POWs of the Third Reich Andrea Howard Despite the attention given to World War Two and the Holocaust by many distinguished historians, there has not been a lot of research done about Jewish-American prisoners of war (POWs) of the Third Reich. Here, testimony regarding many aspects of a prisoner’s experience, including motivation for fighting, capture, transport, interrogation, camp life, and segregation within those camps will be presented and analyzed in roughly chronological order. There will also be attention given to Berga, Germany, the POW camp with the highest mortality rate, because Jewish POWs from Stalag IX B were rounded up and sent to Berga to work together with Holocaust victims, where many of them perished. By analyzing different accounts of Jewish-American POWs, including accounts in newspaper and video interviews, diaries, and interviews within secondary literature, it will be proven that Jewish-American POWs were often subject to taunts, threats, physical abuse, and discrimination due to their religion. Furthermore, it will also be shown that Jewish-American POWs regularly had different experiences than their Gentile counterparts. They suffered from feelings of guilt, shame, loss of self-identity, and sometimes even betrayal from their fellow prisoners. This new emphasis on the ways in which Jewish-American POWs’ experiences and reactions to those experiences were different from other American POWs will show that Jewish-American POWs need to be reevaluated and their experiences reconsidered to get an accurate representation of what they experienced.
Jewish-Americans fought for their country during World War Two, just as other Americans did. Many were taken prisoner. Few historians have given very much attention to the unique plight of Jewish-American POWs, however, even though there are many historians who research and discuss POWs of the Third Reich. Jewish-American prisoner experiences have been lumped together with other American prisoners, and have therefore been grossly over-generalized, especially given the Third Reich’s hatred of Jews. Most historians argue that besides being segregated from other American POWs, Jewish-American POWs were not treated any differently.
Many scholarly works about POWs or POW camps do not provide a lot of information regarding Jewish-American prisoners. In 1947, Isidor Kaufman wrote the only book that is specifically about Jewish-Americans in World War Two. He provides a lot of information regarding Jewish soldiers and airmen, but he does not touch very deeply on POWs. Arthur Durand’s Stalag Luft III is an in-depth look at one POW camp in particular. He gives a few instances in which Jewish POWs were treated differently, but does not go into great detail; after all, that was not the objective of his book. Tom Bird’s book American POWs of World War Two has a section devoted to Jewish-American accounts of imprisonment. However, Bird says that with the exception of one instance, Jewish-American POWs were not treated very differently at all.1
That “one instance” is Stalag IX-B. Three hundred and fifty POWs, including all of the known Jewish POWs, were sent to Berga. This camp had the highest death rate of any POW camp (twenty percent) and prisoners were slowly worked to death alongside European Holocaust victims. There are several books about Berga and the experiences of the prisoners there.2 Although they do illustrate an instance in which Jewish-American POWs were undeniably discriminated against with often fatal consequences, these works do not depict Jewish-American POWs in regular camps; again, this was not the objective of these books. In renowned historian Arnold Krammer’s POW handbook, he says that Jewish POWs were often sent to concentration camps and were worked to death.3 This is true of Berga, but again does not address the average Jewish-American POW. Krammer does, however, acknowledge that Jewish-American POWs were treated differently. Another book that gives attention to Jewish-American POWs is Rob Morris’ Untold Valor. He has a chapter devoted to Jewish-American airmen and includes fears of Jewish-American POWs, Jewish-American POW mistreatment by civilians, and mistreatment by guards, among other topics. However, the chapter itself lends only a few pages to the topic of POWs.
Leonard Winograd was a Jewish-American POW who wrote about his experiences in 1976 in the American Jewish Archives Journal. His article is unique in that he specifically discusses his experiences and gives examples about how being Jewish influenced his interrogation process. This article was very useful in researching and writing this essay, but he gives only his experience and he does not talk about his imprisonment. However, it is a rare example of a scholarly work that does address the unique Jewish-American experience as a prisoner of the Third Reich.
The literature regarding Jewish-American POWs, therefore, has been scant. Most works devote only a few sentences to it, while others may devote parts of a chapter. There are no monographs or published articles that focus solely on Jewish-American POWs, save those that are about one POW’s experiences. Most works that do focus on Jewish-American POWs talk about Berga and do not explore other camps in which Jewish POWs were treated differently. Furthermore, there have been even fewer works that discuss Jewish-American experiences that were different from Gentile experiences, including those that did not necessarily stem from differences in treatment from Nazis, such as fear before deployment or anti-Semitism within camps, for example. These works are remiss in their quick or incomplete statements about Jewish-American prisoners, and these prisoners hence need to be reexamined.
Accounts of Jewish-Americans of the Third Reich
This essay will prove that Jewish-American POWs were often subject to taunts, threats, physical abuse, and discrimination due to their religion. Furthermore, it will also be shown that Jewish-American POWs regularly had different experiences than their Gentile counterparts. They suffered from feelings of guilt, shame, loss of self-identity, and sometimes even betrayal from their fellow prisoners. This will be proven by presenting multiple Jewish-American accounts in roughly chronological order (from prior to capture to life in the camps).
