Secret Objekt "Schwalbe V" near Berga at the river Elster
17 tunnels lead to an underground gasoline production plant...
BERGA AM ELSTER � ARBEITSKOMMANDO 625
I believe it was five days later, on February 13, 1945, we arrived in Berga am Elster, located in Thuringian province of Germany. It is about 50 kilometers east of Weimar....
We were marched up a long road to our camp, which was essentially two one story barracks made of wood with tar paper covering. In Berga, the Guards were much older men, maybe 60 years of age, many with obvious physical disabilities which probably deferred them for more active duty in the German army. They were members of the Volksturm, the civilian guard, and for the most part they were nonthreatening. There was no use of dogs to guard us and accompany us when we left the camp area. I have no recall of the first officer in charge of us. I do remember the person who had most control over us. He was Unterofficier, Erwin Metz, a noncommissioned officer, a Sergeant in the National Guard. He took his orders from SS. Lt. Hacke the head man who directed the Schwalbe V project, a joint undertaking by Himmler�s SS and an industrial complex. In effect, he was in charge of the slave-tunnel project to construct underground armaments factories. Lt. Hacke was in charge of all the various slave laborers--political, Russian POWs and now a particular group of American POWs.
The longer that we stayed at Berga, the more and more did the men manifest all the sicknesses of deprivation, starvation and exhaustion. It followed that many men appeared at morning sick call, deathly ill and unable to go work in the tunnels. Metz instituted his personal appearance at morning sick call for the men. It was his determination alone that decided whether these very sick men could remain in their barracks or must go to the slave tunnel work. It occurred often for all of us to note that the men that he forced back to work at morning sick call were found dead in their beds the following morning. Mitchell Bard�s description of the War Crimes trials of Erwin Metz and Ludwig Merz, conducted after the war, was the most depressing information that I have read about my prisoner of war experience. It was some 50 years after the fact, I learned that a trial of these beasts had occurred. The subsequent outcome of this trial, the insignificant applied sentences for their evil deeds, and the amnesty granted to them by parties not even remotely involved in the crimes, were expressions of the most egregiously disgusting and disgraceful injustice for the victims � the American POW�s under their control for 11 weeks in 1945. Simply put � these beasts got away with murder.
Shortly after arrival we were assigned our individual work details. You were selected for a particular job by the Arbeitskommandofuhrer, Metz. There were nine Medics in the group and we were assigned to the food detail and to remain in the barracks to attend the sick men. The remainder of our group were to become slave laborers, working in two 12 hour shifts every day of the week for 40 days straight. They worked in slave tunnels, not unlike numerous other tunnels in different sites in Germany where underground armament factories were being constructed. I was selected for the food detail and to work in the dispensary. My International Red Cross card identified me as a Medic. It was the most important factor in the selection of my particular work detail and it was the ultimate factor in my survival.
Unquestionably, the type of assigned work detail impacted heavily upon the chances of survival in Berga and subsequently on the death march. The slave-tunnel work resulted in the exposure to strenuous, dangerous and exhausting labor in very cold, wet and slate dust-covered environment for 12 hours daily. This work was to continue without respite for 40 straight days. On Easter Sunday, in late March, a day�s holiday was declared. It was principally because the civilian engineers and gang bosses of the tunnels suddenly became �holy." The men were subject to indiscriminate beatings for occurrences beyond their control or erroneously perceived by the work gang bosses. They were repeated harangued by work orders and directions from German civilian engineers or the gang bosses which caused many men to act irrational, attempt to fight back and many attempted escape at any cost. There was daily exposure to and occurrences of injuries. However minor these injuries might be the end result was a major insult to the starved and debilitated men. A POW�s particular work detail was proportional to the exhaustion he would suffer -- the heavier the work load, the more exhaustion. At times, men in the various 17 tunnels had different job assignments so that some men fared better than others. But all were debilitated by starvation and exposed to various communicable diseases common in crowded, lice and vermin infested barracks. In a short period of time, the effects were disastrous.
