Near Bad Orb, Germany December 26, 1944

Four months after the September 1, 1939, out­break of war in Europe, the German Wehr­macht (mili­tary) estab­lished a pri­soner of war camp out­side Bad Orb, roughly 30 miles north­east of Frank­furt am Main. Over the course of the war Mann­schafts-Stamm­lager IX B, or Stalag IX B for short (“Stalag” being a con­trac­tion of “Stamm­lager,” or base camp), was one of 42 pri­soner of war (POW) camps pri­marily for cap­tured Allied ground forces. Excepting the Soviet Union, signa­tories to the 1929 Geneva Con­ven­tion on the correct treat­ment of pri­soners included Great Britain, France, the United States, Germany, Italy, and Japan. Sadly, the Japa­nese Diet (par­lia­ment) refused to ratify the treaty and the Soviets refused to even sign on.

The legal distinction between POW camps and the thou­sands of con­cen­tra­tion, labor, and death camps in the Reich and German-occu­pied terri­tories is impor­tant. Under the 1929 Geneva Con­ven­tion, captors may assign POWs below non-com­mis­sioned rank (i.e., en­listed grade person­nel) to work details that did not sup­port war-related indus­tries. Gene­ral fac­tory, forestry, con­struc­tion, and agri­cul­tural work were per­mitted. Off limits were muni­tions, gun, air­craft, bal­listic rocket, etc., manu­facturing or work that posed a risk to a POW’s health and safety.

During Adolf Hitler’s winter 1944–45 Ardennes Offen­sive (aka Battle of the Bulge) fought in Bel­gium, North­east France, and Luxem­bourg, over 23,000 U.S. sol­diers became enemy cap­tives. This sudden infu­sion of a quar­ter more Amer­i­cans than were already in the German POW camp sys­tem pro­duced chaos at this late stage in the war, straining the abil­ity of German autho­ri­ties to super­vise and manage their POW system adequately.

Bad Orb’s Stalag IX B was negatively im­pacted by the intake of thou­sands of cap­tive Amer­i­cans (mostly privates), the first 976 arriving on this date, Decem­ber 26, 1944. A month later over 4,000 GIs shared Stalag IX B with French, Bel­gian, Polish, Czech, British, Ser­bian, Soviet, and Ital­ian cap­tives after Benito Musso­lini’s fall from power on July 25, 1943. Camp person­nel had received little to no warning that Amer­i­cans would be arriving (still more GI POWs would arrive), so they made no prep­a­ra­tions for handling them. Nearly 1,500 GIs were forced to sleep on bare floors, many with­out blan­kets, in mostly unheated rooms. Toilet facil­i­ties were primi­tive, hygiene facil­i­ties non existent. Over­crowding worsened with fresh intakes of 2,000 British cap­tives. Food rations nose­dived and deaths from dis­ease and severe mal­nu­tri­tion soared. With 10,000 more pri­soners than it could accom­mo­date, Stalag IX B’s infra­structure was near collapse, never to recover.

Culling the U.S. prisoner population at Stalag IX B occurred in early Febru­ary 1945. That’s when the camp com­man­dant was ordered to relo­cate 350 self-iden­ti­fied and sus­pected Amer­i­can Jews, along with noted camp trouble-makers and some Amer­i­can “volun­teers,” to a new labor camp in East­ern Germany. At Berga an der Elster Amer­i­can POWs would engage in mining oper­a­tions for (it was later learned) a planned under­ground syn­thetic oil plant for the Wehr­macht or, per other sources, a muni­tions factory. The GIs’ trans­fer to an obvi­ous mili­tary pro­ject at Berga vio­lated the 1929 Geneva Convention.

On Febru­ary 13, 1945, 349 Ameri­cans stepped into a hell beyond imag­ining. Berga was a slave-labor camp to which 3,421 over­whelmingly Jewish wretches were dis­patched from Buchen­wald concen­tra­tion camp. Their tun­neling work was extremely hazar­dous and deadly; in fact, Camp Berga was lethal to 20 per­cent of Stalag IX B GIs. (See photo essay below.) Their brutal 9‑week ordeal cul­mi­nated in a forced march of some 1,500 Berga pri­soners that ended on April 23, a week before Adolf Hitler’s sui­cide. As recorded by an Amer­i­can sur­vi­vor of the march, 286 GIs departed Berga for Bava­ria, 48 died on the walk, 30 were hos­pi­tal­ized along the way, and about 166 were liber­ated by the arrival of U.S. troops. Forty-two GIs were unaccounted for. Liber­a­tion for the sur­vi­vors came some 3 weeks after the GIs’ former POW camp at Bad Orb was liberated.

