Apr 13, 2009
Page Count
304 pages
Basic Books

Flint Whitlock

About the Author

Flint Whitlock, a former U.S. Army officer and Vietnam War veteran, is the award-winning author of a dozen books and scores of magazine articles, most dealing with World War II. He has also appeared on History Channel, Fox News’s War Stories with Oliver North, in numerous documentaries, and has been the editor of WWII Quarterly magazine since 2010. He lectures across the country and frequently leads battlefield tours for the Smithsonian Institution, National Geographic Society, Minnesota World War II History Roundtable, Colorado National Guard, and other groups. He and his clinical psychologist wife, Dr. Mary Ann Watson, have three grown children and divide their time between Denver and Vail, Colorado.

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