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Holocaust remembrance month: remembering Berga

EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska -- April is Holocaust remembrance month, and as military members, it's important to take a few moments to reflect on the sacrifices made by those who came before us.

Many are not aware that during WWII about 2,200 American POWs were taken by the Germans in the first week of the Battle of the Bulge. These soldiers were taken to Nazi concentration camps, one of which was Berga - a satellite of the death camp Buchenwald. They were sent to work as slave laborers and about 20 percent died.

Many of these soldier's stories have since surfaced, and in 1997 PBS aired a documentary about Berga, allowing soldiers to tell their stories.

On 13 February 1945, 350 American POWs arrived at a concentration camp located outside the town of Berga, on the banks of the Elster River.

The American POWs slept in un-insulated wooden barracks with bars on the windows, two or three to a bed in four-tiered, lice-infested bunks. Given no additional garments, the soldiers had only the clothes they were wearing at the time of their capture and the heat of a single stove to keep from freezing overnight. Their food consisted of ersatz tea, turnip beet-top soup, bread made from sawdust, margarine, and an occasional piece of sausage-type meat. This was the same food regimen given to political prisoners.

In these times, the treatment of POWs was comparable to that of the civilian concentration camp inmates. The soldiers were consistently denied the rights afforded them by the Geneva Convention. Most of the American soldiers' Red Cross aid packages were withheld. When a medic suggested that certain soldiers needed to be hospitalized, the medic was sent to work in the mines. Almost all of the POWs suffered from illnesses.

These soldiers worked in mines and excavated tunnels without any protective gear and many died. During their 10-12 hour work day, they were given no food.

On 14 April 1945, the soldiers from Berga were on the move, and many did not survive to reach their destination. On 22 April 1945, the soldiers were bedded-down in a barn awaiting their next movement, when the German guards and officers retreated, leaving the soldiers alone to be liberated. Of the original 352 soldiers, only 270 survived.

This month, take a few moments to appreciate the freedoms we have and to remember the atrocities endured during the holocaust.