Soldier Survivors of Berga

After the American Army liberated them, the surviving prisoners looked like walking skeletons. They had been beaten, starved, humiliated, forced to dig tunnels under inhuman conditions and prodded through a 150-mile death march.

A sad, familiar Holocaust story. Except that these survivors were American GIs, prisoners of war captured in the Battle of the Bulge, who had been segregated as actual or presumed Jews, and then brutalized as slave laborers for the Nazis.

The all-but-unknown story of these men has been memorialized in "Berga: Soldiers of Another War" by famed documentary filmmaker Charles Guggenheim as his last work, completed a few weeks before his death last October.

After they had been captured in December 1944, thousands of American POWs were transported to Stalag 9B. There the German commandant ordered all Jewish soldiers to step forward and identify themselves.

The POWs had elected Hans Friedrich Kasten, an American soldier of German descent, as their camp leader, and he passed down the word that no one was to admit to being Jewish. The GIs, Jewish and non-Jewish, stuck together, but individual Jewish soldiers were still in a quandary.

Some threw away their dogtags, with the tell-tale letter "H" (for Hebrew) designating their religion. Others, like Myron Swack, identified himself. Recalling the moment 55 years later, Swack said, "I was born a Jew and I might as well die a Jew. That’s the way I figured. My parents were born as Jews and they died as Jews."

Not satisfied with the number of "identified" Jews, the Nazis picked out anyone who "looked" Jewish or had a "Jewish-sounding" last name. In the end, only 80 of the 350 "undesirables" sent to Berga, a satellite concentration camp of Buchenwald, were actually Jewish.

Guggenheim, winner of four Oscars, tells the story through interviews with survivors (many of whom had never shared the horror with their families) and eyewitnesses, archival photos and re-enactments.

The filmmaker himself had carried the project in his mind for 50 years. He had been a member of the 106th Infantry Division, some of whose GIs died in Berga. Due to a basic training injury, Guggenheim had stayed behind in the States, and he never got over it.

"They went overseas and I didn’t," he said before his death. "That’s why I had to tell this story."

The 90-minute film airs May 28 at 9:30 p.m. on KCET. &’9;

Rosh Hashanah in Frankfurt, Germany

On Friday, Sept. 7, 1945, 1800 hours, at the corner of Freiherr von Stein Strasse and Eppsteiner Strasse in Frankfurt-on-the-Main, a ceremony took place.

It was Rosh Hashanah evening, the ushering in of the Jewish New Year. World War II had ended in Europe four months before, and Frankfurt’s main synagogue was being rededicated. While utterly ravaged inside, the structure itself remained practically untouched in spite of Nazi burnings and Allied bombs. It stood there like a Rock of Gibraltar while devastation and destruction surrounded it on all sides. Despite a new coat of blue paint, the inside was hollow, a shadow of its former self. Still, this was a rebirth.

Out of the city’s once-thriving Jewish community of 35,000, people who had sought learning and a peaceful life, no more than 150 civilians were left to attend the service – a mere handful of German Jewish men and a number of Polish displaced persons. Those who filled the synagogue to overflow were Americans: Army and Navy officers, male and female enlisted personnel, infantry men, armored men, Air Corps men, U.S. Forces European Theater personnel, battle stars – Jews.

Dr. Leopold Neuhaus, about 70 years old and rabbi of Frankfurt, was magnificent and overpowering. Though he spoke in German, it was easy enough to understand him. For seven long years, the horror of which cannot be imagined or put into words, he had waited for this day. Thanks to the Americans it had come at last. I will not forget the burned temples and schools of learning, the countless dead, the 2,400 young children who were gassed in Auschwitz on Yom Kippur – youth who committed no crime, knew no evil. How he had lived for this day, having experienced the horrors of the concentration camp, I do not know.

Perhaps he was spared because of his age. But there he was, eloquent and magnificent. There was moistness around my eyes and a heavy lump in my throat; something I couldn’t hold back. Yet in the poignant power of his voice, which became stronger as he went along, there was no mention of Hitler or Nazis. There was greatness in the man, a consuming ardor and strength that bespoke the everlastingness of our people. The tyranny that they experienced would not be forgotten.

There was no cry for vengeance, just a cry for peace and understanding. The civilian women, dressed as best as they could, sat in the balcony with WACs and WAC officers, remembering and openly weeping. But some could not even weep.

Eloquent and sincere addresses were made in English by a major and a chaplain named Vida. But they could not match the fire of the rabbi. How could they? Those moments on the battlefield, the chaplain said, that many of us had experienced and which seemed endless, like a thousand years, could not be compared to the lot of these people who were here and experienced these endless, thousand-year moments every day. Vida said that for each temple and school of learning that was destroyed, it was up to us to see that others are built to take their place. He prayed that next year we might all be with our loved ones and gave thanks for this day. The major, in a sure and soft voice, spoke of our long and checkered history of lights and shadows, and at last the darkness was over. He hoped that Frankfurt would again be restored to its former place of culture and learning. We stood up and said “Kaddish,” and I said it for Arky and President Roosevelt, who died too soon, and for the many who would never return.

Outside, the Germans in nearby houses peered through windows and curtains and stared at the Jews who flocked here for this great occasion, and at the predominance of American khaki. What thoughts must have been running through their minds. I could think nothing but evil of them, for I felt each was responsible. At last, the oppressed people were worshiping in freedom and without threat.

Milty Silverstein from Wyona Street was there, and fellows from upstate, from Detroit, from Los Angeles. We knew that in synagogues all over the U.S.A. and the world, services were being conducted and people were giving thanks that the day when they would be reunited with their loved ones was closer. And we could feel the pain of those who could not be happy.

Two military government policemen were there, but they weren’t necessary. It was still light and the service couldn’t begin until the sun went down, so we smoked cigarettes outside. German kids, who were no longer studying the ways of the Hitler Jugend, busied themselves picking up cigarette butts. To them it was a good haul. They could not comprehend, as we did, the greatness of this occasion.

Murray Klein was a master sergeant posted to the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force. He worked at Continental Can Company for 33 years before retiring and moving to Sherman Oaks in 1985. He turns 84 on Oct. 5.