ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN)
–– For 63 years, Martin Vogel longed for
information about how his only brother –– his best friend and a fellow
U.S. soldier –– died in World War II.
He knew that Bernard "Jack" Vogel had tried to escape from a Nazi
prisoner-of-war camp, but the details were sketchy. Martin was so
devastated after the war, he didn't ask too many questions. But as time
passed, his thoughts often drifted to his brother.
doesn't go by that it doesn't come up in the course of my own
thoughts," said Martin Vogel, now 82. "But to me, it's always there:
What if this? Why didn't he do this? And what happened to him? And
that's what bothered me."
The Boston resident read an article
last week on CNN.com about Anthony Acevedo, a World War II medic who
was among 350 U.S. soldiers held in a Nazi slave camp called Berga an
der Elster, where dozens of soldiers were beaten, starved and killed.
Less than half survived captivity.
In the piece, Acevedo mentioned a soldier by the name of Vogel who died in his arms.
For the first time in his life, Martin Vogel was about to learn the
truth about his brother's death. By week's end, he would also learn
about his uncle's undying love for his brother –– and what he believes
is the ultimate betrayal by the country his brother died for, the
United States of America.
"You don't know how much this means," Martin Vogel said between sobs. "You don't know how much this means."
Born February 9, 1924, in Brooklyn, New York, Bernard Vogel was in his
sophomore year at Brooklyn College when he was drafted for war in 1944.
He arrived in the European Theater in September as a private first
class in the 106th Infantry Division. He was captured by the Nazis in
December of that year and first sent to a POW camp known as Stalag IX-B
in Bad Orb, Germany.
From there, the Nazis separated 350 U.S.
soldiers for being Jewish or "looking like Jews" and sent them to the
slave camp around February 8, 1945. To this day, the U.S. Army has
never officially recognized its soldiers were held as slaves inside
Germany. Survivors of the camp signed documents to never speak about
NN put Martin Vogel in touch with Acevedo and another camp survivor,
Myron Swack. Both men were able to provide details he so desperately
longed for –– although the truth was often difficult to hear.
Bernard Vogel had tried to escape from the camp in early April with
another soldier, Isadore "Izzy" Cohen of California. Their escape came
as a surprise to the other soldiers –– neither knew German, and
typically word got around if a soldier was going to make a run for it,
"They actually escaped. They took off across a field. I didn't know they were planning to do it," Swack said.
he Germans captured both men and were intent to set an example. They
knew the war was rapidly coming to an end, and they weren't about to
let two soldiers get away with trying to escape.
Cohen, both Jewish, were forced to stand in front of the barracks at
Berga, with no food or water. The two American soldiers –– who had
already lost about half their body weight –– stood day and night, for
at least two days, before they crumpled to the ground.
to stand out in front of the barracks, and we were told if anybody
tried to help them, they would be killed," Swack told Martin Vogel via
phone in a conference call set up by CNN. "They stood there until they
collapsed, Izzy Cohen and Bernard, both."
"It must've been at
least two or three days. And they weren't that strong to start off
with. When they took off, I don't know what they had with them. I was
kinda surprised, because I knew Bernard and I knew Izzy pretty well.
And they never mentioned the fact they were even thinking about it."
At times, Martin Vogel wept during the phone conversation with Swack. "It was such a tremendous blow to me," he said.
"Yes, it was," Swack said. "I promised Izzy Cohen that I would write a letter to his wife, which I did."
By the time Bernard Vogel came into the care of Acevedo, he was near death.
"I was holding him," Acevedo told Martin Vogel in a separate call.
"We were in the barracks on one of the bunks, lower bunk. And I had him
in my arms. I had some food that I wanted to feed him. And he didn't
want to answer. He didn't want to say nothing –– but just go. He didn't
feel like he was gonna make it. He felt like he was dying. He said, 'I
want to die, I want to die.' "
"Oh, my," Vogel said softly.
"I wanted to feed him, to make him eat. And he wouldn't eat at all. He
was very weak. ... When he died, he went into a zone, a sleep, very
slowly because he couldn't make it anymore."
It was April 9, 1945, agonizingly close to the end of the war in Europe.
At that very time Martin Vogel was guarding a German prisoner-of-war
camp inside Germany, under the mandates of international law. Martin
Vogel, then 17, had volunteered for service, because he wanted to be
like his older brother. "We did everything together," he said.
How does it feel after six decades to learn his brother had died in the arms of a fellow soldier?
"I have been so emotional today finding it out," Vogel said. "It just
brought back all these old memories. I remember my brother so well. He
and I got along so well; we were only a year and a half apart. And all
of a sudden, a whole past has come up in the present, and it's a very
emotional situation right now."
But the story doesn't end here.
