Nomi Wagner Portrait Artist

Defining Moments: a Portrait Painter's Childhood Memory

by Nomi Wagner

Defining moments. Do you have a picture from a time in your life that sums up your personal story? I do. It’s of me as a 4-year-old with my father, whose story shaped my own.

My father, Israel Cohen, was 32 years old when drafted into the U.S. Army in 1944. It was not long after my picture with him was taken, at our home in Los Angeles. He was among the American 106th Infantry Division troops shipped to Europe on the Queen Mary.

At the Battle of the Bulge in December, 1944, thousands of American soldiers were taken prisoner by the Germans and transported in boxcars to Stalag 9B, a prisoner of war camp north of Frankfurt. Soon after they arrived, my father was one of 350 men picked out as Jews or those who “looked” Jewish or were considered undesirable.

They were taken to Berga am Elster, a sub-camp of the Jewish concentration camp Buchenwald. The American G.I.’s became slave laborers, alongside Buchenwald concentration camp inmates. Living under inhuman conditions, the Americans were overworked, abused, beaten, and starved. Within a few weeks, many died or went mad.

After escaping with a buddy at the end of March, my father was recaptured and returned to Berga. He was forced to stand outside in the coldest winter on record, day and night, isolated. A few days later, the Germans emptied the camp and forced the surviving prisoners on the road.

Physically depleted and starved, my father lasted two days before collapsing on the morning of April 8, 1945. He was thrown onto a manure cart and died later that day. The soldiers were ordered to bury their fallen comrades in shallow graves beside the road. After the war, my father was reburied in the Ardenne American Cemetery at Liège in Belgium.

While I, myself, was not there suffering with my father, his experience was my own because it forged the path that I was to follow as a young woman. So, now, as I study that picture of my father and me, I appreciate that one moment as my defining moment.

Post by Nomi Wagner and Paige Miller

PS  "Berga: Soldiers of Another War," is a film about an unknown and overlooked event in the history of World War II, when the story of the American GI intersects with the tragedy of the Holocaust. Internationally acclaimed documentary filmmaker, Charles Guggenheim, dedicated the last six months of his life to completing this film about his fellow Jewish American infantrymen who he discovered had died in Nazi slave labor camps. PBS first aired the film in 2003. DVD and accompanying books are available on Amazon