By Ellen Braunstein, Special to Chicago Jewish News
Twenty years ago, Michael J. Greenberg found 50 letters his late father had written to his late mother while he was in the U.S. Army during World War II.
“To my surprise, I read that he served as a supply sergeant at a prisoner of war stockade holding Nazi POWs.” The camp was located just outside Clinton, Mississippi. The letters documented, in detail, interactions with German POWs and his role searching high ranking officers’ quarters.
“It was an unexpected gift my parents left me that became a portal to discovering stories of Jewish men whose deeds should inspire future generations on confronting anti-Semitism and racism,” said Greenberg, a retired food industry scientist and Chicago author of the “Tables Turned on Them, Jews Guarding Nazi POWs in the United States.” The book was published in January.
Researching a range of sources, Greenberg found that out of 47,000 GIs stationed at 500 POW camps, it is possible that 200 Jewish GIs served at one or more of them. “I could only find books and documentaries on German POWS interred in the U.S. during World War II, nothing on Jewish GIs who medically treated them, guarded them or acted as translators.”
Greenberg said he was inspired to write a book by his father and other Jewish GIs. “They entered barbed wire prisoner of war stockades carrying no weapons, out-numbered by a 1:8 guard to POW ratio.”
Rather than take revenge on former enemies, “they treated them as victims of Nazi indoctrination to hate. The Jewish GIs de-programmed them through one-on-one interaction and formal educational and cultural programs which affected thousands of prisoners of war.”
Greenberg found the GIs and substantiated their stories in a variety of ways from articles placed in newspapers to Army documents to historical society sources such as the U.S. Jewish War Veterans and Jewish museums.
The concept for a history book was unique. Said Derek Mallet, a professor and military historian. “Michael Greenberg discovered an important topic that deserved to be examined at much greater length. The concept that the U.S. Army would put Jewish soldiers in charge of German prisoners of war – some strongly pro-Nazi—is not widely known. What started as an interest in his father’s experience blossomed into a full-fledged project of the diverse experiences of many Jewish GIs who found themselves serving as guards in American POW camps for German soldiers.”
The Jewish GIs participated in guarding, healing and re-educating the Germans. “These men did not feel sorry for themselves being assigned to POW camps, did not request transfers and focused on things they could control. They viewed themselves as role models who were educated, held rank and wanted to do more than just ride out the war. Their mission of tikkun olam—repair of the world—is the subject of this book.”
Out of early publicity about Greenberg’s research a few years ago, four soldiers emerged who served in the camps, some of whom have since passed away. One of the men was Erwin Harris. Greenberg was able to get his daughter a copy of the book.
Earlier this year, Greenberg attended Harris’ funeral and eulogized about his military service. “It was an honor and I think it gave the family a really good feeling.”
Greenberg hopes his book will lead other family members to become knowledgeable about their loved ones who served at POW camps and come forward to share their experiences. This could lead to a future updated edition of the book.
The book “Tables Turned on Them, Jews Guarding Nazi POWs in the United States” is available through Amazon and other online booksellers. To contact the author, email firstname.lastname@example.org