On this day, Hans Frank, Governor of the General Government of occupied Poland during World War II, writes in his diary:
“…Upon the demands from the Reich it has now been decreed that compulsion may be exercised in view of the fact that sufficient manpower was not voluntarily available for service inside the German Reich. This compulsion means the possibility of arrest of male and female Poles… General Fieldmarshal Goering some time ago pointed out in his long speech the necessity to deport into the Reich a million workers. The supply so far was 160,000. “ (Documentary Evidence 2233-A-PS)
Frank announced that under his program, 1,000,000 workers were to be sent to Germany, and recommended that police surround Polish villages and seize the inhabitants for deportation.
Photo credit: Poland in Photographs 1939-1944 . Collection of the New York Public Library.
The ”compulsion” and “possibility of arrest” took the form of establishing people quotas. The counties and districts of the General Government were mandated to deliver an established a number of Poles who would be transported for work in the Reich. The summons sent to Poles to present themselves for work in the Reich stated: ”In the event that you do not fulfill this obligation, members of your family(parents, wife, siblings, children)will be placed in camps for criminals and will not be released until you present yourself. We also remind you that we have the right to seize your, as well as your family’s movable goods and fixed properties. Beyond that…you can be sent to a penal jail, a heavy labor jail or sent to a concentration camp.” (Seeber)
Polish slave laborer and his family liberated by the 1st U.S. Army near Meggen, Germany. Photo courtesy of the Still Pictures Branch National Archives at College Park, Maryland
In this quest to keep Hitler's war effort running at top speed Hans Frank sent men, women, and then entire families as laborers to Germany. The slave labor program was designed to achieve two purposes. The primary purpose was to satisfy the labor requirements of the Nazi war machine by compelling foreign workers, in effect, to make war against their own countries and its allies. The secondary purpose was to destroy or weaken peoples deemed inferior by the Nazi racialists, or deemed potentially hostile by the Nazi planners of world supremacy.
To quote the American and British Prosecuting Staff before the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, Germany, regarding the Nazi foreign labor policy: it consisted of mass deportation and mass enslavement. It was a policy of underfeeding and overworking foreign laborers, of subjecting them to every form of degradation and brutality… It was, in short, a policy which constituted a flagrant violation of the laws of war and the laws of humanity.
Documentary Evidence 2233-A-PS. Trial of the Major War Criminals before International Military Tribunal.
Seeber, Eva. Robotnicy przymusowi w Faszystowksiej Gospodarcze Wojenny p.352-353
Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression Volume 1 Chapter X - The Slave Labor Program, The Illegal Use of Prisoners of War.
Knab, Sophie. Wearing the Letter P: Polish Women as Slave Laborers in Nazi Germany 1939-1945. Hippocrene Books, Inc. 2016
April 14, 1945 marks the liberation of my mother and father from forced labor during World War II by British troops. This fact is true, discovered in German documents. Both my parents had been taken from Poland and forced to work against their will in an armaments factory called Rheinmetall-Borsig in Unterluss (Unterlüß), Germany. One of the facts that has eluded my research is determining which specific British troops actually liberated my parents. Most documented sources I’ve come across simply say “liberated by British troops.” But I think it’s important to know such a detail. I want to know who to give credit, thanks and respect to, if only in my own heart and mind, for such a giving act, for their service. So, I keep plugging various search terms into the internet hoping to find something…and recently I did.
In the book titled Monty’s Northern Legions: 50th Northumbrian and 15th Scottish Divisions at War 1939-1945 author Patrick Delaforce writes that after capturing the undefended city of Celle, the 15th Scottish Infantry Division, British 2nd Army, “continued on the 13th (of April) north-east to Eschede and Uelzen with Highland Light Infantry leading.” I recognized the names of these cities and towns as they are all in the same region where my parents were forced laborers. (See attached map.) In order to get to Uelzen from Eschede (assuming they stayed on the main roads) they had to have passed through Unterluss (Unterlüß). And this one and only sentence gives me hope that I am on the right track: “Lt. Green became Mayor and Military commander of Unterluss for one day.” Eureka!! They did enter the city, which is really more of a small town, as I’ve been there as part of my research. It must have been these troops that liberated my mother and father. The date of the 14th of April would fit. Do I know this for sure? No. Who is Lieutanant Green? And what did he do in that role? That I also don’t know but if the Highland Light Infantry was leading the advance, I’ll begin my research there. One line in someone’s book can give an important lead and at the same time open up more questions but for today, I celebrate what I have discovered and try to build on that.
Wearing the Letter P: Polish Women as Forced Laborers in Nazi Germany1939-1945(Hippocrene Books) explores the history of forced labor during the occupation of Poland during World War II and focuses on the experiences of Polish women as forced laborers.
On October 26, 1939 , Hans Frank, Governor of the General Government in occupied Poland, required all Poles from 18-60 years of age to be employed.
That edict, issued by the Labor Department and its leader, Hans Frank, which was called arbeitspflict or “work obligation” is more commonly known as the Forced Labor Decree. It marks the day of the beginning of mass deportation of Polish men and women to Germany to work in the armaments industry, as agricultural laborers or wherever the German authorities dictated how the laborers were to be employed to maintain the German war economy. It began the massive enslavement of Polish men, women and children for involuntary forced labor. Among the almost two million Poles sent to Germany, more than half a million were women with their average age around 20.
