Concentration Camps: Berga am Elster Overview
Christine Schmidt with Joseph Robert White
In the wake of an increasing Allied bombing attacks, Germany`s fuel reserves sank to a dangerously low level. In August 1944, as a part of the Geilenberg Program, the Armaments Ministry established the Petroleum Securing Plan, whose implementation belonged to the Kammler Staff. As a part of this plan, under code name “Schwalbe V” (Swallow V), the Kammler Staff supervised the construction of an underground hydrogenation plant for Braunkohle Benzin AG (Brabag) in Zeitz in Berga an der Elster, and appointed as project manager Willy Hack.
Hack was transferred to Berga on November 6, 1944, where his site manager and geologists tested the mountain rock for internal water channels. After Sonderinspektion I reviewed drilling samples in Berlin, Brabag made concrete plans for the mining operation.
Braun und Co. Schieferverwaltung, a cover name for Brabag-Zeitz, functioned as the owner and Reich trustee. The company employed mining companies, major mining and civil engineering firms, and additional workers from the region and from all over Germany.Brabag planned to excavate eighteen interconnected tunnels in the Zikraer Berg Mountain, for the location of the synthetic oil plant.
On November 13, 1944, the first seventy male prisoners were brought to Berga from Buchenwald. Among them were the future administrative staff and the prison physician. This group built the camp.1 The first large transport of five hundred prisoners arrived on December 1, 1944 from the Buchenwald work detail “Wille” in Rehmsdorf near Zeitz, another Brabag camp.2 Further transports arrived on December 13, 1944 (1,000); December 30, 1944 (500); January 1, 1945 (298); February 26, 1945 (500); and March 15, 1945 (500).3 In all, over thirty-three hundred prisoners were dispatched to work in Berga.
The largest prisoner groups were the Jews, who came from Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Russia, Ukraine, Belorussia, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, and Germany. Others were political, “work shy” (arbeitsscheu), and career criminals from all over Europe.
Most prisoners worked in the tunnels where they cleared and removed the detritus from explosions. The work was very hard and dangerous. They also had to work for various firms employed in the camp. The prisoners preferred assignment in the quarry, kitchens, laying rail beds, or doing outdoors construction rather than working in the tunnels. A large group of thirteen to seventeen year-old boys in Berga mostly peeled potatoes in the prisoner and SS kitchens. Working in shifts, like the adult prisoners, some delivered food and coal briquettes from the city`s rail station to the camp and cleaned the SS officers’ rooms. The latter task was especially unpleasant.
Between November 28, 1944 and April 7, 1945, 313 prisoners died in the camp.4 Berga survivors reported deaths from shootings, disease, starvation, physical abuse, and work accidents.5 The overall number of prisoners did not diminish, however, because of replacement transports from Buchenwald. A roll call taken on March 11, 1945, established that there were 1767 prisoners in Berga on that day.6
In addition to this number, 350 Jewish American soldiers had been in Berga since they were brought there on February 13, 1945. In December 1944, they had been taken prisoner in the Ardennes Forest and interned in Stalag XI B in Bad Orb where they performed heavy labor in the tunnels there. At the end of a day’s work, they were completely covered in white dust.
They were housed at first in a barracks camp outside the city and later, adjacent to the perimeter of the camp. They were not considered POWs, but were handled exactly as if they were inmates of the camp. They were required to pick up their meager meals at the door of the prisoners’ kitchen inside the camp. At the end of March, they received Red Cross packages. Their guards stood under the command of Unteroffizier Erwin Metz.
The camp commander was SS-Hauptsturmführer Richard Rohr. Among the officers who reported to him was SS-Unterscharführer Kallies. The SS members known to us by name came from Yugoslavia, Germany, Hungary, Romania, and Czechoslovakia, and belonged to the Waffen-SS. On the construction sites, older members of the Wehrmacht and armed civilians, the so-called foremen, kept guard and watched over the prisoners.
Even before “Schwalbe V” was closed down, the American soldiers were forced on April 5, 1945 to set out on a death march in the direction of Bavaria. The march ended in Fuchsmühl and Cham where they were liberated by the U.S. Army and the survivors received medical care. In all, 70 of the American G.I.s died in the camp and on the death march.