U.S. POWs at Berga an der Elster Slave Labor Camp, February to April 1945

Berga an der Elster labor camp, 1945, 17 tunnelsBerga an der Elster labor camp, 1945, tunnel entrance and mine cart

Above: Berga an der Elster (aka Berga am Elster) was a forced labor sub­camp of the noto­ri­ous Buchen­wald con­cen­tra­tion camp in Thue­ringen, Eastern Germany. Camp Berga was located on the out­skirts of Schlieben, a village in south­western Branden­burg, Eastern Germany. According to most sources the under­ground tunnels and mine shafts at Berga would become a com­plex that would trans­form brown coal into syn­thetic fuel pro­ducts. The Allied stra­te­gic bombing cam­paign had severely reduced the Reich’s abil­ity to pro­duce suf­fi­cient types of fuel for the Wehr­macht in above-ground extrac­tion and refining facil­i­ties, so Germans sought sub­ter­ra­nean loca­tions where slave laborers num­bering in the hun­dreds of tho­usands pro­duced war­planes, ballis­tic mis­siles, and other arti­cles needed for the German war effort. The two photos above show some of the 17 en­trances to tun­nels and mine shafts in Zikraer Berg moun­tain where free German civil­ian miners and slave laborers trans­ferred from nearby con­cen­tra­tion camps, including 349 Amer­i­can POWs from Stalag IX B in Hessen, were put to work. Berga is the only known instance of cap­tured Amer­i­can soldiers being used as slave laborers at a Nazi prison camp. German civil­ians drilled and dyna­mited the slate loose; slave laborers broke up the rocks so they could be shoveled or lifted into wheeled mining trams/­carts and dumped into the nearby Elster River. Some of the inter­connected tunnels and mine shafts were 150 feet below ground and formed cavernous rooms.

Skeletonized Pvt. Alvin L. Abrams, 20, following Berga death march rescueEmaciated U.S. POWs from Berga recently rescued on death march

Left: Pvt. Alvin L. Abrams, 20, of Phila­del­phia, Penn­syl­vania, was one of the Jewish Amer­i­can POWs segre­gated at Stalag IX B and sent on to Berga in Febru­ary 1945. After Berga was evac­u­ated on April 4 or 5, 1945, Abrams was found at the prison hos­pi­tal in Fuchs­muehl near the Czech border by sol­diers of George S. Patton Jr’s Third U.S. Army after barely surviving the 2½‑week, 100‑mile death march into Bavaria. Only the timely arrival of the 11th Armored Divi­sion at war’s end saved the cap­tives, U.S. and Euro­pean nationals, from cer­tain death. Abrams, head resting on his up­raised arm, is fifth from the bottom in the adja­cent photo. After the war Sgt. Erwin Metz, the sadist who super­vised the Amer­i­can camp and two dozen Berga camp guards and was chiefly respon­si­ble for camp’s chaotic and inhu­mane con­di­tions and April’s forced march, saw his death sen­tence com­muned to 20 years’ impri­son­ment but was freed after a mere nine. Metz’s supe­rior, Capt. Ludwig Merz, who was respon­si­ble for the work details, walked free after 5 years in prison. Pro­ject and con­struc­tions manager for Berga’s mining oper­a­tion, one SS Lt. Willy Hack, was hanged by Commu­nist autho­ri­ties in the Soviet-occupied zone of Germany in 1952.

Right: Lying ­on stretchers are some of the 63 ema­ci­ated POWs recently inter­cepted by their Amer­i­can lib­er­ators on the Berga death march. Berga pri­soners had no pro­tect­ive clothing, hard hats, gloves, safety shoes, or masks; many died from pul­mo­nary dis­ease due to dust inha­la­tion from tunneling through white rock using pneu­matic drills, 6‑ft-long steel bits, and explo­sives. Severe mal­nu­tri­tion was another cause of death: pri­soners worked 8‑hour shifts (6 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 2 p.m. to 10 p.m.) 7 days a week with no food, water, or rest and were fed only star­va­tion rations—in other words, pris­oners were inten­tionally and method­i­cally starved and worked to death. (Germans had a term for that: Vernich­tung durch Arbeit, “work to death.”) Pri­soners were bru­ta­lized, beaten regu­larly with a shovel, a rubber hose, or spiked with a pick. They slept in ghastly bed­bug-, flea-, and lice-infested triple-decker bunk beds, and they were never allowed to bathe or change their clothes. Diar­rhea, dysen­tery, and typhus raged in the camp; ulcer­ated wounds, pneu­monia, work­site acci­dents, and sui­cides took their toll. Of the 349 GIs in Stalag IX B Febru­ary’s con­sign­ment, 70 died within 2 months at Berga—the highest POW fatal­ity rate of any camp where Amer­i­cans were incar­cer­ated in Europe. In the lead-up to the Cold War with the Soviets and in a per­verse atmo­sphere of post­war polit­i­cal correct­ness vis-à-vis the West Germans, U.S. mili­tary author­i­ties hushed up any talk of Berga’s hor­rific war crimes. Many sol­diers who had sur­vived Berga were required to sign a “secu­rity cer­tif­i­cate,” for­bidding them from ever dis­closing the details of their impri­son­ment. For these rea­sons, Berga is not well known in the literature.

Nazi Labor and Death Camp Berga an der Elster, 1944–1945