"Our Fellows Deserve to Be Heard"

Martin Vogel holds a photo of his family.

By Katherine Duke '05

“It’s so long ago. It’s so distant,” says Martin Vogel ’48, thinking back on his brother’s death. “But my brother and I were so close together that I felt like I lost my right arm.”

The Vogel boys were born a year and a half apart, the only children of a Jewish family in Brooklyn, N.Y. The older brother’s name was Bernard, but younger brother Martin knew him—and adored him—as “Jack.” The two shared a love of reading, and they both sped through advanced courses in high school, graduating two years apart, at ages 16 and 15, respectively. In 1942, the military was still offering draft deferments for college students, so Jack enrolled at Brooklyn College, and Martin soon followed him there. Martin was interested in science and medicine; Jack planned on a career in law—all of their uncles were lawyers.

As the U.S. involvement in World War II intensified, the military did away with the deferment policy. Jack was drafted first, into the Army’s 106th Infantry Division, where he rose to the rank of private first class. He was deployed to Europe in the fall of 1944. The following winter, in school without his brother, “I was sort of lonely,” Martin says, “so I went down to the Draft Board and said, ‘Draft me.’” He joined the 372nd Engineers and did guard duty at a prisoner of war camp in Germany’s Bad Kreuznach district for the remaining months of the war.

After V-E Day, Martin came home, but Jack did not. Their parents knew only the basics of his capture and death. “They had gotten a telegram from the War Department that he was missing and that he was a prisoner of war,” Martin says. Eventually, the military shipped Jack’s body to New York, and the family had him buried in a cemetery on Long Island. Army records indicated that Jack’s body was found, along with those of many other American POWs, in a churchyard near a small town called Berga in eastern Germany.

“Then,” Martin says, “the question was, ‘What happened to my brother?’”

Others had the same question. But when relatives of the deceased men wrote requesting details, the U.S. government confirmed only that there had been a camp in Berga where American POWs had been sent to work.

Early in 1946, Charles Vogel—one of Jack and Martin’s attorney uncles, who had worked in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps during World War I—began sending letters and questionnaires to those who had made it home from Berga. (At the time, Martin knew very little about this endeavor, hearing of it only through his parents.) Several former prisoners, including a medic named Cpl. Anthony Acevedo from the 70th Infantry Division, wrote to say they had known Jack and witnessed his death. Acevedo mentioned having kept “a record, in diary form” of the imprisonment, but his letter was deliberately vague, only hinting at disturbing conditions:

...I would rather not discuss the details of what happened but I will say that he was made to work in the mines. He, as well as everyone of us, suffered from malnutrition. This made him easy prey to pneumonia. He didn’t have the strength or will to fight the disease and finally died....
Martin Vogel holds a document from his uncle, who'd gathered names and addresses of Berga survivors.

Vogel soon gathered names, addresses and testimonies from the majority of the survivors, and it became clear from the testimonies that Berga was a place more horrific than any standard POW camp.

Vogel passed his findings on to the War Crimes Branch of the U.S. War Department, but first, with his determination and outrage mounting, he demanded and received assurance that the information would be used to help build the case against those who ran the camp.