According to Hack`s secretary, Berlin ordered the construction staff to evacuate Schwalbe V during a long distance call.7 Former prisoners also testified to the subcamp`s closure, which took place between April 10 and 12. The United Nations relief and Rehabilitation Association (UNNRA) recorded the date as April 10, 1945, while the International Tracing Service (ITS) placed the closure on April 11, 1945.8 On the morning of Berga`s closure, the SS, ordered the prisoners to form up in rows of five areast and carry their blankets and bowls. Approximately two hundred men unable to march were taken by train to Dachau.9 From Dachau some reached Seefeld near Innsbruck, Austria.
Fifteen hundred prisoners marched toward Theresienstadt-Leitmeritz, traveling in a southeasterly direction along the route Berga-Teichwolframsdorf-Gottesgrün-Reuth-Neumark-Hauptmannsgrün-Irfersgrün-Stangengrün-Obercrinitz-Bärenwalde-Albernau-Bockau-Sosa-Seinheidel-Breitenbrunn-Rittersgrün-Goldenhöhe-Gottesgab-and Oberhals; a distance of 160 kilometers (almost 100 miles). Toward nine o’clock in the evening on April 21, 1945, approximately 850 arrived in a snow storm—the remainder had either fled or died.10 On the way they climbed a height of over twelve hundred meters (3,937 feet) in the Erz Mountains. The final climb from Goldenhöhe to a point somewhere between Schmiedeberg and Oberhals was extremely difficult, as indicated by the many dead prisoners who died along the way. Other groups may have taken routes through the Erz Mountains via Zwickau and Chemnitz.
From this point according to survivors, prisoners from Eastern and Western Europe were separated and the Jews were also segregated.11 Small groups arrived by rail in Theresienstadt; by foot in Menetin, Netschetin, and Preitenstein; and some went in a westerly direction along the crest of the Erz Mountains, toward the U.S. forces.
In 1974, the Cologne state attorney`s office investigated Lagerführer Rohr and other Berga SS. Its case was based upon an estimate of prisoner deaths in Berga subcamp and during the death march, but was halted on February 22, 1976, because Rohr had died on March 11, 1969; the whereabouts of the accused, SS-Unterscharführer Schwarzbach, were unknown, and other SS members could not be identified.12
After the war, Hack lived under his own name in Weißensand near Reichenbach in Sachsen. Arrested in Zwickau December 5, 1947, and interrogated at Schloß Osterstein, he was demanding work methods. On September 22, 1945, under Allied Control Council Law No.10 Article II3b, the Zwickau criminal court sentenced him to eight years` imprisonment and ten years` loss of citizenship rights. The decision was protested and appealed. On April 23, 1951, the Zwickau criminal court, having retried Hack, sentenced him to death. He was executed in Dresden on July 26, 1952.13
Sources: The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933-1945, vol. 1: Early camps, Youth camps, and the Camps and Subcamps of the SS Business Administration Main Office. Reprinted by permission of the author.
Berga is mentioned only a few times in the literature. Christine Schmidt has an essay on Buchenwald / Berga-Elster in Wolfgang Benz and Barbara Distel (ed.), Der Ort des Terrors: Geschichte der nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslager, vol.3: Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald (München: C.H.Beck, 2006), pp 386-388. Wolfgang Birkenfeld covers the history of Brabag in Der synthetische Treibstoff, 1933-1945 (Göttingen: Musterschmidt Verlag, 1964). In the 1960s, Gerda Rutschmann, an Oberschule instructor in Berga, compiled a report on the working and living conditions of the prisoners in “Schwalbe V.” Between 1967 and 1991, numerous articles were published in the local Berga newspaper, the GrHe, for instance the article by Ulrich Jugel, “Das Lager Schwalbe V in Berga – Ein dunkles Kapital aus der Zeit des Nationalsozialismus,” July 1991. Heike Kegel wrote a doctoral dissertation on Berga, “Die Versklavung von KZ-Häftlingen in der faschistischen Kriegswirtschaft und bei der unterirdischen Verlagerung der Treibstoffindustrie“ (unpub. Ph.D. disertation, Martin Luther University, Halle 1990). Among the camps she researched was Schwalbe V, but aside from adding a few details, she relies heavily on Birkenfeld when writing about Berga, as does an article in Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung (ed.),Gedenkstätten für die Opfer des Nationalsozialismus: Eine Dokumentation, vol. II (Bonn, 1991), pp.660,750,801. The Buchenwald Berga subcamp ist listed in ITS, Vorläufiges Verzeichnis der Konzentrationslager und deren Außenkommandos sowie andere Haftstätten unter dem Reichsführer der SS in Deutschland und den besetzten Gebieten, 2 vols. (Arolsen, 1969), 1: 27.
