John Goodie is a recovering programmer/analyst who found an affinity for words and began writing poems and short stories, returning to college at East Carolina University for an English Degree and Tesol certificate to teach English to refugees and immigrants of the USA and the children and people of Spain. Subsequent to that, owing to a high degree of interest in other cultures, he earned his master’s degree in English, also at ECU, with a concentration in Multicultural and Transnational Literature. Now he is pursuing his PhD at the University of Salamanca in Spain.
And I Ate Every Damn One of Them
By the time Private 1st Class Norman Fellman was liberated from the horrid Nazi slave labor camp in Berga, Germany, his 6’4″ frame had wasted away from 178 to 84 lbs. He had been one of 352 men separated from the other thousands of American prisoners at Stalag IX, as an American Jew, to be worked and starved to death at Berga. The Germans had ordered the American commanders to have all the Jews in their units turn themselves in to them during the next morning roll call after they were captured and driven by cattle car to the camp. During World War II, an American dog tag could indicate only one of three religions through the inclusion of one letter: “P” for Protestant, “C” for Catholic, or “H” for Jewish (from the word, “Hebrew”), or “NO” to indicate no religious preference.
Fellman said, “The barracks leader met with the German commandant and some of the officers and came back with the message that they knew that there were a percentage of Jews in this camp, and they wanted them to step forward or else. And they took me aside, because I’m Jewish, and told me that they would gladly protect me, hide my dog tag. They advised me strongly not to — not to step forward, but I had encountered some anti-Semitism in camp, not much but some, and I feared for what might happen down the line if somebody got hungry enough. That was one thought. The other thought was I had never been ashamed of what I am, I was proud of what I am, and I guess I had more guts than brains, but I decided to step forward, not to — not to depend on somebody else to hide my secret. As a result, we were sent to a restricted segregated barracks, and in another week or so we found that we were part of a 352-man group, being set off for a labor detachment. This group was made up of Jews and other undesirables, mostly Catholic fellows….at any rate, we wound up at this place called Berga Amelster after another train ride, which equaled the first one. I don’t know how long it lasted, probably lasted three or four days, five days. As we marched down between two of these compounds on either side of the road there were these mass of humanity, skinny males, females, not kids, I never saw any kids, but these people, I remember, had the biggest eyes you’ve ever seen in your life. They just looked like their whole faces were abominated, and they were silent, quiet, not a word, not a sound spoken as we — 352 Americans marched down. We were taken in for our first and only delousing, and the place that we were deloused in fits all the records of what they use when they’re preparing for the ovens, jets all around the room. We at that time didn’t know anything about the gas ovens, or there would have been a little more trepidation about going in there, not that we had a choice. But we were, we were deloused, and then we were assigned to barracks, and we had these straw pallets that were loaded with lice, so the delousing didn’t last very long.”
At the time Fellman was drafted, and his unit had been trained, they were not aware of how bad the hatred and treatment of Jews had taken over Hitler’s Germany. The Germans tried to keep those camps secret. They did a pretty good job of that at Berga as it went largely unknown during the war until it was almost over.
While being worked to death, the three hundred fifty-two men chosen for the special detail dug 17 tunnels in the ground for an underground ammunitions factory the Germans were planning. They busted rock using black powder sausages stung together the Germans made them create. After setting them off and exploding them against walls of rock in caves, they would haul the rock up in carts. Sometimes, despite the many beatings, they put dirt in with the black powder to suppress the explosions or let carts full of rock they were excavating tip over the side of the road, over the banks, to thwart the German plans. Simple resistance. Incredible defiance. Merciless beatings. Fellman saw many a man beaten to death by an enraged German for nothing.