The differences in experiences of Jewish-American POWs (and all Jewish-American fighters, in this respect) started in the early 1940s even before the Jewish-American airmen and soldiers saw combat. Jewish-American soldiers were often aware of the Third Reich’s policy toward Jews. They knew that they had been thrown into combat in a country that had a special hatred of them, and many of the Jewish-American soldiers knew some of the steps Germany had taken to relieve itself of its “Jewish Problem.” Martin Brooks was a Jewish rifleman in the 42nd Infantry Division. He says that “we knew that the Jews in Europe were being persecuted and having a difficult time.”4 Bernie Melnick was a member of the 28th Infantry Division who said that he knew Hitler was mistreating Jews before the war; he also knew about labor camps.5Infantryman Gerald Daub’s fears came into play during the Battle of the Bulge when a fellow soldier wanted to surrender. Daub responded “Not me, Howard- I’m Jewish.”6 Daub’s reluctance to surrender show that he was certainly aware of the potential danger he might face as a Jew in the hands of the Germans. Jewish-Americans who were reluctant to surrender faced a greater chance of being killed in combat since they, as in Daub’s case, did not take the first opportunity to surrender. Daub and his friend surrendered only when circumstances became even grimmer.
Peter Neft, pilot, knew more than Martin Brooks did when he joined the war. He says that he knew that Hitler was “liquidating” the Jews and he had information about Auschwitz as well.7 He says that this was the reason that he wanted to volunteer to be an airman. In this way news about what was happening to Jews in Europe could actually influence Jewish-Americans to join the war. They may have believed that there was more at stake for them during this war, or they may have wanted to defend European Jews or even American Jews from harm.
Edwin Cornell was a member of the 28th Infantry Division and was taken captive during the Battle of the Bulge. After being captured, he started to worry about being Jewish. He had heard only vague accounts of what Nazis were doing to Jews, but he believed that these accounts warranted concern. He had a small Hebrew Bible with him that he brought from home. It helped him feel connected to his childhood, his family, and God, but now that Cornell was in German hands, his bible became a source of anxiety and fear instead of a pleasant comfort. During a rest stop on the second day of marching, he found a soft spot in the ground and buried the bible.8 This experience is unique to Jewish POWs. After all, a soldier carrying a copy of the Christian Bible would not have to dispose of it or attach any negative significance to it at all. Unlike Cornell, a Christian soldier could have kept his bible and, perhaps more importantly, kept that feeling of being connected to his past and his family.
Jewish-American POW Sam Palter witnessed a German soldier nearly shoot a POW that he thought was Jewish. Palter stepped forward when the German soldier asked for a translator. The soldier pointed at a POW with dark hair and a prominent nose. “Jude?” asked the soldier. Palater repeatedly said no, but the soldier became angry and pointed the gun in the man’s face. After a few moments, the soldier put down his gun and walked away. The man in question may not have been Jewish, but Palter was. Watching a guard almost shoot somebody he thought was Jewish frightened him, and presumably any other Jewish POWs that were in the group. When the guard walked away, Palter took that opportunity to hide his Jewish dog tags in a tree.9 This incident shows that the German soldiers were either willing to actually shoot those whom they believed were Jewish-Americans, or were willing to exploit their religion to terrify them. It also highlights the dangers that soldiers who “looked” Jewish faced. Any Jewish soldier who witnessed an event like this knew that his captors had a special interest in his religion, and many soldiers did what Palter did. They removed the evidence that proved their religion: their dogtags.
Dogtags were used in the military to identify a soldier in case he was captured or killed, and they guaranteed that if a GI were captured, injured, or killed, he would be identified and his family members would be notified of his condition. These dogtags could be worn without thought or perhaps with peace of mind by most soldiers. For Jewish-American soldiers, however, dogtags were potentially deadly. Each soldier’s dogtags were marked with his religion so that if he were to perish, he could be buried according to his religion’s burial and funeral practices. Dogtags were marked with “P” for Protestant, “C” for Catholic or “H” for Hebrew. One Jewish-American POW, however, points out that in the three years he was overseas, he never saw a rabbi. He says that each battalion had only one minister.10 Therefore dogtags may have been nearly useless for most Jewish-American soldiers. Upon capture, Jewish-American soldiers usually discarded their dogtags to avoid detection by their captors. These incidents show that something as seemingly minor as dogtags separated Jewish-American POW experiences from other Americans’ experiences and even caused some Jewish-American POWs to suffer feelings of guilt and shame when they were forced to get rid of their tags.
Tom Tannis Tikozhinski, a member of the 28th Infantry Division, threw his dogtags away because he was afraid.11 Sydney Goodman, also a member of this division, threw his dogtags away for the same reason.12 Leon Horowitz was a member of the 397th Infantry Regiment, 100th Infantry Division, who was taken prisoner at Rimling during Operation Nordwind. He says that he threw away his dog tags shortly after he was captured.13 Daniel Steckler was at Luxembourg when he was captured. He regarded his dogtags as very dangerous: “The most fearful thing to me was the fact that, as a Jew, I carried a dogtag that had a big ‘H’ on it… I didn’t think that I would last for five minutes.” Throwing away his dog tags made him feel “as though he was tearing a piece of himself off.”14 Steckler felt very distressed and guilty about throwing away his dogtags, and this would have had a negative effect on his morale as a prisoner before he even reached a prison camp.