Extensive material on Berga camp and the transport lists may be found in AG-B and NARA (RG 242). Concerning the death march, material is held in the various regional archives in Germany, AG-D, as well as in the SOkA-KV, SOkA-CvK, and SDA-L. Material on Berga contruction site is also available in the ThHStA-G. Files containing the notices of prisoner death in the Berga camp are at BA-L. The criminal case files of constructions manager Willy Hack are available through BStU. As the archives and prisoner testimonies found since 1997 have not yet been covered in any comprehensive way in the literature, it is now necessary to conduct new research on Berga. Christine Schmidt has in her possession numerous unpublished testimonies from surviving Berga prisoners. The USHMMA holds the typed memoir of Alan J. Reyner, Jr. in Acc. 1996 A. 250.
- Transport List, Buchenwald-Berga, November 13, 1944, AG-B 59-110/3
- Transport List Buchenwald-Berga, November 31, 1944, NARA RG 242, A 3355, F. 26
- Transport Lists, Buchenwald-Berga, NARA RG 242, A 3355, F. 26
- Verzeichnis der in Berga verstorbenen KZ-Häftlinge, BStU/ZM 1625/A 28b/Bd.17/StA. Bd.I. pp. 381-390
- Berichte von Überlebenden, ZdL at BA-L 429 AR-Z-15/74 Berga Bd.I, pp. 75-228, Bd. II, pp. 275-314
- Stärkemeldung in Aussenkommandos des Konzentrationslagers Buchenwald, ZdL 429 AR-Z-15/74 Berga Bd. I p 3, from IST, Vorläufiges Verzeichnis
- Prozess gegen Willy Hack, LG Zwickau; Aussage von Gerda Teichert, BStU/ZM 1625 28b/Bd. 17/StA.Bd. I, p. 377
- Auflösung des Lagers in Aussenkommandos des Konzentrationslagers Buchenwald, ZdL 429 AR-Z-15/74 Berga Bd. I p. 3 from IST, Vorläufiges Verzeichnis, I: 27
- Befragung von Joel Pinkowits, ZdL 429 AR-Z-15/74 Berga Bd. I,S. p. 216/21; Abraham Kriegyer, ibid, pp. 158-161; AG-D, Dokumentation: Häftlinge, Gefangenenliste-laufende Nummerierung: 106834
- SOkA-CvK, Bestand Kovarska (Schmiedeberg), Bericht von Margarethe Trux, June 5, 1945; Bericht von B. Zwaaf und Levi de Lange, ZdL 429 AR-Z-3358/65
- Eport of B.Zwaaf and Levi de Lange, ZdL 429 AR-Z-3358/65 Buchenwald, Bd. II, pp. 217-238; and report of Josepf Krauze from Feb. 6, 2001, to Christine Schmidt; also report of Samuel Hilton from Nov. 30, 2000, to Christine Schmidt
- Einstellungsverfügung des Verfahrens gegen Richard Rohr und unbekannte SS-Angehörige von Dr. Gehrling, OSta. Köln, February 25, 1976, ZdL 429 AR-Z-15/74 Berga Bd. I, pp. 385-387
- The first trial against Hack was AZ.21.ERKs. 116/51; Prozess gegen Willy Hack, LG Zwickau, Urteil, April 23, 1951, BStU/ZM 1625/A 28b/ Bd. 17/ Vollstreckungsheft, pp. 272