My food detail consisted of eight men who assembled every morning about 4:00 a.m., picked up by the two guards who accompanied us on our walk down the hill to the concentration camp annex. At that time of the year, it was very dark, cold, damp, and often the blowing winds of February and March made our trek on snow, ice or slush very treacherous and difficult. I was miserably cold and unbelievably uncomfortable, suffering in silence, but not a whisper of a complaint because I knew the alternative in the tunnels.
iWhen we arrived at the concentration camp, the large entrance gate would be opened by Capos or special privileged political prisoners. At the time, I had no knowledge about certain categories of prisoners but I saw that there was a difference in the behavior and the so-called authority of certain prisoners. They were dressed differently and looked better fed. I learned about these types of political prisoners after the war. On the inner aspect of the front gate were SS troopers, in black uniforms with the �toten kopf� insignia on their lapels. They had large German shepherd dogs on leashes at their side. It was a frightening sight every time that we entered the camp. We would push our wagon to a kitchen area on the left, just inside the gate. We would stand there, wait until our Marmite cans were filled by young boys wearing the blue/black and white stripped pajamas of the political prisoners. I did not know at the time, but I know now that most of them were Jews. They all wore hats and would remove them prior to bowing, then standing at attention, and then addressing a SS trooper or Capo. They scurried around quickly and looked very busy to complete the job of filling the food containers. It was as if they feared being struck by the closely observing Capos or SS guards. The Capos had batons as did SS troopers who were not carrying rifles.
I had never witnessed a public hanging nor let alone ever seen a hanging other than in photographs. In the concentration camp, I saw many hangings in the courtyard not far from the entrance gate, near our kitchen waiting area. At different times, as we waited for our rations, I saw two, three, or four persons, some emaciated, others not emaciated, all in the same pajamas, hanging from a rope from a broad beam supported at each end by angled beams of wood. It was there! In front of us! Out in the open! The area was cleared of any buildings and we came to accept this as part of the camp�s physical appearance. I had no idea of the why, what or who of these public hangings. But every time that I saw a hanging, I was frightened, lost, felt defenseless, and intimidated. I looked away, kept very close to myself and tried to prevent making any slight movement or expression which would involve me with this scene. I saw, but I did not want to know. I did not want any of the SS troopers to notice my observation of the hangings. All of us observed, made no comment to each other and remained silent. I just wanted to get out of there without being part of the horrible scene. When there were hangings, it appeared that we all had a sense of relief when we started pushing our wagon back up the hill. After awhile, I knew that particular area where the public hangings were and would quickly observe it and avoid looking again. We were separated from the horrors of the camp but I had to view it daily and know that is where we got our nourishment. Even our guards failed to make any comments nor engaged the SS troopers in conversation. They accompanied us through the gate, remained silent and observed these events as if this was not their business. A common response of not becoming involved in order to protect yourself.
BERGA AND THE WORK DETAILS
The German Volksturm guards recognized that pushing the three full Marmite cans up the hill was a heavy chore, particularly, on frozen ground or in wet cold rain. On very harsh blustery days, they would assign 10 men to the food detail. Adding more men to the detail was an opportunity in which we were able to assist some of our buddies in their escape from the camp. We would try to confuse the guards by telling them that we only had eight men on the detail at the start but, in fact, we were 10 men. We would move about changing positions on the wagon to confuse the guards into believing that there were eight of us. During the darkness of the morning, beyond the lights of our camp, they would slip away from the detail. Several men escaped the camp this way.
Three men, the former Man of Confidence of Stalag 9B, Hans Kasten and his two German-speaking assistants, escaped in the first week at Berga. They were captured, spent the rest of the war in a punishment Stalag but they survived.
I know that we used this trick twice with Morton Goldstein. I had met him in Stalag 9B and he was a garrulous, bombastic man who could not be confined and certainly could not do the work in the tunnels. His first escape ended in recapture and extra duty, and he was forced to stand out in the cold for a long time. About the third week in March, on our trip in the morning to pick up breakfast, Goldstein and another POW joined us and then took off. Goldstein was recaptured and was shot in the back of the head by Sgt. Metz. At the War Crime Trial of Metz who was charged with killing an American prisoner, claimed that Goldstein was attempting to run away after he was captured. Goldstein was brought back to camp by some other Medics. Metz would not allow a burial for one week. His body laid on a stretcher between two barracks as a warning to others who would attempt escape. I recall the Goldstein escape very vividly and I remember that he was shot after his second escape. I thought that it was only in the back of the head and it appeared to be an execution performed by Metz, but the Trial Judge of the War Crimes Trial thought differently as there was evidence that he was also shot in the back. The display of Goldstein�s body was to deter any further attempts to escape.