On Sept. 3, 1946, at the site of Germany’s Dachau concentration camp, the commanders of Berga—Sgt. Erwin Metz, a former bank official and factory manager, and Capt. Ludwig Merz, a former teacher—were brought before a military tribunal on charges of assaulting and killing POWs (in Metz’s case) and deliberate mistreatment of prisoners (in both men’s cases), according to the 2005 book Soldiers and Slaves: American POWs Trapped by the Nazis’ Final Gamble, by New York Times col­umnist Roger Cohen. Metz passed off responsibility to Merz, who in turn claimed to answer to S.S. 1st Lt. Willy Hack, the book says. (East German authorities sentenced Hack to death in 1949, and he was hanged in 1952.) Though dozens of survivors told Charles Vogel that they were willing to testify, none was called in person to the Dachau trial, and only 12 of the prisoners’ written testimonies were used to supplement the information gathered on Berga by the U.S. War Crimes Investigating Team. The book says that the prosecution drew little attention to the ample evidence that the Nazis chose the POWs to labor and die at Berga specifically because they were Jewish or otherwise “undesirable”—that these Americans might be counted among the victims of what would become known as the Holocaust. On Oct. 15, 1946, the tribunal sentenced Metz and Merz to death by hanging.
But on June 11, 1948, Charles Vogel received shocking news: a letter from the Civil Affairs Division of the War Crimes Branch stating that authorities had commuted Metz’s sentence to life imprisonment and Merz’s to a mere five years. Vogel and relatives of other Berga victims fired back letters of protest, and Vogel gathered signatures from survivors and next-of-kin on a petition that asked President Harry Truman, Defense Secretary James Forrestal and Secretary of State George Marshall to “use your full powers to procure at least a RETRIAL to which American G.I. survivors can be sent to testify, if direct reversal of the commutation of their sentences cannot be obtained, so that these two barbaric murderers can receive the full justice they merit by American standards.”

“Full justice” never came. Metz’s prison term was again commuted, to 15 years, and he was released on parole in 1954. By 1955, both he and Merz walked free.

For the families, the only option was to carry on with their lives. Martin Vogel left the Army in 1945 and enrolled at Amherst as a transfer student the following year. He graduated with a degree in biology in 1948, but his plans to go straight to medical school were thwarted: “At that time, there was a quota on Jewish students,” he says. So he stayed at Amherst for an extra year and earned a master’s degree in biochemistry. He was then accepted to Boston University School of Medicine, and following several years of residency, he settled into a private gastroenterology practice in Framingham, Mass. The young doctor married Phyllis Mishara, a Wellesley graduate, in 1953, and together they had four children. The oldest, James, attended Bowdoin College; the youngest three all graduated from Amherst: Paul in 1980, Deborah in 1982 and David in 1984.

The Vogel children always knew their father had lost a brother in World War II, but the family talked little about what had happened. “I think it still was kind of raw and painful for my dad to explore this in a casual, dinner-table conversation,” David says. But Martin thought often of Jack, and over the years he searched for more details about Berga. After Charles Vogel died in the 1960s, Charles’ son gave Martin a box of the attorney’s old documents, which Martin stored away in a closet. One of the few times Martin spoke about his brother’s death was on a trip to Israel, where he met a writer named Mitchell G. Bard, who later visited Martin’s home to study Charles’ documents. The research was for Bard’s book Forgotten Victims: The Abandonment of Americans in Hitler’s Camps, published in 1994. “He was one of the first people who really became interested in Berga,” Martin says. But Martin eventually lost touch with the author. In the 1990s Martin and his wife visited her alma mater to hear a lecture by a prosecuting attorney from the Nuremberg Trials, and there they met Dan Steckler, a Berga survivor who, coincidentally, also lived in Framingham. “He knew my brother very, very well,” Martin says, but like Acevedo decades earlier, “he was very vague.” The Nuremberg prosecutor didn’t say much about Berga either.

In 2003 PBS aired a documentary by Charles Guggenheim, Berga: Soldiers of Another War. While informative, it taught Martin little that he didn’t already know. It didn’t tell him what he wanted to know. It didn’t tell him anything about his brother.

So it went until late last year, when Martin got a call from his son David telling him to check the CNN Web site, where there was a brief Veterans Day article titled “WWII vet held in Nazi slave camps breaks silence: ‘Let it be known.’” The vet was Anthony Acevedo.

The article expressed Acevedo’s anger that the government had never recognized what he and his fellow soldiers had endured at Berga, and it quoted from his diary. Among his recollections were the last words of a young soldier named Bernard Vogel.

Amazed, Martin Vogel immediately phoned the article’s main author, CNN.com Senior Producer Wayne Drash. “We both, basically, were crying,” Drash recalls. “He had been searching for answers to his brother’s death for six decades.” Drash put Vogel in touch with Acevedo and with another Berga survivor from Jack’s division, Myron Swack.