These prisoners were fed a loaf of black bread per day for four or five guys to share. It was made of oat flour with half the volume being sawdust. And they were given nasty greasy soups to drink, sometimes called coffee, sometimes soup. They had no idea what they were made of; sometimes finding a piece of turnip or other root vegetable in the tea-colored broth. Fellman said it was nasty, but something. They would be in line for the food with stacks of dead bodies in a pile less than twenty feet away. It was their friends, that they had been talking to the day before or perhaps one of whom they had memorized their family names, so they could find them after the war to tell them what happened. Fellman said, “I never could tell them how they died. I tried to make it very dignified. They did not need to know the details of the suffering.”
The worst part of it was the thirst. They got very little water to drink, so they would eat snow and icicles off buildings, trucks, and trees, then sometimes get slammed with the butt of a German rifle just for that. At times of great hunger, they would eat grass if they could dig to some through the snow or eat bark off the trees. The diarrhea would be green or black. Impossible conditions. Slow starvation. Unbearable thirst.
Norman Fellman had been drafted and assigned to B Company, 275th Regiment of the Army’s 70th Division. In January in the year 1944, his infantry unit was ambushed by the Germans in France during the Battle of the Bulge.
Fellman said, “… we had scooped out holes the best we could in the rock to try to hide, and we were pretty much out of ammo. The Germans came around with the flame-throwing tanks at the base of the hill but had evidently decided to bypass us initially. They had gone around us and were cleaning up when they came back to get us.”
Fellman stated his unit had three choices – “we could freeze to death, we could starve to death, or we could surrender. So, we stacked up our weapons.” They ended up being packed in rail cars, “called eight by tens, because they were designed to hold either eight horses or forty men. The Germans would pack in 75-90 men. The guys in the middle died of suffocation and would be held up dead in the mass,” Fellman related, telling the stories for the first time in forty years or more, afraid nobody would believe him and trying still to forget the horrors. “The stench was unforgettable,” he added.
When the men of Berga were freed at last by American troops not expecting to see an American Prisoner of War Camp at that location, 100 days after their capture, the US War Crimes investigators were appalled by their condition. They were wasted to skeletons, in the fashion of death camp survivors. Ribs protruding. Eyes sunken. Shells of men.
After being taken to a hospital, they fed them a little bit of liquids at a time until their bodies could adjust to solid foods again. When he was ready, the beautiful young nurse in the clean white dress asked Fellman, “What food did you think of the most?”
“I dreamt of eggs,” Fellman replied.
“How do you like them?” the nurse questioned.
“Every damn way you can make them,” he said.
“So, she brought me a dozen, two over-easy, two scrambled, two boiled, two every way you could cook them. And I ate every damn one of them,” Norman Fellman said, “It was like the first day of my life.”
Private 1st Class Noman Fellman made it home alive. He sat his family down one night soon thereafter and he said, “You can ask me anything you want about my experiences in the war. And I will answer you the best I can. But then I ask that you never ever mention it again,” Norman said to his family. And they followed his wishes. He returned to the University of Virginia where he met his wife Bunny. Before he married her, he told her the same thing and gave her the opportunity to ask him what she wanted about what he experienced and saw, and why he had such excruciating nightmares. She accepted Norman as the good man that he was; she loved him. They married and had a natural child and adopted a set of twins, so they had a big happy family together.
There is so much more to Norman Fellman’s story and life than I could possibly tell here. He did a lot of things for other veterans later in his life and only passed away in 2014 at the age of ninety.
Although I know these things happen, and history is full of torture, slavery, and murder. But it is still very difficult for me that this level of cruelness can exist between men. The collective mentally of the German people, in this case, had hardened around Hitler’s lying words that incited the masses to such brutish group mentality. Their bigotry and cruelty knew no bounds, similar to the slavery practiced by the United States not too many years before this horror. Little by little the hearts of the people, seemingly normal people, were hardened by Hitler’s ego and extreme “Nationalism” causing them to separate and victimize people because of what they believed or what they looked like, their last names or how they prayed. Let us all hope that somehow, we as people can overcome this hatred of others in our hears and learn to be at Peace with each other.