Not all Jewish-American soldiers regarded their dog tags as dangerous, however. Private William Shapiro fought at the Battle of the Bulge before he was taken prisoner. He recalls when he was told to discard his tags: “I heard someone say that we were going to surrender. Someone-perhaps Major Clyde Collins- said that Jewish soldiers should throw their dogtags into the potbelly stove.”15 He goes on to say that he did not “recall any thoughts about what this action meant, or even related the facts that I was Jewish and these were SS troops.”16 Shapiro clearly had not had anxieties about his religion, or perhaps had not considered what would happen if he was to be captured. Nevertheless, this quote does show that even if Shapiro was not concerned about his Jewishness and his dogtags, his superiors were. The same can be said for Edwin Herzig, a member of the 98th Bomb Group, 415th Squadron. He was told that if he was shot down and was able to, he was to get rid of his dogtags because they would identify him as Jewish. He cites his youthfulness in explaining why he disobeyed these orders: “Being twenty years old, I thought I was Jimmy Cagney. I thought I was the toughest thing there was, and not only did I ignore that message, but besides my dogtags, I carried in my wallet a little plastic mesuza.”17 Both cases show that not all Jewish-American POWs gave into fears about being identified as Jewish, whether those fears were their own or someone else’s. Defiance such as Herzig’s is one of many ways that Jewish POWs responded to the threats that their dogtags posed.
Sergeant George Golman was captured at the Battle of the Bulge and marched to an interrogation center. When the SS ordered the POWs to expose their dogtags, Golman said, “My God, what am I going to do?”18 His friend Billy Heroman gave him his rosary. When the Germans saw the rosary, they did not bother to check his dogtags. Golman was grateful to his friend Heroman for allowing him to use the rosary. However, Heroman himself was questioned by their captors because they thought he looked Jewish. He convinced them that he was not by citing Bible verses to them.19 Their captors were clearly very interested in identifying which of their prisoners were Jewish. This interest provoked fear into Golman and suggests that the guards were planning to use this information, perhaps during interrogation.
Gerald Daub did not throw his dogtags away because he wanted someone to be able to identify his body if he died. He says that he did not care who found him or what would happen to him, but he wanted his family to be notified if he died.20 Daub therefore had to make a choice that Gentile-American POWs did not have to think about: he had to decide if he should keep his dogtags and risk whatever consequences they might bring, or he had to get rid of them and risk having his family never know what happened to him if he were killed. Dogtags and the anguish that they brought their Jewish-American wearers show that Jewish-American prisoners had already faced fear and agonizing decisions that others did not have to experience.
Jewish POWs such as Edwin Herzig were sometimes beaten during transport by guards or civilians. After he was shot down, Herzig spent some time in an Italian Catholic hospital. When his wounds had healed enough, he was transported by train to Stalag Luft IV in Poland. Herzig said that “as far as Jewishness goes, [he] was taken off trains twice and beaten up by Germans. A lot of Jewish fellows were beat up this way.”21 Bruce Bocknstanz remembers his Jewish friend Joel Bernstein who was also treated severely: “He was singled out for racial slurs. While waiting in a Frankfurt train station, a businessman approached him and hit him with a briefcase.” Bockstanz goes on to say that Bernstein’s wife told him that Bernstein had had nightmares and sleepless nights for many years after he returned from the war.22 William B. Rocker wrote in his wartime diary that he was beaten up by two Germans during his transport.23 These cases illustrate that guards and even civilians took the opportunity to target Jewish POWs during their transport.
Jewish POWs were also beaten while they were in the POW camps. Hyman Koffler and Abraham Homar said in an interview with the New York Times in 1945 that Jewish POWs were singled out for kickings, cuffings, and beatings with rifle butts.24 Joseph Denov spent his captivity in Stalag II-B and remembers that there was a darker-skinned prisoner who was treated worse than other prisoners and given the worst jobs. He thinks it is because the Germans thought that the man was Jewish.25 Not all Jewish POWs were beaten while they were in camps, and some Jewish POWs do not recall being treated any differently than anyone else. However, these accounts demonstrate that some Jewish-American POWs were singled out for abuse if their captors knew or suspected that they were Jewish.
A soldier or airman’s religion was of particular interest and use to interrogators, particularly when the POW was Jewish. Daniel Abeles was flying a B-17 when he was shot down over Emden, Germany. He was taken to Dulag Luft near Frankfurt for interrogation. The interrogators repeatedly said to him, “You know what is done with Jews here?”26 Abeles was very afraid for himself. When he arrived at Stalag Luft XVII, he asked the American chaplain there what to expect from the Germans, since he was aware of what happened to Jews after Kristallnacht. The chaplain told him that if a Gentile escaped, he would be brought back. If he, Abeles, tried to escape, “nobody would ever hear from you [him] again.”27 This may or may not have been true, but both the chaplain and Abeles were obviously very concerned. Joshua Reznick was shot down during his fifteenth mission and was captured by the Nazis. When his interrogator saw his dogtags, he wrote “Jude” (Jew) in large letters across Reznick’s papers and drew a six-pointed star next to the name. His interrogators tried by frighten him by repeatedly saying, “Don’t you know what we do to the Jews?”28 Sydney Stern was shot down in 1945, captured, and sent to an interrogation center, where his captors immediately asked him if he was Jewish. When Stern asked why they wanted to know, the interrogator replied “Because it goes very hard with Jews in Germany.”29 Leonard Winograd, a member of the 512th Squadron of the 376th Bombardment Group who was shot down, captured, and interrogated, was slapped for being Jewish, and the officer told him that he could tell Winograd was a Jew because of his face. He was also told that he would be given to the Gestapo.30 Threatening interrogations along with preconceived notions about expected treatment could have a definitive impact on the psyche of Jewish-American POWs. Even when these threats did not amount to anything (as in Winograd’s case, when he was not turned over to the Gestapo), they were still very frightening. The subtle insinuations about what the Nazis were doing to European Jews were frightening as well.
