Behind the Headlines: German Historian Preserves Letters Telling of Nazi Brutality

They came from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Russia, Ukraine and throughout Eastern Europe. Often they traveled in trains without windows to undisclosed locations in a country that was at war with their own and whose people did not speak their language.

The millions of laborers forced into service to fuel the Third Reich’s war machine worked 12- to 16-hour shifts for four years, sometimes without more than one meal a day. They were scattered into thousands of bare-bones camps throughout Germany. If they were paid, it was so pitifully little that it was a bitter joke.

The slave laborers were concentration camp prisoners whom the Nazis sought to work to death. The forced laborers, imported from Eastern European nations to free up Germans to serve in the army, worked under better conditions.

As politicians, lawyers and industrial giants have held drawn-out and often bitter negotiations over how many billions of dollars their work — and Germany’s legal immunity from future lawsuits — is worth, the actual victims of Nazi-era forced and slave labor have remained mostly on the sidelines.

The survivors have, in fact, been so far away from the discussion that fund administrators are now wondering how to find the former laborers to tell them that, more than half a century later, they will receive $2,500 to $7,500 for their work during the war.

Perhaps they should start by talking to Gisela Wenzel. For years the Berlin- based historian has been gathering letters from former forced and slave laborers.

Most of the survivors, who number somewhere between 800,000 and 2 million, are non-Jews from Eastern Europe. As a result of decades of Communist rule in their native countries, many of them had never really talked about their war experience before they received a letter from Wenzel.

Especially in the Soviet Union, Wenzel says, “this was a taboo topic that they forgot and repressed.”

Wenzel’s organization, the sporadically funded, nonprofit Berlin History Workshop, first began investigating the fate of forced and slave laborers after construction workers renovating an area of Berlin came across the last fully intact labor camp in the city.

Wenzel organized an exhibit at the sparse structure and then began the letter- writing campaign. Five years later, she has heard from approximately 380 Eastern Europeans. A producer at the German television network ARD has just begun work on a film about the letters.

The letters are full of details: everything from the stations on the subway route they traveled to the exact hours of the shifts they worked and the names of their supervisors.

More than 50 years later, their memories are still remarkably strong: one man recalls exactly how much money he made for his years of service (approximately $90), another woman remembers the names of her co-workers and still another recalls the bloody hand prints on the wall of the jail where she was held after she tried to escape.

Other memories are kinder: of better-hearted German co-workers who gave them Christmas presents and treated them humanely, of friendships and even marriages that were formed in those years and that still exist today.

They are almost all handwritten, some with a childish hand that suggests the work of a grandchild. Often, Wenzel remarked, the words sit so tightly together on the page “that you can tell how hard it is to afford paper.”

To Wenzel, it is not just the physical and emotional damage of the Nazi-era labor practices that is so brutal, but also the professional damage. Many of these men and women were pulled from their homes in their late teens, and returned with no education. Now, she says, pulling her clenched fists to her chest, they are “bitterly poor.” Sometimes, she says, it was a big expense to afford a stamp for the letter they sent.

She says many of the former laborers are living on pensions of $15 to $20 a month, and subsisting on what they grow themselves. For them the compensation of $2,500 for forced laborers, who worked for little compensation, and $7,500 for slave laborers, who were expected to work to death, is a large amount of money.

But, Wenzel says, “The mood is not one of euphoria. The feeling is that this came 50 years too late and that there was way too much haggling. It is a huge humiliation.”

The recent decision on how much money each of the former laborers will get from the $5 billion settlement is seen as the last major hurdle in the contentious Nazi-era labor compensation effort.

But the compensation plan, and its accompanying haggling, is still far from a done deal. German industry, which will split the bill with the German government, has so far only raised about half the money it needs.

Wolfgang Gibowski, a spokesman for the fund, said as many as 2,000 more German firms will have to contribute to reach the $2.5 billion mark. But he remains confident that they make it together by this summer.

He said contributions have risen dramatically in the last week, with as many as 30 companies a day pledging support. As of the end of March, nearly 900 firms had joined, including companies who did not use slave or forced labor.

Gibowski said the sudden rise in contributors came after German industrial associations sent letters to every company in Germany, urging participation.

“Now they know what the fund is, and why it is the duty of German industry to contribute,” Gibowski said.

Ford Werke, a subsidiary of the American automaker, last week became the first subsidiary of an American company to publicly give money. Other American subsidiaries also have contributed, but have not made their names public.

Paul Schinhofen, spokesman for the Cologne, Germany-based subsidiary, said the firm is expected to give approximately $13 million. During World War II, Ford Werke was seized by the Third Reich and, while under Nazi control, used an estimated 2,000 forced laborers.

“This can be seen as a sort of moral decision, as a way of dealing with the past,” he said.

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