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Germany: the Forgotten Fate of Nazi-era Forced Laborers

Millions of people were exploited as forced laborers in Germany during World War II. What happened to many of them remains a mystery. A young woman from Belarus has come to Berlin on a quest for answers.

Hanna S. was 8 years old when her great aunt died — too young to understand what had happened to her grandmother’s sister during World War II. Her great-aunt had been subjected to forced labor by the Nazis. So too were 13 million others: men, women, and children. Many of them were kidnapped from Nazi-occupied countries, taken to Germany, and forced to perform hard labor.

“I found out about what happened to my great aunt somewhat by coincidence,” said Hanna S., who comes from Belarus and did not want her full name published. DW met her in Berlin, where she is spending her summer holiday taking part in a seminar about Nazi forced labor.

“My family did not talk much about it,” Hanna explained. “I think that is really a shame.”

The information Hanna has about her great aunt is, therefore, sparse. “That is the gap in my family history.”

Hanna knows only that her great-aunt had to bake bread. But she hopes to one day find out more. This is also why she has come to Berlin, to the Nazi Forced Labor Documentation Center, situated in the southeast of the German capital, near the river Spree.

Here, together with other people interested in history, she is taking part in a 10-day seminar organized by the Action Reconciliation Service for Peace learning extensively about the topic of Nazi-time forced labor. Five of her fellow course participants also come from Belarus. “The topic moves me, but it is also emotionally exhausting,” said the 30-year-old who works as a teacher. Later, she wants to continue with her own research in the archives.

Barracks as accommodation

While she talks about this, Hanna looks at the bleak walls of a barracks where forced workers lived during the Nazi era. It is part of a camp that was established starting in 1943 and today serves as an authentic memorial site within the grounds of the Nazi Forced Labor Documentation Center.

The tree in front of the window was already there during that time. Likewise, the buildings, from which the occupants of the surrounding homes could look at the forced labor camp and see how the workers walked to the nearby factories early in the mornings and returned in the evenings. It is easy to imagine the cramped conditions, the cold, and the terribly unhygienic conditions in the barracks, which many eyewitnesses later reported. There was no privacy, not even in the room with the toilets at the end of the corridor.

Berlin, then the capital of the German Reich, has documented the enormous extent of the use of forced laborers. It was not only the power center for the National Socialists, but also the location of large-scale weapons and industrial enterprises. These were in high need of workers, especially since many German men were fighting at the front of the war and therefore not available.

In Berlin alone, about half a million men, women and children were made to work. “Forced laborers were everywhere in Berlin,” said historian Roland Borchers, who conducts research at the Nazi Forced Labor Documentation Center. “There was a camp on every corner.” There are hardly any reminders of this in the cityscape of Berlin today.

A growing database

Historians estimate that there were about 3,000 camps for forced laborers in Berlin. Along with basic barracks, warehouses, attics, and private dwellings served as collective accommodation.

About 2,000 of these camps are already listed in a publicly available database, which Borchers adds to regularly. “We keep on finding new camps.”  

During the Nazi era, any company could request forced laborers — from large weapons factories to corner bakeries. “They had to go to the employment office, explain their needs and make a credible case that their business was important,” Borchers explained. “Then they would have a forced worker assigned to them.”

For a long time after World War II, the topic of Nazi-era forced labor received little attention. It was only in the mid-1980s that the matter began being worked through — work which continues to this day. Some aspects have still not been very well explored, emphasized Borchers.

Not enough is known about the perspectives and experiences of the victims. The fact that it is not spoken about much in many families, because of shame or for other reasons, is something Hanna has also experienced. That is why she thinks it is even more important for her to engage with the topic of Nazi forced labor: “so that such atrocities are never repeated in future.”

Source : DW