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Vol 3, No 1
8 January 2001
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Paying for
the Past

German forced labor compensation
and its consequences

Gerhard Jochem

German efficiency

Ryszard K is used to thinking in global dimensions. As a former CEO of an internationally operating shipping company, he has a lot of experience regarding organization and efficiency, qualities almost proverbially connected to Germany and its inhabitants.

For both knowing the Germans and how to run an enterprise, Ryszard K becomes ironic when he is asked to summarize his impression of what is going on since August 2000, when the German federal parliament passed the compensatory law in favor of former forced laborers during the Second World War: "German efficiency cannot always be described as an exemplary performance."

The former manager encountered "German efficiency" first in November 1939, when he and his family were deported from their hometown of Gdynia in western Poland to the central region of the country, called "Generalgouvernement" by the Germans. 17-year-old Ryszard and his parents were stranded in Tarnobrzeg, where his father succeeded in starting up a new business though having lost most of his assets in Gdynia.

One-way ticket to Nuremberg

One and a half years later, Ryszard K experienced another variety of the gigantic and murderous migration of nations triggered by the Nazis: during a trip to the district town of Rzeszów, where he wanted to purchase a wristwatch, he got into a raid of the German occupants supposed to supply their domestic economy with the working force urgently needed. After being beaten up, he and hundreds of Polish men and women were shipped by train to Nuremberg, the city famous for its medieval center and infamous for being the site of the annual Nazi party rallies.

In a 20th century version of slave market, Ryszard K was lucky enough not to be handed over to one of the numerous armament factories running their own camps for foreign laborers with ever decreasing standards of housing and nutrition in the course of war. By chance he ended up in the lion's pit, assigned to Nuremberg police's equipment store as a transportation worker.

For those who got into the grinding mills of German forced labor, it became a cynical game of their new masters what happened to them, often making the difference between life and death. A couple of months after Ryszard K, 20-year old Feodosija R from the Ukraine arrived in Nuremberg. At first she hid when the manhunt reached her hometown in the Khmelnyk region, but finally she turned herself in, as the Germans threatened to kill her parents and burn down their house.

After an endless ride, frightful Dosija and her companions in misfortune arrived in Nuremberg. Right at the station, the owner of an ammunition factory selected her and several other young Ukrainian women to work for him. Here Dosija, poorly trained on the job, made a mistake and was beaten up terribly by the German foreman. It was a time when potentially any German had been given the power over life and death of the workers from Poland or the Soviet Union, simply because by Nazi definition he belonged to a "superior race."

For weeks, the young woman suffered from her injuries. She thought that she would have to die. But she recovered, only to be sent to the Arbeitserziehungslager (correctional working camp) Langenzenn, a small town in the vicinity of Nuremberg.

"Conditions similar to detention"

These euphemistically named scenes of horror are less known to the public than the concentration camps. Unlike them, they were not run by the SS but by the Gestapo, as penitentiaries for allegedly criminal foreign workers, such as Feodosija R, who never learned about the crime for which she had been incarcerated without legal procedures. Most likely, the Nazis took her mistake for an act of sabotage.

Living on a cup of dirty brownish liquid called "coffee" and one beet a day, the male and female prisoners there were exposed to hazardous heavy work and torture. In the postwar trial against the Gestapo officers of the Langenzenn camp, staff members of the Nuremberg prison hospital testified about the camp inmates delivered to their facility:

"I have seen women completely lice-ridden in a condition I cannot describe. A young Pole had been brought to us hardly able to walk anymore. Another young man had been beaten off half of his buttocks, others arriving at the hospital smeared with their excrements, the tampons rotten, worms creeping out of their purulent wounds."

Feodosija R, unlike many others, survived the camp and was freed by the US Army in April 1945. She returned to the Ukraine and today is one of the few still alive and both physically and mentally ailing from the chronic illnesses contracted in Germany.

According to the German compensatory law, Mrs R is entitled to receive up to USD 7500, because she had to live "under conditions similar to detention or comparably particular bad conditions." This amount equals almost one thousand times her monthly pension of 40 Ukrainian Griwna (USD 7.20), maybe even sufficient to purchase regularly the expensive medication she needs—if she meets the requirements of the application procedure.

Ryszard K had been spared from such atrocities as Feodosija R, though he also got acquainted with one particular brilliant representative of the German master race, the janitor of the police equipment store, a sociopath who drained his uncontrollable reservoir of aggression by violent outbursts against the foreign laborers of the installation.

The pensioner is in the favorable situation that the compensation for his three years of forced labor in Germany has a more symbolic than financial meaning to him, an aspect of the issue emphasized frequently by German politicians during the negotiations. Using all information available and his multiple language skills, he started his quest for compensation almost five months ago when the law came into power.

Lack of that efficiency

Ever since, his reaction to the outcome of his efforts oscillates between annoyance and black humor about the incompetence and the lack of efficiency displayed by the agencies involved. Until now he wasn't even able to obtain a form for his application. He wrote many letters, among others to the heads of the German compensatory foundation in Berlin. Their reply is more of a prophecy than a fact sheet: "Hopefully", "presumably" and "it is to be expected" are the most frequently used phrases in the letter.