Interrogators sometimes tried to make Jewish airmen feel guilty about their missions. During Winograd’s interrogation, when he suggested that Jews in Germany worked in Dachau, the German officer replied that Dachau was a prison and that Jews worked in factories. The officer said that when Americans bombed German cities, they were only killing Jews because they worked in the factories.31 The interrogators used Winograd’s religion to intimidate him and make him feel guilty about his missions. Some Jewish-American POWs were made to feel guilty during their interrogations when they were asked if they were Jewish.
If Jewish POWs were asked during their interrogations if they were Jewish, they had a decision to make. They had to either admit that they were Jewish and face whatever consequences might arise, or they could lie to try to save themselves. Lying was a route taken by many Jewish POWs, but it came with its own price. Gerald Daub was accused of being Jewish by his interrogator. He said that he was not, to his subsequent shame and regret.32 Again, this shame and regret was unique to Jewish-Americans. Others did not have to consider their religions or lie if they were asked about it.
Jewish POWs did not cease to interest German guards and interrogators after the interrogation was over. Paul Canin became a POW after his B-24 was shot down over Auschwitz in 1944. A few days after his interrogation, he was asked to join five high-ranking German officers for dinner. Canin immediately suspected that they had asked him to join them to taunt him: “I instantly felt a responsibility as a Jew not to reinforce any of their ideas of stereotyped Jewish behavior…If they expected to witness a glutton attacking their food they were going to be disappointed.” He declined their offer to help himself and took his seat. One of the officers said, “You must be curious why we brought you here. You see we seldom find any Jews actually doing the fighting. They always manage to get others to do it for them.” When the officers asked Canin what he knew about Jews in Germany, Canin replied that they were treated badly and put in concentration camps. The officers responded by saying it was propaganda. They finished this “dinner” by asking Canin if he knew of any good jokes about Hitler (he lied and said no) and asking him about the new radar system he had been operating when he was shot down, for which he made up an elaborate lie.33 The dinner invitation was probably for the sole purpose of finding out about the new radar system, but the officers certainly did not pass up the opportunity to taunt and verbally attack a Jewish-American POW. The guards and officers did not hesitate to use a prisoner’s Jewishness as a tool to intimidate him and try to get information from him.
Many POW camps had in-processing procedures that required prisoners to state their religions. When the POWs arrived at Stalag (POW camp) IX-B, they had to give their religion as part of the in-processing procedures. American soldiers were doing the processing and they said that religion did not have to be provided, but they were told they had to get it. Sydney Goodman says that Jews often did not know what to answer; many said atheist or agnostic while others said they were Christian if they did not have a Jewish-sounding last name.34 Brooks said: “I wasn’t going to hide who I was, so I gave it.”35 Sam Palter was at Stalag VII-A when he had to put down his religion before being allowed into the camp. He admitted to being Jewish, but acknowledges that he does not know why; he cited stubbornness, pride, and naivety as possible reasons.36 Leonard Winograd refused to lie about being Jewish. He said that he did not come halfway around the world to lie about his religion.37 Jewish-American soldiers were obviously the reason for the questions about religion, since the Nazis were usually not concerned with Protestant or Catholic prisoners. These questions singled Jewish soldiers out because Jewish soldiers were the only ones with cause for anxiety about these questions. They were singled out (or were attempted to be singled out) immediately after they arrived. It will later be shown that for the Jewish-American soldiers at Stalag IX-B, these fears were not unfounded.
American POWs had to select a “Man of Confidence” (MOC) from within their barracks once they arrived at a camp. This man would be responsible for dispersing Red Cross packages and any food or supplies from the Germans in addition to acting as a “middleman” between the Germans and other prisoners regarding rules or announcements from the former and complaints or questions from the latter. He was also often regarded as the unofficial leader of the barracks, and the other men would look to him for guidance. There are several recorded instances of the guards rejecting a “Man of Confidence” if he was Jewish. Harry Goller was the MOC at Stalag II-B, but the Germans refused to negotiate with him after they found out he was Jewish. They had dealt with him successfully for almost a year before that.38 A Jewish MOC at Stalag IX-B was removed, and the reason given was that a Jew could not represent Aryans.39 When Jewish-American soldiers from Stalag IX-B were sent to Berga, they were then briefly separated from the other Americans. During this time, they chose Stanley Cohen to be their MOC, but his appointment was rejected because he was Jewish.40 A POW’s religion did not just bar him from leading his comrades, however.