This was an SS/Military work complex called Schwalbe V, under the immediate direction of an SS Lt. Hacke, which utilized slave labor political prisoners controlled by Himmler�s SS troopers to build underground armament factories. There were many similar complexes throughout Germany for the same purposes. It was in keeping with Himmler�s plan to utilize political prisoners from all of conquered Europe as slaves in building a greater Germany. The work site was a very long and tall hillside adjacent to the Elster river. The site ran along the river bed for a considerable distance and was sufficiently large to accommodate the construction of 17 different tunnels which lead into a planned large armament factory area. The factory area had not been excavated as yet, but by the size and number of tunnels the over all planning must have been for a complex of significant size.
The slave work consisted of excavating rocks and dirt by hand and shovel after it was loosened by explosives laid by the German engineers. The men hand loaded rocks onto or shoveled slate fragments and dirt onto flatbed cars similar to coal cars. They hand pushed the cars on its track to an area where the rocks could be dumped into the Elster river. They worked with primitive drills, old mining machines and often the men were utilized in place of machine power or horse power to move heavy objects. Accidents and beatings with rubber hoses were common. Slate dust was choking and ever present. Our Volksturm guards marched the shifts of POWs to their tunnels, where they remained until the shift ended. The return to the barracks was often marred by the indifference and uncaring long waiting periods until our guards arrived to march them back to the barracks and their bunks. Even after this torture there was a further delay of the much deserved rest because they had to stand in line for the evening count of the prisoners. These repetitive, disruptive, inane counts made the suffering more harsh. Finally, the meager rations of a bowl of rotted potato or turnip top green soup and a slice of hard, grainy black bread was distributed.
The SS/Military complex, Schwalbe V, set up the construction site, planned the construction, hired the engineers and arranged to have slave labor transported to the area. The slaves were to be worked until death and there were readily available replacements with other political prisoners. It was not apparent to any of us that essentially we were renamed as slave labor, political prisoners, available to the SS and no longer considered American POWs with whatever rights are inferred by the Geneva convention. At times different men complained to Metz that some of his actions were against the Geneva convention. His reply was that he was the Geneva Convention. In fact, he sent a Medic to work in the tunnels one day because he questioned Metz about the convention�s protection of POWs.
About the last week in March, we were moved to barracks situated alongside of the concentration camp annex. I believe that my date of changing barracks is correct because Morton Goldstein and another man escaped on March 20th from our morning food detail while we were going down the hill to the annex. We moved to the new location after Morton Goldstein�s dead body was laid outside our barracks on the hill for several days as a warning for anyone attempting to escape. Our new barracks were separated from the Concentration Camp annex by two electrified fences. I could see into the other camp and observed many of the inmates were working in a very large warehouse type of building. The SS troopers patrolled inside the concentration camp fence and we continued to have the Volksturm guards with Sergeant Metz in command. The work detail of the men was significantly changed. They no longer had to work in the tunnels. There were several different jobs but all were above ground, away from the slate dust and cold damp air of the tunnels. Some had to take a train to a rail yard where they moved sections of track or track bed material. Others worked near the tunnels and pushed the tram carts which came out of the tunnel onto a turntable and dumped the excavated material into the Elster river. The work was strenuous but the weather was warming and the breathing was easier. Even the shifts were changed to a more favorable time during the day. My job was less tiring, there was no hill to climb and a minimal amount of pulling and pushing was necessary to get our wagon over the bridge near the entrance of the concentration camp. However, everyone�s daily work continued for forty days until Easter Sunday. It was a day of rest for the Americans and the civilian gang bosses and engineers. By that time we had received our first Red Cross package
Easter was about March 30, 1945. It was that day, after 40 daily work days, the men had their first day of rest, did not have to go the slave tunnels and were able to enjoy the contents of the Red Cross parcel. Three and a half months in captivity. On April 6, 1945, we were ordered to evacuate the barracks and started a march from one city to another in a southeasterly direction, supposedly, to get to Bavaria...
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