Semi-animated Netflix documentary short reveals the secret story of the Jewish soldiers who watched over prisoners of war on US soil.
‘Nobody knew about it, and the people who conducted the interviews never told anyone about it. They didn’t even tell their wives or children – they took this secret to their grave.’ Photograph: Netflix
Last modified on 2021 Nov 03
Too vast in scope to be contained within war drama, the Holocaust movie constitutes an entire genre unto itself, collecting a potentially infinite number of tragedies great and small. The history of the 20th century’s most massive atrocity comes with thousands of footnotes now gradually expanded upon by media depicting the unsung courage and untold evil. Israeli documentary film-makers Daniel Sivan and Mor Loushy singled out one such extraordinary tale for their latest joint project, Netflix’s short film Camp Confidential, drawing attention to a highly covert military operation only recently released from behind redaction-marker bars.
“The first thing is, when producers Benji and Jono Bergmann approached us with this and told us of the story, we didn’t believe it,” Sivan tells the Guardian. “It was just so out-there.”
The black-op facility tucked away in northern Virginia’s Fairfax county sounds like something out of a pulp paperback: Jewish soldiers, many of them refugees from the devastation in Europe, watched over Nazi prisoners of war in a surreally domestic setting. Known as PO Box 1142, it housed such notables as spymaster Reinhard Gehlen and rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, who faced interrogations that would help lift the Allies to victory in the second world war. But those in charge of the base were also tasked with maintaining a baseline quality of life for the inmates, leading to bizarre scenes such as a department store outing with former members of the Third Reich to purchase unmentionables for their wives. Bulldozed at the end of the war and buried in secrecy until the National Parks Service unearthed some remnants in the early 2000s, the clandestine camp now doubles as a cautionary tale for modern Jews and a memorial for those who came before them.
“We had hours of these interviews, and I remember very vividly that we were shocked,” Loushy says. “I had chills. This was an unbelievable relationship forming there, between the Jewish refugees and the Nazis who would’ve captured them. Nobody knew about it, and the people who conducted the interviews never told anyone about it. They didn’t even tell their wives or children – they took this secret to their grave.”
Sivan and Loushy had the privilege of sitting down with Arno Mayer and Peter Wiess, two veterans of this odd operation, thought to be the last living survivors able to set the record straight. With candor and a little apprehension, the two men recall a confounding daily contrast, caught between the satisfaction of sweating their captive guests and the indignity of catering to their needs. In one of the many flashback scenes rendered as animation to capture the dreamlike quality of memory, we see Jewish soldiers using the Nazis’ own inhumanity against them by flooding a van with dust from a vacuum cleaner and letting the sadists assume they were being gassed, just like they’d be doing if the positions were reversed. The former servicemen claim to have taken the high ground and avoided outright torture, instead gaining the prisoners’ trust by playing host in their new country of America.
“You can hear so many instances of them asking the interviewers, ‘Is this safe? Can we talk? Is this not censored?’” Sivan says. “It took everybody a long time to understand that yes, it is safe to discuss this. When you listen to the audio tapes, once they started talking, you see a combination of pride and shame at the same time. On the one hand, they feel that they did collect important intelligence, and they did succeed in their mission. But on the other, they did take part in whitewashing the German ex-Nazi scientists into becoming the perfect American heroes.”
As the film explains, there’s a bitter irony to the fate of Wernher von Braun, vilified during the war right up until the US government figured his scientific acumen could be put to good use. Under Operation Paperclip, hundreds of Nazi technicians were brought to the States and put to work before they could get snapped up by Space Race rivals in the Soviet Union, an unsavory gambit that paid off when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon. But the image rehabilitation von Braun enjoyed as a principal architect of rocket travel – the medals, the smiling photo ops next to President Kennedy – left a bad taste in the mouths of those who recalled his heinous deeds. “We all know that [von Braun] knew about Auschwitz, and that he participated with the Nazi regime,” Loushy says. “The US, in giving him citizenship with all the other scientists, showed what was important to them.”
“They’re different, Arno and Peter,” Sivan adds. “What Peter really wanted to convey was the question of whether bad means can be justified by a good cause. He believed the cause was righteous, but that the means of achieving it were so corrupt that it wasn’t worth it. Arno, however, wanted to talk about the cold war. During the second world war, while the fighting was still going on, his mission was to start fighting the Russians. The fact is that the US had already targeted a new archenemy, and it’s shocking to see how fluid it is, the changing of enemies. Who was once your friend and ally is now the source of all evil. And these Nazis, who were the pinnacle of evil, were suddenly our best friends.”
The film-makers view this chapter of the past as a moral and ethical thought experiment with ample resonance to the present, weighing pragmatism in the national interest against the sin of whitewashing. Does building an effective coalition supersede the mandate to hold fascists accountable for their actions? Neither Sivan nor Loushy is all that convinced. “I personally believe that evil is evil, and don’t think that a few years can change that,” he says. “People taking part in mass murder, even if they were not physically part of it, they were in support of it.”
“You see these Jewish refugees who’d escaped Europe a few years before, all of their families murdered in the Holocaust, and now they’ve got to form a relationship with Nazis?” Loushy adds. “It’s absolutely insane. There’s a red line to causes, at the end of the day. The Nazis committed crimes against humanity.”
With domestic Nazi activity and Russia paranoia both having spiked under Trump, the takeaway from this brutal social studies lesson is clear: the nasty tendency to overlook transgressions for the sake of political usefulness hasn’t gone anywhere. We’re still repeating the mistakes of previous generations, putting what’s expedient over what’s right, leaving the civilian souls caught in the crossfire to be forgotten, abandoned, or ignored. Mayer and Weiss share their recollections in the hope that we can break this cycle, and hold our leaders to a higher standard of humanity.
“This is not a story of the past,” Sivan says. “The US is collaborating today with a bunch of dark regimes, Israel as well. If you look anywhere in the world, Europe or Asia, everyone’s working with tyrants and other people who have blood on their hands. It’s always in the ‘national interest,’ too. This isn’t a story about terrible things that happened back in the ’40s. We didn’t learn our lesson.”
- Camp Confidential: America’s Secret Nazis is now available on Netflix
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(For the source of this, and many other equally intriguing and important articles, please visit: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2021/nov/03/netflix-documentary-us-based-nazi-camp/)