A POW’s religious status could also affect his medical treatment. Irv Schechter was a POW at Stalag IV-B. He desperately needed medical attention for his feet, but was afraid to ask for help because he was Jewish. He only went to a doctor when he had no other choice.41 A war correspondent who was a prisoner at Oflag 64 (Oflags were prison camps for officers) says that Jewish-American doctors were not allowed to operate on or help prisoners of war.42 Schechter’s experience shows that Jewish POWs were sometimes afraid to ask for medical treatment, even when they desperately needed it. If Schechter had waited too long before asking for help, his fear could have cost him his life. The news report from Oflag 64 shows that this was another instance in which Jewish POWs were concretely discriminated against; they were not allowed to be MOCs and they were not allowed to be doctors. Jewish POWs were also the given reason that POWs were not allowed to donate blood. German prisoner of war regulations stated the following: “For reasons of race hygiene, prisoners of war are not acceptable as blood donors for the German community, since the possibility of a prisoner of war of Jewish origin being used as a donor cannot be excluded with certainty.”43 Even from a medical standpoint, it is clear that Jewish prisoners felt fear for being Jewish, and Germany had different policies and attitudes towards Jewish prisoners than toward other American prisoners.
Hunger was a constant presence at the POW camps, including Stalag IX-B. A prisoner named Joseph Mark recalled a man from his company asking him if he could borrow some bread. When Mark said, “I don’t lend bread,” the man said, “Then I’m going to tell them that you’re a Jew.”44 Myron Swack from Stalag IX-B corroborate Mark’s statement when he says that some men would often blackmail one another in this way in order to get food at this camp.45 These incidents are very telling. They show that some GIs capitalized on Jewish fears of being discovered by the guards, and they also show that being discovered was a very real concern among the Jewish soldiers; after all, if they were not afraid to be discovered, this threat would be completely irrelevant. It is possible that threats such as these may have been isolated incidents, but they likely would have caused Jewish POWs to be even more fearful and possibly feel betrayed by the GIs making the threats. In these instances, Jewish-American POWs could be blackmailed by fellow prisoners who were willing to extort their fear and vulnerability.
Religious services were a part of camp life for many POWs. Jewish-American POWs had to either practice their religion in secret or take part in Christian services. Leon Horowitz remembers when a Protestant chaplain brought a choir to Stalag IX-B. Horowitz asked the chaplain for permission to sing in the choir, and the chaplain gave it to him. Horowitz says that singing the hymns made him feel “spiritually uplifted” and that it was good for him to sing these hymns because there was nothing else to do in the camp.46 Horowitz also mentions celebrating Passover while at the camp, albeit without all of the proper food. He says that ten or fifteen men (many were newcomers to the camp) came together to celebrate. A lot of the men had had schooling in Hebrew, and many knew the prayers by heart. Horowitz mentions that they did not have any of the traditional food, so they made believe. They did not have to worry about punishment from the Germans, because “the Germans up in the guard towers had no idea what we were doing.”47 Sam Palter was a prisoner for a short while at Stalag XVIII-C and remembers celebrating Passover as well. They too did not have the correct food to eat, but they celebrated nonetheless while other prisoners stood watch for them.48 Secret Passover celebrations also occurred at Stalag IV-B, as described by Irv Schechter.49 Sydney Goodman was a POW at Stalag IX-B before being segregated and sent to Berga. He illuminates the isolation of being Jewish in his diary on January 14, 1945: “Protestant and Catholic services this morning. I listen in because it’s religious and I miss our own service… There isn’t a Jewish chaplain or even a Jewish officer here.”50 William B. Rocker described taking part in Protestant services in his diary and vowed to take part in religious services more often if he made it home.51 Jewish-American prisoners did not have their own services, so they had to improvise. Horowitz and Rocker enjoyed taking part in Protestant and Catholic services, even though these services were not their own. The attempts to celebrate Passover were often lacking in necessary materials and were done in secret, unlike Christian services. These examples show that Jewish religious experiences in the camps were different from Christian ones, though not necessarily inferior.
There is one instance in which a small group of Jewish POWs brazenly held services without trying to hide the fact. Peter Neft was a prisoner at Stalag Luft I when he and a few other Jewish prisoners began holding services on Saturdays. He recalls that the cross would be removed from the chapel on Saturdays and replaced with a Star of David.52 They were not punished for their actions, but were later segregated. This shows that some Jewish fears in other camps about holding services may have been unfounded since this small group was able to get away with it, but it is also possible that until their segregation, the Jewish POWs at Stalag Luft I were treated a little bit better because they were pilots, and Neft was an officer.53 It is impossible to know now which is the case, but fear about potential repercussions stopped Jewish POWs in other camps from attempting this feat.
There are multiple instances of a Jewish-American POW reacting very strongly to seeing Jewish political prisoners (civilian Holocaust victims). Louis Tury Jr. wrote in his wartime diary about seeing a group of eighty Jewish political prisoners being brought into Stalag X-B. He says that “They are living skeletons. They can’t weigh over sixty to eighty pounds… Their eyes are like empty sockets, you can count the ribs on their bodies.” He says that his Jewish-American friend Sam was in tears upon seeing them, and that he felt for Sam deep inside himself.54 Sam Palter at Stalag VII-A saw political prisoners from Dachau and felt “overwhelmed with guilt.” He felt guilty about how they were treated and guilty that he, as an American Jew, was being treated much better.55 These two men, like many other Jewish-American POWs, had to watch as other members of their culture and religion were slowly worked to death. The horror and sorrow of seeing these prisoners being killed unmistakably took on a special significance to many Jewish-Americans. They knew that if they had been born in Europe, they would likely have met the same fate.
