Soldiers and Slaves
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
Review Date: 17 Oct 2010
Full Title: Soldiers and Slaves: American POWs Trapped by the Nazis' Final Gamble
In a modern war, industrial capacity played as important a role as military might. With that understanding, especially with Allied air power in mind, Germany embarked on major projects to expand its war related industries, many of which underground to protest against aerial attack. Some of these great undertakings were fueled by prisoners, military and civilian. At Berga an der Elster in southeastern Germany, such a project took place, with United States Army prisoners of war (captured during the Battle of the Bulge in Dec 1944) and Hungarian Jews (former Jewish prisoners of Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and other concentration camps) working in harsh conditions to dig large tunnels into a mountain. In the end, the planned underground synthetic fuel plant at Berga was never finished. Many of the forced laborers died from starvation, injuries, disease, and murder. After the war, with the United States attempting to build West Germany into an ally against communism and with East Germany shrouded behind the Iron Curtain, the story of Berga nearly vanished, revived only in the recent years.
In Soldiers and Slaves, author Roger Cohen looked into the experiences of the Jewish prisoners of the Berga an der Elster labor camp. Rather unique to the story of this labor camp was the presence of Jewish American soldiers, who were not the usual victims of the Holocaust, who were subjected to the same cruel treatment from the SS Guards as their European counterparts. Cohen told the horrors of a German labor camp in detail, describing the inadequate food, beatings, and the end-of-war death march so vividly that at times I thought I could feel the prisoners' sense of helplessness; but at the same time, the author also clearly introduced the notion that the trauma endured by the survivors was so great that no one would ever be able to truly understand without living through the same conditions. Having very recently read Night by Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel and Hunting Eichmann about the man responsible for the mass deportation of Hungarian Jews, Cohen's book provided a remarkable and complementing perspective about the sufferings of the Eastern European Jews under German occupation. At the same time, the fact that a good number of my fellow countrymen suffered the exact same atrocities as European Jews also brought a new realization within me, bringing the Holocaust closer to my heart. Aside from the excellent research and beyond the truthful and clear writing, the author had achieve the goal of bringing this little-known fact to light and prompting us to learn more about this small chapter of the Holocaust.
The greatest disappointment for me came in the way of the author's misrepresentation, intentional or otherwise, of the main topic of the book. When I came across this book in the local library, I picked it up, expecting to read and learn about the experience of Americans in a prisoner of war camp. I soon had to force myself to adjust my mindset, as the book was actually about the Holocaust. Further into the story, I was a little thrown off by the two disjointed stories, one about the Americans and the other about Hungarian Jews; the latter really came out of nowhere. As the two separate stories developed, I re-adjusted my expectations, now wishing to learn about the interaction of Americans and Europeans who shared their plight in a labor camp. That wish was never realized, as interactions between these two groups were extremely limited. Stepping back, I wondered if the author would have achieved a better result by publishing these two parallel stories as two separate volumes on the topic of the Berga labor camp. Or perhaps Cohen could have changed the title to something to the effect of "The Prisoners of Berga an der Elster" so not to generate the wrong expectation?
The book that I picked up for this review was the audio book edition. Having listened to a good number of audio books by now, I have come to know narrator Michael Prichard's voice well. True to my experience with books that he had narrated, I found that he had done a great job with the reading, with good pacing and clear pronunciation.
Short of my disappointment in terms of how the two parallel stories were put together in this book thus resulting in the misleading title, I still found Soldiers and Slaves to be a pretty good book on the topic of the Holocaust. Given the scale of the suffering at Berga, it was only about time that this appalling piece of history came to light.
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