“All of a sudden,” Vogel remarked in a phone conversation with Acevedo and Drash, taped for CNN.com, “the whole past has come up in the present.” Finally, he could hear the voices of those who had been there with his brother—who had lived the story of Berga.

Dec. 16, 1944, marked the start of the Ardennes-Alsace campaign—more commonly known as the Battle of the Bulge. The “bulge” consisted of hundreds of thousands of German troops, advancing 50 miles across Allied lines in the wooded Ardennes Mountains region of Belgium in Adolf Hitler’s last-ditch effort to turn the war around.

More than 76,000 U.S. soldiers were wounded, killed or captured in the six-week campaign. Cpl. Anthony Acevedo of the 70th Infantry Division and Pfc. Bernard “Jack” Vogel of the 106th were among those captured and loaded into freezing railroad cars and taken to a prison camp called Stalag IX-B, near the town of Bad Orb, Germany. IX-B was already overcrowded with many thousands of POWs from Poland, France, the Soviet Union and elsewhere in Europe.

The Americans, segregated into their own barracks, eventually numbered as many as 4,700. Acevedo recalls today that the stalag had no toilets—sewage flowed into trenches around the barracks. The prisoners grew so hungry that one of them attacked the camp’s cook with a cleaver in an effort to steal food from the kitchen. Until the Nazi guards could find the culprit, they made everyone stand outside for 12 hours in the snow.

Soon the guards began demanding information from the Americans about their pasts, their families and their ethnicities, Acevedo says. This was a clear violation of the 1929 Geneva Convention, which states that POWs must not be coerced into disclosing anything more than their names and ranks. Beyond interrogating him about his family’s business dealings in Mexico, Gestapo officers tortured Acevedo: “They put needles in my fingernails to try and make me talk.” The U.S. Army had issued the soldiers dog tags that identified, among other information, their religions—C for Catholic, P for Protestant, H for Hebrew. The Jewish prisoners knew enough to fear for their safety, Acevedo says, and some did their best to hide or alter their tags.

Guggenheim’s documentary and Cohen’s book Soldiers and Slaves both detail how, in late January 1945, the guards lined up the American prisoners and ordered, “Alle Juden, einen Schritt vorwärts”—“All Jews, one step forward.” When not enough came forth, Acevedo says, the guards picked out those who supposedly looked Jewish, including Vogel, as well as troublemakers and other “undesirables,” including Acevedo. They selected exactly 350 young men and packed them onto another train to be brought to a new location: Berga.

“They made it look like as if it was going to be a very nice place, much different from the prison camp,” Acevedo says. “It turned out to be a slave camp.”

Martin Vogel has never read Cohen’s book, which, as part of an exhaustive account of the events before, during and after the Berga imprisonment, does include details about Jack and quotes and images from Acevedo’s diary. According to the accounts by Cohen and Guggenheim, the Americans from Stalag IX-B arrived to find a section of the Berga camp already populated by European civilians—some of them children, and most wearing striped uniforms and Stars of David. Brought in from Buchenwald and other concentration camps, these prisoners were too wasted and weak for hard labor, and the Nazis were shooting and hanging more of them every day. The Americans were still relatively strong and healthy, so Lt. Hack put them to work expanding and deepening 17 interconnected tunnels dug into the banks of the Weisse Elster River. Cohen’s book explains that these tunnels were to house an underground ammunition factory.

Pages from the once-secret diary of Army medic Anthony Acevedo

Though he wasn’t assigned to the tunnels, Acevedo worked with five other U.S. medics to tend to those who were. After inhaling slate dust from morning to night, the laborers would come back coughing up blood and would sleep huddled together for warmth in the lice-infested barracks, according to the accounts by Cohen and Guggenheim. Their rations—typically bread made with sawdust and thin soups of putrid greens—provided barely enough calories for survival. “They wouldn’t let us use the river water,” Acevedo remembers. “We tried to eat the snow as much as possible.” When the medics would ask the guards about getting medical attention for the ill and injured, the reply was always, “No. There’s no doctor here.” So they made do with the aspirin and bandages they had with them. Acevedo also started his secret diary, recording in sketches and brief paragraphs the events and conditions at Berga. He dutifully listed the names of his fellows, their ailments and, more and more often, their causes of death: pneumonia, malnutrition, dysentery, grippe.