Segregation of Jewish-American POWs from other American POWs was very common at prisoner of war camps in Germany. Sergeant Louis Tury, Jr. spent time in five POW camps in Germany, including Stalag X-B. He kept a diary during his time in captivity, and on March 20, 1945, he talked about the temporary segregation of Jewish-American POWs at X-B. He wrote that those with Jewish-sounding last names were led away and questioned for a while. The Jewish POWs were brought back later, and they told Tury Jr. and the others that they were told that the Jewish people cost the Germans World War I and that they should be wiped off the face of the earth.56 Jewish prisoners at Stalag VII-A also faced segregation. Sam Palter recollects that all Jewish POWs were moved to separate barracks. He says that they slept on a concrete floor and were reduced to starvation rations. After one month of segregation, they were moved back into the general population.57 Jewish-American POWs at this camp were clearly treated much worse than other American POWs, even if it was only for a short while. Both prison camps show that segregation was used as a tool for intimidation or possibly to weaken Jewish POWs, and the guards at Stalag Luft I used the Geneva Convention to try to make the segregation of Jewish prisoners seem legitimate.
The camp guards used a clause of the Geneva Convention to defend segregating Jewish soldiers. They cited a clause which allows segregation according to race and religion. Ex-POW Eugene Hayes saw through this excuse: “To point out how discriminatory this ‘segregation’ was, there were American POWs of black, Hispanic, oriental and Arabic descent being held in the same camp but they were not segregated!”58 Mozart Kaufman was held at Stalag Luft I and remembers what it was like to be separated from the other GIs. He recounts that shortly after Christmas in January 1945, the Jewish POWs were moved into their own compound. Peter Neft also recalls this move and said that this was when he really began to feel afraid for himself.59 Marvin “Sonny” Elliot, on the other hand, had not been segregated with the other Jews and felt very guilty about this. He asked a Catholic priest what to do, and the priest said not to say anything, since he believed that doing so could have put Elliot in danger.60 One non-Jewish POW says that the barracks that the Jewish airmen had was better constructed than their barracks, and that the Jewish men continued to receive the same treatment and food. However, another non-Jewish POW points out that these barracks were isolated from the rest of the camp and was next to an ammunition dump so that “any misplaced bomb on a raid…could result in their destruction.”61 It was almost certainly the inferior location rather than the superior construction that the camp guards had in mind when they moved the Jewish airmen.
There were instances of anti-Semitism against the Jewish-American POWs by their fellow American prisoners at Stalag Luft I. Marvin “Sonny” Elliot says that there were small “flicks” of anti-Semitism in the barracks, but nothing too overt. He states that guys joked about the Jewish barracks, but points out that nobody turned him in for being a Jew.62 Jewish-American POWs who avoided segregation had to listen to jokes about Jews. They may not have been particularly vicious, according to Elliot, but these jokes were made nonetheless and are another painful way in which Jewish-American POW experiences were different from other POWs’ experiences.
Jewish POWs were also segregated at Stalag XIII-C. They were asked to reveal themselves and were then segregated, and the other American inmates never saw them again. The American inmates who were not identified as Jewish were sent to work in a warehouse. A former POW at XIII-C recollects what happened to his friend Al Goldstein (who avoided being segregated) when the Germans later found out he was Jewish: “He went to work with the group but when he got to the warehouse they would put him down in the bottom of an elevator shaft and he wouldn’t get out of that shaft until nightfall.”63 During this time Goldstein could not talk to anybody and had to stay in a cramped position all day. Such is an example of what could happen if a Jewish-American POW tried to defy orders and stay with the larger group of American POWs.
Not all camps segregated Jewish inmates. Stalag Luft III seems to be one such camp. There was an effort by the other airmen to help them conceal their identity, and records indicate that none of them were ever removed from the camp.64 However, a Jewish cook from this camp was relieved of his duties after the guards discovered his religion.65 It is quite possible that this happened because the guards chose to ignore orders to segregate the prisoners, or did not seriously try to segregate them. This shows that although segregation was probably a systematic policy, its success was dependent on the individual leaders at the different camps and how far they were willing to go to discover which prisoners were Jewish.
Experiences at Berga
The most clear and egregious abuse of Jewish-American prisoners came when the Jewish prisoners were segregated from the other American prisoners and transferred to Berga, a sub-camp of Buchenwald. With a mortality rate of twenty percent, Berga was the deadliest place an American POW could be sent. Here prisoners would work side by side with Jewish civilians and experience the horrors of the Holocaust first-hand. For three hundred and fifty POWs from Stalag IX-B, this nightmare would become a reality.
