FRANKFURT (Nov. 17)
Two years ago, when high school students in a city near here started researching the fate of 1,700 Hungarian Jewish women forced to work in their hometown as slave laborers during World War II, they had no idea their work would become a town project.
Today, their effort to gain recognition for the survivors is supported by the mayor of Moerfelden-Walldorf, their school principal, the city museum director and other local citizens of prominence.
More than 1,500 people have signed an appeal to the former employer of the survivors, the Stuttgart-based construction company Zueblin, to acknowledge its wartime role in the mistreatment of forced workers.
The local initiative is a rare example of pressure for compensation for World War II victims coming from Germans instead of survivors. It is also a sign of changing public attitudes in Germany toward confronting the role ordinary Germans played during the Holocaust.
Rudi Hechler, who belonged to the Communist Party after the war, supported a group of students who in 1972 started researching the history of the former slave laborers. They assembled a list of 200 survivors.
“I was told that I was dirtying the nest. People said, `Oh God, Rudi, what are you doing to the reputation of our city?’” according to Hechler. “I am very glad that times have changed.”
In 1980, the city erected a memorial stone to commemorate the women who died while working in Walldorf between August and October 1944.
They were “requisitioned” from Auschwitz by Zueblin, which used the women to help build a new runway at the nearby Frankfurt airport.
They unloaded train cars, unearthed and carried heavy cables and helped clear terrain. They were forced to keep working during the frequent bomb raids.
To help protect against below-zero temperatures, the women stuffed reeds and cloth sacks under the only clothing they owned — summer dresses.
There was little interest in the fate of the survivors, however, until 1996, during a Hungarian cultural week sponsored by the city.
Cornelie Ruehlig, director of the city museum, assembled an exhibition on the former female slave laborers, who were deported from Hungary.
“We could not just feature wine and ceramic tiles and forget the rest of our history,” she says. During a tour of the exhibition, a group of local high school students were so moved that they decided to take a class trip to Hungary and visit a survivor.
“We had mixed feelings about going. We did not know how she would react to us young Germans,” says 19-year-old Ljubomira Erac.
Classmate Daniela Rieken, also 19, adds, “We were critical of the German past. Then she spoke freely.”
When the students returned, they made a presentation of the results of their trip and wrote to Zueblin, asking them to make a public gesture toward their onetime employees. There was no response until more people from the town became involved.
“The townspeople were very impressed that the students took the subject so seriously and they wanted to support them,” according to museum director Ruehlig. “The local newspapers have also done a lot to draw attention to the matter.”
Eventually, Zueblin sent a member of the board to Walldorf to meet with the growing circle of people pressing the company to take action. At a recent news conference, Mayor Bernhard Brehl reported that the board member only seemed interested in asserting the company’s innocence.
“We were not interested in proving personal guilt. We want Zueblin to take responsibility and deal with their history constructively. We expected at least a gesture, such as an apology to the Hungarian women they used as slave laborers,” Brehl said.
Members of the initiative emphasized that they were not trying to press the company for financial compensation as much as for a signal that Zueblin was confronting its past.
However, the company’s lack of cooperation has pushed those involved in the initiative to call for compensation for the survivors, about 50 to 100 of whom are probably still alive, according to Ruehlig.
“This is a case of arrogance, ignorance and historical obstruction,” said Ruehlig.
In a statement, Zueblin recently said it had checked archives and found no evidence of company responsibility for the treatment of the slave laborers.
To maintain public attention on the issue, several students are petitioning two state parliaments to discuss the subject of the Walldorf slave laborers.
Earlier this fall, Volkswagen and the electronics giant Siemens each announced plans to establish a $11.9 million compensation fund for former slave laborers.
Student Julia Achenbach says she hopes Zueblin takes responsibility for its past and follows the example set by those two firms.
However, the more likely solution is a nationwide compensation fund for former slave laborers that Germany’s new center-left government has promised to set up in conjunction with companies that used slave laborer during the war.
Chief executives of more than a dozen German companies met recently with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to discuss their participation in such a fund. No agreement has yet been reached.