Meanwhile, on March 2, three American POWs—including Johann “Hans” Kasten—squeezed through the camp’s barbed-wire fence and escaped into the surrounding woods. They were captured and sent to a different stalag, according to the Cohen and Guggenheim accounts. At IX-C, Kasten reported the situation at Berga to British officers, who arranged for a truckload of Red Cross relief packages to be delivered to the labor camp. The prisoners of Berga needed the food and medicine more desperately than ever, but Sgt. Metz withheld them, Cohen explains in his book. Acevedo wrote in the diary that by the time Metz handed the packages over, almost a week later, yet another American had starved to death. Other prisoners—including Morton Goldstein, a member of Jack Vogel’s division—tried to get away but were also caught. “Goldstein’s body was returned here today for burial,” Acevedo noted in his diary. “He was shot while attempting to Re-escape. So they say but actually [he] was recaptured and shot thru the head.” Metz pulled the trigger.

About two weeks after Goldstein’s death, Vogel teamed up with Pvt. Israel Cohen and decided to make a break for it. Myron Swack told CNN that the two men ran across a nearby field but didn’t get far. When the guards brought them back, Metz beat Cohen until he temporarily blacked out, according to Soldiers and Slaves, and the guards splashed Vogel with icy water, cut his already-meager rations down even further and assigned him extra labor in addition to his work in the tunnels. Swack told CNN that, as examples to the other prisoners, both escapees had to stand outside without food or water for two days, until they collapsed.

Afterward, back in the barracks, Acevedo and another soldier attempted to revive Vogel, reminding him, “Look: you have your family, your loved ones, back home. We have to get you going. Come on, get up. Talk to me. Come on, Bernie.” Acevedo remembers that he took a boiled egg and “tried rubbing it into his lips, to try and see if he can bite on it, and—no. To no avail. He wouldn’t.” Drained of his will and mumbling, “I want to die,” Vogel drifted away. He was 21 years old.

Around that time, with Allied forces rapidly approaching, German officials quickly shut down the Berga camp and led the prisoners south toward the Bavarian town of Cham. (Soldiers and Slaves provides details about the march, including a map.) Starting on April 5, they marched 15 to 20 miles every day. “This isn’t very good for our sick men,” Acevedo wrote. The weak were hauled in wagons; Israel Cohen was on the bottom of a wagon load and soon suffocated under the growing pile of bodies, according to Soldiers and Slaves. Over the 18 days of the march, nearly 50 soldiers died. Every so often, Acevedo noted in the diary, the Americans would pass the corpses of some of the former Buchenwald prisoners, left by the sides of the road with bullet holes in their heads.

But as the casualties mounted, so did the hope of rescue. One morning, Acevedo remembers, “we heard shooting, machine guns, the rumbling of the tanks.” The guards called for everyone to move out, but knowing that their countrymen were approaching, the prisoners wouldn’t budge. Acevedo lay down and covered himself with straw. “Raus! Raus!” the guards yelled—“Get up!” “We couldn’t walk, we told them, if our buddies were dying,” he says.

The stalling tactic worked, and soon rescue came in the form of American tanks. At first, the liberators didn’t recognize the skeletal figures. “They thought that we were Germans, camouflaged, when they saw us in the shreds of clothes,” says Acevedo, who had dropped from 149 pounds down to 87. But soon they heard orders to climb into the tanks. “We were liberated today April the 23, 1945,” the diarist wrote, underlining the beautiful date twice.

