The secret Nazi POW camp and the Jewish soldiers who guarded it
Welcome to 'Camp Confidential,' the bizarre WWII story two Israeli filmmakers couldn't turn down
“You couldn’t forget it and you couldn’t make it up,” says former American soldier and European refugee Arno Mayer in the Netflix documentary, “Camp Confidential: America’s Secret Nazis.”
The 36-minute film by Israeli directors Mor Loushy and Daniel Sivan, shortlisted for an Oscar for best short documentary subject, mixes interviews, archival footage and animated sequences to reveal a strange incident in American history that was classified until about a decade ago.
A group of young, mostly German-Jewish refugees who became U.S. soldiers and served in military intelligence toward the end of World War II were taken to a top-secret location near Washington, D.C., known as P.O. Box 1142.
It was not a prison camp, but something like a bungalow colony, complete with a swimming pool, tennis courts and Ping-Pong tables, and the soldiers were soon shocked to learn that they were to interrogate high-ranking Nazi POWs there. Many of them were German scientists the U.S. had welcomed in towards the end of the war to make sure that America, not the USSR, got their expertise. The group included the noted Nazi rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, who had built, among other military technology, the V2 rockets that had caused tens of thousands of deaths in England and incalculable property damage.
But the soldiers were not merely tasked with interrogating von Braun, or the other elite Nazis scientists who came with him. Rather, they were told to show the POWs a good time, bringing them whiskey, newspapers and magazines poolside, taking them to dinner and nightclubs and joining them for rounds of tennis and other sports.
When Loushy and Sivan first heard about the story, they were incredulous. The duo, who have been a pair personally and professionally for 17 years, are two of Israel’s most acclaimed documentary filmmakers, the directors behind “The Oslo Diaries,” a behind-the-scenes look at the Oslo peace negotiations and an examination of the agreement’s legacy. The pair have produced a number of documentaries, with Loushy directing and Sivan producing and editing — among them the award-winning “Censored Voices,” an examination of soldiers in the Six-Day War who spoke of the trauma resulting from a conflict that was considered a resounding victory for Israel.
Loushy and Sivan were surprised when Austrian filmmakers Jono and Benj Bergmann, who were working on a scripted series, told them about the strange goings-on at P.O. Box 1142 during and after the war.
“I was finishing up ‘The Devil Next Door’ and our first reaction was, ‘We don’t want to hear anything about it, we are done doing films about the Holocaust.’ We had nightmares, it haunted us,” said Sivan. But the Bergmanns — who produced “Camp Confidential” with Loushy and Sivan — persisted.
The more Sivan and Loushy heard, the more intrigued the Israeli filmmakers became. They learned the camp itself (formerly part of Fort Hunt in Alexandria, Va.) was bulldozed in 1946 and everything to do with its existence was classified. But the National Parks Service had done extensive interviews with veterans of the unit in 2006, as well as with some of the German prisoners.
“At first, I was skeptical. We heard about those interviews and I said, ‘Only when I hear them, will I decide about it,’” said Loushy. When they listened, they were blown away. “We realized it’s quite a big, important story, so we are glad we had the opportunity to tell this story that was censored for so many years.”
They were saddened to learn, however, that since the interviews had been done, all but two of the veterans had died. “It’s heartbreaking, you feel like you know the person, you’ve been listening to their voice and their stories,” said Sivan. But they were able to use the tapes of their interviews in the film, and extensive new interviews with Arno Mayer and Peter Weiss, the two surviving veterans, whose evocative, honest and no-nonsense testimonies color the film.
They also made the key decision not to use the tapes of the Nazi scientists. Explained Sivan: “We thought, ‘Do we want to have their perspectives?’ It’s not as if they said, ‘We came as Nazis and we were pampered.’ It’s more like, ‘We fled from Hitler, we were refugees.’ We decided we have had enough of the whitewashing; we wanted to tell the story of these Jewish veterans…to give them a voice.”