It picks up with Charles Vogel, the uncle of Bernard and Martin. A
veteran of World War I, Charles Vogel was a dogged and powerful
attorney who was devastated by the loss of his nephew. At the time, he
was the lead attorney for Adams Hats, with a Manhattan office at 1440
Working pro bono, Charles Vogel contacted more than
100 survivors of the Nazi slave camp after the war and built a case
against the two Berga commanders: Erwin Metz and his superior,
Hauptmann Ludwig Merz. He turned over his findings to the U.S. War
Department, and the material was used against Metz and Merz in a war
crimes trial in Germany. Not a single Berga survivor was allowed to
testify at the trial.
Metz and Merz were both sentenced to die by hanging.
But on June 11, 1948, Charles Vogel received devastating news from the U.S. War Department.
"The sentence of Metz was reduced to life imprisonment and that of
Merz to a term of five years. Because of the voluminousness of the
record it is not possible to set forth in detail reasons for the
reduction of the sentences," wrote Col. Edward H. Young, the chief of
the War Crimes Branch, Civil Affairs Division, in a one-page letter.
One week later, Charles Vogel fired off a terse, four-page response,
expressing outrage and urging the government to try the men again, this
time allowing Berga survivors to testify about what they endured.
"The information contained in your letter of 11 June 1948 is a surprise and shock," Charles Vogel wrote.
He spent the next few months gathering signatures of dozens of
"survivors of this horror and by the next-of-kin of the G.I. dead."
Charles Vogel went straight to the top of the U.S. government, pleading
in a petition to President Harry Truman, Secretary of State George
Marshall and Defense Secretary James Forrestal to act against "these
"The civilian prisoners received treatment on a par
with that at Buchenwald and Dachau [Nazi concentration camps]. This in
itself is sufficient cause for Merz and Metz to hang. The added crime
that American G.I.s were treated so inhumanly magnifies their guilt.
Merz and Metz were tried by the War Crimes Court and sentenced to
hang," Charles Vogel said in his petition.
"We urge that you 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."
It's not clear if
Truman ever responded, but the justice that Charles Vogel hoped for
would never come. Metz had his sentence reduced again, and by the
early- to mid-1950s, both men were free.
The news couldn't have
sat well with Laura M. Ryan, the mother of Pfc. Harold C. Kelly of New
York. She had written Charles Vogel on July 12, 1946, telling him that
her beloved boy died a horrible death at Berga, a subcamp of Buchenwald
where thousands of Jews and other political prisoners were killed.
"Hoping the Beasts that caused these poor boys [to suffer] will receive
their proper deserts –– as a quick death, I think, is too good for
them. They should be starved and beaten the same way until they are
dead," Ryan wrote.
Today, Martin Vogel explains he never knew
the full details of the work by "Uncle Charlie," as he calls him. He
had only known that his uncle fought a legal battle for his brother and
formed a group called "Berga Survivors."
"He was sort of
secretive about what he had done," he said, adding, "In those days,
right after this happened, I really was in no mood to talk about that."
After speaking with CNN as well as Acevedo and Swack, Martin Vogel
began thinking more about his uncle. He found, buried in a closet in
his house, dozens of original documents that his uncle kept –– letters
from the War Department, the petition to Truman and documents from
It turns out that one of the first U.S.
soldiers to provide Charles Vogel with the name of the German commander
at Berga was Anthony Acevedo.
"The Commander of our prison camp
was a well known man in Berga. His name is Metz (Sgt. Metz)," Acevedo
wrote August 21, 1946. Acevedo had also provided the U.S. War
Department with the commander's name.
Six decades later, the name of Metz brings a long pause to those who survived.
"He actually murdered several GIs –– no question about it," Swack said.
"He killed a friend of mine, named Morton Goldstein. Goldstein actually
escaped. He spoke fluent German, and they brought him back. ... There
was a bullet hole in his head. He was shot to pieces. They threw his
body in front of the barracks to set an example.
"They were real butchers. They were the real bastards of the world."
In December last year, U.S. Reps. Joe Baca, D-California, and Spencer
Bachus, R-Alabama, drafted legislation to finally recognize the Berga
soldiers, "honoring the heroic service and sacrifice of the 350
American soldiers detained at the Nazi camp."
recognition of these brave soldiers is long overdue," Bachus said in a
written statement. "Their story is an integral part of the history of
World War II, and their conduct under the most extreme and trying
conditions is an enormous credit to themselves and their country."
The bill is yet to pass. Linda Macias, a spokeswoman for Baca, says, "we will continue to push on the Berga resolution."
"I think it would validate our service," said Norman Fellman, another
Berga survivor. "There's a certain amount of pain involved when the
country you serve fails to acknowledge the conditions under which you