The survivors were deloused and fed. U.S. Army photographers documented their emaciation, and military officials questioned them. Before their ultimate return to the States, each soldier had to sign a “Security Certificate for Ex-Prisoners of War,” stating that, in order to protect “the interests of American prisoners of war in Japanese camps” and any future wars, they would never “reveal, discuss, publish or otherwise disclose to unauthorized persons information on escape from enemy prison camps” and that “the authorship of stories or articles on these subjects is specifically forbidden.” Acevedo interpreted this to mean that “we weren’t to open our mouths and say what we had gone through”—hence the conflicted and evasive tone of the letter he wrote to Charles Vogel. It was a mystery to the veterans why the details of their imprisonment had to be a secret. Roger Cohen notes in his book that many were content not to talk about it much at all—some were ashamed of things they’d done under the desperate circumstances, and most preferred to focus on the future rather than remain captive to the traumas and horrors of the past. Those who tried to tell their families and friends about their ordeal were often met with disbelief.

Then, a year ago, when CNN published the article about Acevedo on its Web site, readers “were so blown away by it,” CNN’s Wayne Drash says. “They kind of demanded me to follow the story, to do more on it—the fact that U.S. soldiers were held as slaves by Nazi Germany and that our government had failed to recognize them.” He wrote more articles. Readers posted hundreds of comments and began lobbying for a response from the Secretary of the Army, who in turn ordered the Pentagon to investigate. U.S. Reps. Joe Baca of California and Spencer Bachus of Alabama called for Congress to give the 350 soldiers “long overdue recognition for their service and sacrifice.”

Recognition finally came on June 6, 2009, in a ceremony at a hotel banquet hall in Orlando, Fla. In front of about 100 former World War II POWs and their families, six Berga survivors were presented with American flags flown over the Pentagon in their honor, and one survivor—Pvt. Samuel Fahrer, who had been a medic—received the Bronze Star. Representing the U.S. Army, Maj. Gen. Vincent Boles explicitly acknowledged the truth about Berga: “It wasn’t a prison camp—it was a slave labor camp.” In a video interview with Drash for CNN, Boles said that the Army’s intent in having the prisoners sign the “Security Certificate” was solely to prevent them from talking about escapes and those who had tried to help them escape. “We didn’t explain it correctly, and it was construed as a secrecy document, which they could never talk about.”

Martin Vogel with a certificate signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt

However, Acevedo believes—and Martin Vogel agrees—that the Army did want the survivors to remain silent about their entire imprisonment. They suspect that the military did not want foreign authorities or companies to learn about the underground factory being built at Berga, lest they glean dangerous information about new weapons that the Germans were developing. Acevedo was among 16 Berga survivors who did not attend the ceremony in Orlando, in part because he was “very upset” that it did not take place in Washington, D.C. There are more recognition ceremonies being planned in the survivors’ local communities, though, and when one happens near his current home in California, he says he’ll go. Now 85, Acevedo is eager to share his story, and copies of his diary, with anyone who cares to learn more. “I share it,” he says, “because I still think that a lot of our fellows deserve to be heard.”

Martin Vogel is sharing the story, too. Wayne Drash spent three days at the Vogel household poring over the box of documents inherited from Charles Vogel, noting the details of the lawyer’s early campaign for justice. This year, a distant relative of the Vogels in a government records office sent the family an enormous additional set of papers about the war crimes trial, which Vogel has also passed on to Drash.

David Vogel is glad for the catharsis that the past year has finally allowed his father. “We sat around a table at my parents’ house with my children and my brother’s children, and so we had our generation and the next generation listening to the story,” he says. “It’s come to life for them.” Several of Martin’s grandchildren have since written reports for school about what happened to their Great-Uncle Jack.

Bernard “Jack” Vogel and 349 other Americans worked and suffered and starved in 17 tunnels on the banks of a river in a faraway town. Those tunnels have long since been sealed up, but the story is out, and it will survive.    

Writer and editor Katherine Duke is the college’s Ives Washburn Fellow. This is her second cover story for Amherst magazine.

Photos by Samuel Masinter '04

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