Nevertheless, Ryszard K also received mailings from Germany with very concrete contents, eg from an organization asking him for a contribution to increase the chances of his application. "Until now I was just confused. Now I am still confused but on a much higher level," K comments sarcastically.

Though he made no effective progress, Ryszard K is in a pole position compared to many of the other participants in this humiliating virtual steeple chase for seniors, because he has got evidential documents for his stay in Germany during the war. In particular, the returnees to the Soviet Union were taken away any piece of paper they brought with them from Germany by the KGB. Some of these records got into the holdings of regional archives, others disappeared without a trace.

For this reason, many of the applicants from Russia, Byelorussia and the Ukraine have to rely on the documents kept by the International Tracing Service (ITS) in Bad Arolsen (Germany) or German municipal and state archives. Individual requests to the ITS take an incredible average of three years to be answered, so applicants are encouraged to leave the ordeal of finding evidence for their term of forced labor to the respective national "partner organization" which is in charge of dealing with the applications and disburse the money.

Many experts have well-founded doubts about the results from this contradictory double competence as judge and attorney of former forced laborers at the same time. There are reports that applications were turned down by local representatives of these "partner organizations" with the simple remark "you went to Germany voluntarily," an assertion which, in most of the cases, neither can be approved nor disapproved due to the lack of documents.

The situation would make an excellent plot for a novel by Franz Kafka: elderly people, anything but law experts or in any of the respective countries an influential pressure group facing a monstrous and unfathomable German and domestic bureaucratic machinery, the latter backed up by their governments surely not willing to put at risk their hoped for membership in the European Union for a conflict with Germany over the claims of their 70+ aged citizens.

At least for those former forced workers who manage to be alive long enough in 2001 when the first rate of compensatory payments is likely to be disbursed, there is a vague chance to experience the much belated regret of the German people. But there are others whose sufferings do not match the criteria of the law, for example the victims of German occupation of Slovenia.

What happened there starting in the spring of 1941 had been an attempted "ethnical cleansing" of those parts of the country which were incorporated immediately into the territories of the axis' powers Germany and Italy: 150,000 Slovenian nationals were driven out of their homes, deported and dislocated all over Germany or shipped to the Serb border only with what of their belongings they could carry with themselves.

Not only active members of the guerilla were killed by the German army but also, according to an order by Heinrich Himmler, every adult male of a family suspicious of providing shelter or food to the freedom fighters. The children of those families had to be separated from their mothers to prevent them from becoming a new generation of enemies for the Germans and, after being "racially evaluated" by the SS, were given to German adoptive parents.

Since 1997, the Slovenian "Association of the Victims of Occupation 1941 - 1945" with its headquarters in Kranj is fighting for an individual compensation. The German government is denying constantly any obligation referring to an agreement between Germany and Communist Yugoslavia in the 1970s. Of course, not a penny of the then paid amount made its way into the pockets of a person affected.

During the negotiations about the compensatory law, the German side ignored all requests by the victims' association to include the characteristics of the regime of terror in Slovenia into the rulings. Thus, most of the crimes committed there are not covered by the law. German officials did not pay any attention to the fact repeatedly invoked by the Slovenians, that since the Nuremberg Trials war crimes are considered not to be in lapse at any time.

So is the collective memory of those countries where inhabitants passed on their wartime experience to the next generations. The "European house" cannot be built upon denial and bitterness, in many cases literally above mass graves. It is a mandatory gesture of sincerity and respect towards the people in Central and Eastern Europe to deal with their claims honestly.

Gerhard Jochem, 8 January 2001

More information about forced labor in Germany and the compensatory law is available at www.rijo-research.de

Moving on:


Ivana Gogova

Bernhard Seliger
Ten Years After

Mel Huang
Lithuania Fumbles

Sam Vaknin
Dirty Diplomats

Gusztáv Kosztolányi
Caring for Your Own

Slavko Živanov
A Lesson in Democracy

Gerhard Jochem
Paying for the Past

CzTV Crisis:
James Partridge
Getting Ahead in TV

Jan Čulík
Taking Them to
the Streets

Robert M Kokta
More of the Same?

Andrew Stroehlein
A Revolution in Television

Jan Čulík
Dead Air

Jana Dědečková

Miloš Zeman

Steven Saxonberg
Social Costs of Transformation

Henryk Grynberg:
Christina Manetti
Z ksiengi rodzaju

Christina Manetti

Brian J Požun
Shedding the Balkan Skin

Martin D Brown
Czech Historical Amnesia

Dejan Anastasijević (ed)
Out of Time

Gusztáv Kosztolányi
Hungarian Oil Scandal

Sam Vaknin
After the Rain

Press Reviews:
Andrea Mrozek
Who's the Boss?

Oliver Craske
Zoran and Göran


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