On January 18th, 1945, the guards at Stalag IX-B announced that the Jewish prisoners would have to identify themselves the following day so that they could be removed to separate barracks.66 After a fierce debate in the barracks that evening, the “Man of Confidence,” Hans Kasten, gave the order that Jewish soldiers were not to reveal themselves. Horowitz says that some Jews were not going to deny their heritage, while others rationalized that they did not really identify as Jewish, so they had been unsure how to proceed. Still others had planned to deny their religion. The next day, the Germans were angry when no one stepped forward.67 They said that any Jews found in the barracks after another day would be shot, and anyone harboring or protecting a Jewish prisoner would be shot.68 The prisoners were told that the next day they must step forward, and they did. Daub and his friend Bob Rudnick gained courage from one another and stepped forward. Norman Fellman says that “maybe because I had more pride than brains, I decided to step forward.”69 He also did not want his friends to risk retribution by covering for him.70 Sandy Lubinsky wanted to stay true to his religion.71 Gerald Zimand stepped forward without fear and thought: “What are they going to do to me?”72 Bravery and perhaps stubbornness motivated these men, but others were motivated by guilt, pride, or a sense of obligation.
POW Ernest Kinoy said that he could not live with himself pretending not to be Jewish. He felt as though it was an ethical decision and pertained to one’s identity.73 He also figured that he would eventually be turned in as a Jew anyway.74 Jack Goldstein said “I felt it was not right for me not to say [that I am Jewish].”75 Another man identified only as Goldstein (perhaps Jack Goldstein) refused to lie about his name because he was proud of his heritage and did not want to disgrace himself or his family by hiding under an assumed name.76 Bernie Melnick says that “it was only natural for us to step forward” because, he argues, part of being a Jew meant dealing with everything that Jews had gone through throughout the centuries. He says that “it was what being a Jew was all about.”77 Norman Fellman says that he felt proud of who he was and cited that pride as another reason for stepping forward.78 These prisoners’ refusal to deny or let go of their identities came with a price, since they were then segregated. Some Jewish prisoners chose instead not to reveal themselves.
When Jewish POWs did not expose themselves, they sometimes suffered from great fear and anxiety. Edwin Cornell said the call to step forward was a moment of “agony and decision.” He describes also feeling fear, anger, and mental torture. The decision he made still haunts him to this day.79 In a subsequent interview Cornell says he went through a “period of guilt” after not stepping forward and he stated: “I can’t tell you the stress I was under during that period.”80 David Barlow believed that there was no reason to expose himself as Jewish. “I cannot tell you whether this was straight fear or an intellectual exercise,” he stated. “A little of both perhaps, but mostly fear.”81 Wrestling with a decision that directly pertained to their identity and either choosing to face segregation or saving themselves at the cost of agonizing guilt is another way in which Jewish-American POWs had different experiences than others.
Some Jewish soldiers managed to escape this roundup altogether. Leon Horowitz was so sick on the day Jewish soldiers were segregated that he collapsed unconscious on the floor. He was sent to the hospital, put on a cot, and given cold cloths. Horowitz therefore missed the segregation and was able to stay at Stalag IX-B with those who were not selected to go to Berga.82 Sonny Fox’s name was not called, and he decided that he could not be of any help if he too was segregated.83 Escaping the segregation did not necessarily mean escape from fear for Jewish POWs. James Smith recalls the story of “R.J.,” a Jew who had escaped the roundup and wanted to see him: “He had managed to convince the Germans that he was not Jewish but a farmer from Alabama. While R.J. had escaped being segregated, he was trying not to attract any attention to himself…He wanted me to tell him everything I knew about farming in Alabama.” Smith goes on to say that R.J. did manage to survive and make it home.84 R.J. was clearly terrified of being subsequently caught by the Germans. He is a sobering reminder that Jews that remained at Stalag IX-B were still separated from the other Americans by their fear.
Though they remained physically with the other American POWs, they were still separated emotionally by virtue of their religion. Sonny Fox remembers that on the night after the Jewish prisoners were segregated, some of the other Americans were making anti-Semitic jokes.85 Sometime later Edwin Cornell was the direct victim of an anti-Semitic comment by an American when he rushed to pick up some potatoes that had fallen out of a bag. Someone he knew from combat told him that he looked like “some damn Jew” the way he was grabbing the potatoes.86 This man did not know that Cornell was actually Jewish, but it stunned Cornell nonetheless. Bernie Melnick was segregated with the other Jewish-American POWs and says that the other Americans were “100% behind us” and that they all were out cheering for them and jeering at the guards when he and the others were taken away.87 Melnick’s description of the support that the Jewish POWs received before being taken away is contradictory to Cornell and Fox’s experiences. It is probable that only a few of the other American POWs were anti-Semitic; after all, Melnick describes a crowd of support, while Cornell and Fox describe isolated incidents. These isolated incidents could nonetheless be extremely demoralizing and upsetting.
The approximately eighty Jews who identified themselves were led away to separate barracks. Leon Horowitz describes the conditions of the Jewish barracks: “We had even less food than we had been getting…we had less firewood…we had harsher work details.”88 Not all of the Jewish POWs remember the Jewish barracks as being worse, however. Daub says that the barracks were actually better because they had bunk beds and “there were just Jewish-Americans there.” He also says that they “basically” got the same food, but that the Germans were “less willing to be pleasant” to them.89 His comment about the new barracks being better because they had only Jewish-Americans is rather interesting. Unfortunately he did not clarify this statement, but it is reasonable to suggest that he felt this way perhaps because of the blackmailing of Jews for food or because he was relieved that the Jews were all together and safe for the time being. Jack Sulser was an American POW who said that the other prisoners could see the Jewish POWs being forced to clean the outside latrines and do other undesirable jobs that others did not have to do.90 These three accounts paint a picture of slightly worse conditions in the Jewish barracks.
