How European Jewish refugees wined and dined Nazi prisoners for US Army intelligence

There was something unusual about the five men who walked into the Jewish-owned Lansburgh Bros. department store in Washington, DC, one December day in 1946. Four wore long leather coats and Tyrolese hats, and spoke German to the fifth man, saying they wanted to buy Christmas gifts for their families — sweets for their children and unterwasche, or undergarments, for their wives.

They started a mild altercation after becoming frustrated with their inability to communicate with the staff, and in a climate where World War II was still on everyone’s minds, the local military police were called in to arrest them. Ultimately, the five were brought back to where they had come from — a clandestine prison camp in northern Virginia known only by its address: PO Box 1142.

What no one knew — least of all the many Jews who frequented Lansburgh Bros. — was that the quartet in German dress were actually high-ranking Nazis who had been apprehended by the United States during the war, including Hitler’s chief rocket scientist, Wernher von Braun.

The military brass at PO Box 1142 believed that if its Nazi prisoners received lenient treatment, they would divulge top-secret scientific information that would benefit the US in the Cold War against its new enemy, the USSR. The prisoners’ request to go Christmas shopping in the capital’s largest department store went all the way to the Pentagon.

Not only was the request accepted, but the quartet got $1,000 in spending money and an escort — a guard named Arno Mayer. In the strangest part of the story, Mayer and many of the guards playing “good cop” at the camp were young Jewish refugees who had fled an increasingly antisemitic Europe.

The guards’ little-known narrative is spotlighted in a new animated Netflix short film, “Camp Confidential: America’s Secret Nazis,” directed by the Israeli husband-and-wife duo Daniel Sivan and Mor Loushy. The 35-minute film premiered on September 24.

A still from the new Netflix animated documentary ‘Camp Confidential: America’s Secret Nazis.’ (Courtesy of Netflix)

“At first the story sounded so bizarre and unreal we could barely believe it — that [there was] a secret Nazi camp near Washington, DC, run by Jewish refugees,” Sivan and Loushy wrote in an email. “It took us some time to understand this is not a fictional story, but actually happened.”

They reflected, “This story involved so much absurdity, pain and double standards on behalf of the US — we felt this story must be told, and brought to a wide public — this hidden part of history couldn’t stay buried, known only to history buffs. We believed it should be known to all — and of course Netflix was the best stage we could dream of.”

Due to the scarcity of archival footage from the top-secret camp, the film uses animation to tell the story. This includes an animated version of a young Mayer and his efforts to keep prisoners happy. In one scene, the ex-Nazis enjoy an indoor Christmas celebration while a bitter Mayer stands outside, refusing their offer to come in for a drink.

In a joint Zoom interview with The Times of Israel, the directors recalled their initial doubts about the accuracy of the story.

Mor Loushy, co-director of the new Netflix animated documentary ‘Camp Confidential: America’s Secret Nazis.’ (Courtesy of Netflix)

“OK, it was probably like an urban legend, a myth,” Sivan remembered thinking.

Loushy said that she could understand if it happened after the war, but to “realize it [had already begun] in 1942 was shocking to us.”

Daniel Sivan, co-director of the new Netflix animated documentary ‘Camp Confidential: America’s Secret Nazis.’ (Courtesy of Netflix)

Last men standing

The directors credited producers Jono and Benjamin Bergmann with bringing the decades-old story to their attention and then confirming it by locating an archive of oral history interviews with some of the former guards.

The Bergmanns had originally learned about the story from a German journalist and colleague. In addition to the oral history archive, they also sought to find surviving guards to interview in real life. Because so much time had passed, they could only locate one — Mayer.

Just days before Sivan and Loushy were to fly from Los Angeles to New York en route to interview him, they learned there was another survivor — a fellow Jewish refugee, Peter Weiss. Finding him took some sleuthing.

“As the youngest in the group, we had a hunch that Peter Weiss might still be around as well,” the producers said in a statement. “We ended up finding him — believe it or not — by going through all Peter [Weisses] in the New York phone book… until we found one that was over 90 years old and originally from Vienna.”

As it turned out, Mayer and Weiss knew each other.

“Their shared experiences — refugees from Europe and a secret to be kept from everyone in their lives — created a very close bond at [the camp],” the Bergmanns said. “They stayed in touch and visited each other for many years after that.”

“It seems like Arno and Peter are the only survivors,” Sivan said, noting that since the film’s release, he and Loushy have gotten “a lot of messages from family members saying their dad was also part of [the camp]… We discovered more and more stories — of course, about people who already passed away.”

A painful vendetta

It was Jewish refugees’ proficiency in German that got the army interested in them as interrogators. In the film, Weiss recalls proving his knowledge by quoting Goethe. Many were originally recruited for their language skills as part of the much larger group of “Ritchie Boys” — European emigres who trained at Camp Ritchie in Maryland in such aspects as extracting intelligence from German prisoners of war.

At PO Box 1142, one guard tricked a German prisoner into thinking he was about to be gassed, which prompted him to divulge information. Intelligence obtained from the camp reportedly included the location of von Braun’s subterranean V2 rocket factory at Peenemunde, which subsequently became the target of Allied bombings.

As the war neared its end, the geopolitics became complicated. Von Braun and 300 of his colleagues at Peenemunde were captured by the US and secretly brought stateside in contravention of official American policy — first to an island in Boston Harbor, then to PO Box 1142.

“We had very little information about rocketry,” Mayer says in the film. “Rocket scientists were essential to our war effort [in the Cold War].”

A still from the new Netflix animated documentary ‘Camp Confidential: America’s Secret Nazis.’ (Courtesy of Netflix)

The camp brass created a new position for Mayer — morale officer– and asked him to make life enjoyable for the prisoners, hoping this would get them to cooperate. He gave the prisoners newspapers to read, whiskey to sip and numerous games to play, including swimming, tennis, ping-pong and chess. He taught them horseshoes and discovered they loved volleyball.

“[The guards] were all shocked,” Loushy said. “They didn’t understand. They were so ready to go and fight in Europe, be really active saving their families.” Yet they found themselves “in the camp… playing ping-pong with Nazis.”

The Jewish soldiers knew about the evils the Nazis had committed, including against their families. The filmmakers stated that many of the soldiers had arrived in the US as enemy aliens and their US citizenship depended upon their military service.

“Almost all [of us] were refugees from the Nazis,” Weiss says in the film. “We would have preferred to treat them as the war criminals they were. In the army, you can only follow orders. I tried to suppress my rage.” He states that he “was not fully aware of the enormity of what had happened under the Nazi regime,” but notes, “My grandfather, uncle, aunt, cousin, other relatives all died in the Holocaust, like so many others.”

A still from the new Netflix animated documentary ‘Camp Confidential: America’s Secret Nazis.’ (Courtesy of Netflix)

Newsreel footage is shown proclaiming the “first actual pictures of atrocities in Nazi murder camps,” including an appalled Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower surveying liberated Buchenwald, where tattooed slave laborers had worked on V2 rockets.

Mayer is quoted saying that the V2 rockets “killed countless numbers of people in London” and that building them required “Jews arrested by the Gestapo. [Von Braun] knew what was going on. He knew there was an Auschwitz.”

The Nazis of NASA

The film incorporates…

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