Berlin exhibition focuses on Nazi slave and forced labour


Berlin : It's easy to miss; only on closer inspection does a sign reveal its guilty secret. Here, during World War II, hundreds if not thousands of slave and forced labourers toiled day and night in a cluster of low-slung buildings.

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Located a short distance away from a soaring city church, the white-painted barracks in Berlin's Niederschoeneweide district today serve as a reminder of an evil period in German history – when Poles, Czechs, Dutch, Ukraine and Belorussian men and women were deported to Germany for forced labour purposes.

In Poland, three million citizens fell victim to the Nazi regime's labour programme after the 1939 German Wehrmacht invasion of their country.

In Berlin and its surrounding areas alone, some 3,000 internment camps were set up for the influx of foreign prisoners who often worked in appalling conditions. There were thousands more camps elsewhere in the country, and also in Austria.

The camp at Britzerstrasse in Niederschoeneweide, built at the command of Albert Speer, the wartime armaments and building minister, was one of the few to survive the 1939-45 war intact.

Now, two of its 13 barracks have been converted into a documentation centre permanently illustrating the regime's system of forced labour.

An exhibition titled "Remembrance Preserved: Third Reich Slave and Forced Labour from Poland 1939-45" has just been opened at the city's "Rote Rathhaus" (city hall).

Those at the opening included survivors from wartime German labour camps in Flensburg, Frankfurt, Wolfsburg and Berlin.

Jakub Deka, a Warsaw-based planning coordinator employed by the Polish-German Reconciliation Foundation, explained that Berlin was the exhibition's first port of call in Germany. "It will remain in the capital until mid-October, then go on a tour of other German cities," he said

Before its Berlin arrival, the Polish version of the exhibition had been shown in 30 Polish cities, attracting more than 80,000 visitors. "We hope the interest in the German version will be equally great," he said.

Nazi documents and fading photos depict Poles forced to toil on the land, in factories, coalmines and the German armament branches.

There are also pictures of Polish children forced to attend specially set up "Germanisation" schools, as well as screened interviews with some of the survivors of the wartime labour camps.

The harshness of everyday life is reflected in the gruesome pictures of workers shot for alleged disobedience or attempting to flee their brutal captors.

Polish-born Josef Kuzba, a prisoner at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp for five years between 1940-45, has been discussing his experiences with children from the city's Archenhold Gymnasium and Sophie Scholl Oberschule.

"The youngsters seemed well briefed about World War II," he said. "It was a pleasure talking to them."

Asked if he was apprehensive about visiting Germany nowadays, he replied: "No, not at all. I'm a frequent visitor and have good relations with friends here."

Kuzba, who was born in Pomerania, and now lives in Warsaw, said he had been active in promoting Polish-German reconciliation for years. "Remembrance is one thing, reconciliation another. Both are important for our nations," he said.

Mariusz Muszynski, Chairman of the Foundation for Polish-German Reconciliation, writes in the 205-page catalogue that no other event in German-Polish history had ever proved so burdensome to relations as the Nazi-led invasion of Poland in September 1939.

Millions have been paid worldwide to German slave and forced labour victims following the enactment of a law by the German parliament and the creation of a "Remembrance, Responsibility, Future" Foundation.

But, says the catalogue's editor, "material payments could never make up for the sorrow and suffering caused victims – but they were seen as a symbolic gesture of fairness and respect; a contributory step towards a better understanding between the two nations."

Berlin's History Workshop Association says many former forced labourers show interest in revisiting the places of their suffering.

As a result, the association arranges programmes of "encounter, commemoration and searching" for camp traces in and around Berlin.