At the beginning of February 1945, the commander of Stalag IX-B received an order to send three hundred and fifty prisoners to Berga. The Jewish barracks were emptied to help reach this quota. The rest were selected from the general American population. Troublemakers, those with Jewish-sounding names, and even men with Italian names were picked.91 Sydney Goodman’s friend Frank Newman is an example of this; Newman was sent to Berga because the Germans thought he was Jewish, even though he was not.92 Those with stereotypical Jewish looks or even some who were circumcised were also used to reach the quota.93 This suggests that the guards were not very organized; they were not completely certain about who was Jewish and who was not. They also used tactics that were not very reliable; after all, someone who “looks” Jewish may not actually be Jewish, and it is not only Jews who were circumcised. Despite their shaky methodology, it is clear that they were determined to send in Jews and anyone they thought might be a Jew.
Conditions at Berga were far worse than at Stalag IX-B. The POWs were on a starvation diet and most of them had to work in a mine.94 Gerald Daub says that the Jewish-American prisoners were given the worst jobs.95 The inmates were under the control of the SS now and suffered more abuse from them, including the Jewish prisoners, who were subject to slurs and verbal abuse. Sandy Lubinsky recalls a time when he was drilling into the mountain and his strength gave out: “My arms gave way and that drill came falling down. Oh, was he [an SS guard] mad! ‘You damned Jew,’ the SS guard said.” Lubinsky was also called a “dirty Jew” in another instance.96 Two camp guards walked by as Milton Stolon collapsed one day while working. When one of the guards asked about Stolon’s body, the other replied, “Don’t worry, it’s just another American Jew dying.” The guard’s comment made Stolon so angry that he got up and went back to work.97 There has also been testimony that some Jewish POWs had to work the night shift with civilian prisoners. Temperatures could go as low as -30 degrees Fahrenheit, and Steckler credits a mild spring as the reason why more men did not die during this shift.98 Joseph Guigno was a non-Jewish POW who was the camp and saw how Jewish-Americans were treated: “The Germans would push the sick ones around…All of us were treated like animals. But the Jewish boys got the worst. They were beaten more and given less food.”99 These prisoners’ testimony all show that Jews were beaten and verbally abused by individual guards, and were perhaps systematically abused by being forced to work night shifts and possibly getting worse food, as described by Guigno. To read these accounts and then declare that Jewish prisoners were not discriminated against or treated differently is clearly erroneous.
Bernie Melnick describes becoming especially aware of his Jewishness after seeing the civilian prisoners and speaking with a couple of them. He says he was now “more and more afraid to talk.”100 Just like Sam Palter at Stalag VII-A, Melnick was very moved and frightened when he saw civilian Holocaust victims. Melnick was afraid of being conspicuous as an American Jew after he saw what was happening to European Jews. Although American-Jewish POWs and the other American POWs were in the same situation, Jewish-Americans took pause and saw what was happening to European Jews and what might be their fate, should the Germans win the war.
Sydney Goodman was able to use his religious training to his advantage at Stalag IX-B. He knew how to speak Yiddish as well as a little bit of German. For this reason, he was used as a translator and did not have to work. He was also given more food.101 This is a rare instance of a Jewish prisoner actually gaining an advantage for being Jewish. This could be because the guards were desperate for a translator, or perhaps because whoever discovered Goodman’s language abilities was not particularly anti-Semitic. It is certainly not because guards at the camp were friendly to Jews; the above testimony disabuses us of this particular hypothesis. It is, however, worth noting that being Jewish did not always mean negative consequences for the POW in question.
At the beginning of April 1945, the remaining prisoners at Berga were forced to evacuate the camp. The American army was approaching and the guards wanted to keep the prisoners out of American hands. The soldiers were forced to march for several weeks on end. Prisoners who did die during the march were buried by their fellow Americans. At one churchyard where the POWs were digging a grave, the sexton came out and asked what religion the dead soldiers were. When the sexton learned that they were going to bury Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish soldiers there, he said: “Well, you can’t bury the Jews in consecrated ground.”102 Although this discrimination did not come at the hands of German guards or soldiers, it is still yet another example of how Jewish POWs were treated; even in death, they did not receive the same treatment that other American POWs received.
Those who survived the evacuation march were liberated at the end of April by Americans. Of the three hundred and fifty American who originally arrived at Berga, no more than two hundred and eighty of them survived. The fatality rate at Berga was nearly twenty percent, the highest of any POW camp in Germany.103
It is impossible to ignore the sheer volume of first-hand evidence from Jewish-American prisoners and other eyewitnesses regarding the treatment of Jewish POWs. Jewish-American POWs were often mistreated by guards, interrogators, and sometimes even civilians. In addition to the rough treatment they received, they had different experiences throughout. From the moment of capture onward, Jewish POWs had to make many agonizing decisions: whether or not to get rid of dogtags, whether or not to reveal their religion, whether or not to risk practicing their religion, and whether or not to give themselves up when Jewish POWs were segregated. Each choice had a consequence. One option might endanger the life of a Jewish POW, but the other option might invoke feelings of shame and regret that the passage of time has not taken away, even to this day. It is clear that many historians have not given enough consideration to Jewish-American POW experiences and treatment. Their experiences were unique, and their struggles need to be acknowledged.