Remembering WWII’s Jewish prisoners

Comments Off on Remembering WWII’s Jewish prisoners

Washington Jewish Week

June 24, 2004

One subject not discussed among the many World War II stories that have been surfacing because of the World War II Memorial dedication is treatment of Jewish American prisoners of war captured by the Germans.

After asking fellow veterans in my army unit, the 42d Infantry Division, who were POWs, “To your knowledge, were Jewish American POWs treated differently than non-Jewish captives?” and after doing some research, I’ve learned that the answer in many cases is definitely, “Yes.”

Jewish prisoners who did not discard their dog tags that indicated “H” for Hebrew or who looked Jewish were separated from other prisoners and not seen again.

David Willetts, who is not Jewish, told me that the German commanders questioned him for a long time, demanding his family history because his first name was David. One ex-prisoner witnessed a Jewish POW being beat up. His eyeglasses were smashed, leaving him to be nearly blind during his entire captivity.

A documentary video shown on public TV, Berga, Soldiers of Another War, related how a German commander who issued orders for Jewish soldiers to identify themselves was not satisfied with the number of men who complied with his request.

He then selected more than 300 prisoners who he thought looked Jewish or had Jewish-sounding last names, as well as some trouble makers, to go to Berga, a satellite of the Buchenwald concentration camp, where they suffered atrocities alongside Jewish slave laborers from other concentration camps.

A periodical titled Ex-POW Bulletin, Voice of American Ex-Prisoners of War, published stories of Berga prisoners. A few comments were: Prisoners had to dig tunnels and blast through slate. Many lost arms and legs in blasting incidents. Meals consisted of a cup of ersatz coffee, a brown liquid for breakfast, and dinner of brown bread divided among a number of men. Some of the Americans were blackmailed by other prisoners, who threatened to tell the Germans they were Jewish unless they gave them their food.

Men died of typhus, malnutrition, overwork, hanging, shooting and infection. In three and a half months, one out of five Americans were dead at Berga.

One Jewish POW, who was liberated, ended up in a hospital and stated he had to sign an order pledging not to discuss being in Berga before the Army would release him. He felt the government suppressed the bad treatment because many Germans were being brought in as scientists in the space program during the Cold War with Russia.

Many of these Germans were former SS officials. Some Jews have stated, “I am an American first, Jewish second.” Had they been prisoners of war in German camps, that statement would have been reversed.

Larry Rosen


No Comments

No comments yet.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Comments RSS Feed