The more the filmmakers researched the topic, the more surreal it became to them. Mayer and Weiss described how the Nazis asked to send Christmas presents to their families, and in the strangest sequence, the soldiers are shown taking them to Lansburgh’s, a Jewish-owned department store in Washington, D.C., to buy gifts, including bras and underwear for their wives. The Nazis were so conspicuous in the long leather coats and Tyrolean hats they insisted on wearing that they were escorted back to the camp by military police. It gave Mayer “nasty pleasure” to take them to a Jewish department store, he recalls in the film.
But while this interlude is bizarrely funny, having to take care of Nazis in a country club-like atmosphere took its toll on the soldiers, who had to keep the whole episode secret.
“As a Jewish refugee from Europe, that’s about as bizarre an assignment as you could get,” Mayer says in the film. “If you want to see the stereotype of the Prussian, blond hair, blue eyes, goddamn it, it was Wernher von Braun.” Mayer was named morale officer in this strange reality, because it was determined that “it would serve a purpose to be nice to them.” In yet another strange incident, Mayer recalls being tasked with translating Christmas sermons from the Army’s Catholic and Protestant chaplains. “It fell to me to translate these two fuckin’ sermons from English into German,” he says. Afterwards, he declined to have a drink with these Germans, who called him “little Jew boy” behind his back.
Says Weiss, “We would have preferred to treat them like the war criminals they were. I tried to suppress the rage because I wouldn’t have been very effective if I had acted as if I wanted to kill them.”
To this day, they are racked with guilt over the roles they played. Mayer says he thought of asking not to do the work, “but you didn’t do things like that when you were in the Army, and also you didn’t do things like that when you were a recent refugee.”
Both in the National Parks Service tapes and the interviews for the films, the former soldiers seem to relish the chance to unburden themselves by sharing their secrets. “They really wanted to tell their story, they wanted that the story will come to light,” Loushy said. “Not only about the past; they talk about questions that are so relevant to our time. Which countries are cooperating with dark regimes? Where are our red lines as a human society, what lines we can’t cross? Can we whitewash the Nazis crimes so a man can go to the moon? So I really do think that they wanted to tell the story and bring these questions to light. It was very therapeutic for them.”
Mayer and Weiss went on to distinguished post-Army careers that seem to have been inspired at least in part by their wartime experiences. Mayer became a historian of modern Europe and is the Dayton-Stockton professor emeritus at Princeton University. Weiss became a renowned human rights lawyer and the vice president of the Center for Constitutional Rights.
Few photos of the compound could be unearthed, so the directors decided to use animation when recreating the soldiers’ memories, which they mixed with archival footage of World War II and of von Braun’s successful career with NASA. “We like working with recreations and archives. But when it comes to the Holocaust, we know it has to be very, very clear and accurate because Holocaust deniers are everywhere, fake news is everywhere,” Sivan said. “Anything to do with the story of the Holocaust, you can’t tweak it at all. We need to be very honest with the viewers and say, ‘This is us recreating the memories and these are the real images.’ So animation was a very good path to show we are narrating the memories.’”
The scenes of von Braun being embraced by President John F. Kennedy and celebrated at ticker-tape parades following the moon landing are disturbing, and the filmmakers hope that the film inspires discussion about collaborating with people and countries guilty of heinous crimes. “We all need to ask these questions, not only about von Braun, but also about us today,” said Sivan. He referenced a line from Tom Lehrer’s song, “Wernher von Braun,” a withering critique of the U.S. acceptance of the scientist: “‘In German und English I know how to count down/ Und I’m learning Chinese/ Says Wernher von Braun.’”
The film has received rave reviews around the world, and the filmmakers are happy that the documentary has reached a wide audience through Netflix. “About five years ago, Netflix made documentaries cool again by putting documentaries in the same section as scripted [content];, nobody ever tried that before, [to] put documentaries in the same row,” said Sivan.
The international acclaim has been great, but they are especially happy it passed muster with two very important viewers: Weiss and Mayer.
“We screened it for Peter, and he said, ‘I’m 96, I have a new career of being a movie star,’” said Sivan.
Loushy added, “He loved it and said we did right with it. We try to do right by our characters.”