By December 14 of that same year the required age for forced labor was changed to that of 14 and it is a known fact that children even younger than that were often forced to work side by side with adults.
By March 7, 1940 Hans Frank noted in his diary: 24,000 Polish women had been sent for agricultural work to the Reich.
By May 10, 1940 Hans Frank writes: “It has now been decreed that compulsion may be exercised.”
The people of Poland were subjected to constant surveillance by the racist bureaucratic and policing apparatus of the Wehrmacht, labor office, SS and Gestapo. They were rounded up on the streets, coming out of church or boarding a bus or train, placed in temporary holding centers and sent to Germany against their will. While in Germany, all Poles were required to wear a patch on their clothes with the letter P.
According to Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression Office of the United States Chief of Counsel for the Prosecution of Axis Criminality, Volume I Chapter 10…the basic elements of the Nazi foreign labor policy consisted of mass deportation and mass enslavement. It was a policy of underfeeding and overworking foreign laborers, of subjecting them to every form of degradation and brutality. It was a policy which compelled foreign workers and prisoners of war to manufacture armaments and to engage in other operations of war directed against their own countries. It was, in short, a policy which constituted a flagrant violation of the laws of war and the laws of humanity.
You can read a summary of the activities of Hans Frank at: Trial Brief of Hans Frank. Cornell University Law Library P.13 and 14
Photo of Polish slave laborer and his family liberated by the 1st US Army near Meggan Germany. Photo credit: Still Picture Branch National Archives in College Park, Maryland. More about the issue of forced labor can be found in: Wearing the Letter P: Polish women as Forced Laborers in Nazi Germany 1939-1945 by Sophie Hodorowicz Knab. Hippocrene Books, Inc.
Wednesday, April 4th, 1945.
The time is somewhere between 6:19am and 7:44am. Forty B-17’s belonging to the United States Eighth Air Force leave Molesworth, England with the objective of bombing the Nazi air base in Fassburg, Germany. On approaching their target, the carriers encounter cloud cover. Unable to complete their original mission, the aircraft took advantage of a nearby “target of opportunity,” and drop their bombs on an armament factory located in a nearby town called Unterluss.
On the ground, the bombs are falling on my mother.
Sunday, May 30, 2004.
Today, I am standing on that same ground. I have traveled thousands of miles to stand on this ground in this small town in Germany. U.S. military aerial views from that day confirm this location. It was the place of her gehenna – the place where she lived and starved and suffered as a slave laborer during World War II. Today it is a soccer field.
I try to imagine what it must have been like – to hear the drone of the approaching airplanes, the whistling of bombs falling through the air, the explosions drawing nearer and nearer and knowing that death is approaching at a rate of 150 miles an hour. I raise my eyes to the sky. Instead of the sky darkening with the approach of forty massive Flying Fortresses, it remains blue and cloudless and… blessedly…. empty. “I ran out of the barracks,” I hear my mother say, “and all I could think about was your brother in the nursery and I started running and I hear bombs exploding, the earth shaking. From the corner of my eye I could see other women running too – all of us heading in the same direction towards the nursery, towards our babies. I snatched Michael up so hard he starts screaming. There wasn’t time to think about anything except to run, to run as fast as I could. I knew I’d be safe if only I could reach the edge of the forest. I could hardly breathe. My heart was pounding in terror. If only I could reach the trees! If only I could reach the trees!”
That evening, as Combat Mission #351 is writing up its report, my mother wanders through the forest in search of shelter. It is early spring and the night is cold.
“Our squadron crew dropped general purpose and M17 incendiary bombs with good results on this target. We made four passes at 12,000 feet. There was no enemy aircraft opposition….there were no casualties… returned to base between 1542 (3:42PM) and 1613 (4:19PM).” Altogether, the Allied mission dropped a total of 461 bombs. By this time, the Allies were using napalm in their bombs.
When my mother creeps back the next day, the German armaments factory where she has been a forced laborer for over two years is completely decimated and in flames. The barrack containing her pitiful belongings is still smoking and reduced to rubble. The reconnaissance photographs taken three days later show 15 small buildings damaged or completely gutted. These small buildings were the pitiful living quarters of the foreign laborers – men and women from Belgium, Ukraine, Russia and Poland – who were brought to Unterlüss from their homelands against their will and forced to work, replacing the men gone off to war and keeping Hitler’s German war machine moving at full throttle. Refusal to work meant either death or a concentration camp – essentially one and the same.
On this ground that I stand on there were, indeed, casualties. The nursery where female workers were forced to leave their babies while they worked twelve and fifteen hour shifts was completely destroyed. “Babies and mothers lay dead, burnt, mangled and twisted….babies we held and sang to and tried to care for while their mothers worked their shift in the factory….the babies were always hungry, always crying… there weren’t any diapers to speak of except what we could tear up from our clothes… our milk dried up because of lack of food…..” Her voice would trail off. Become silent. I often asked her to tell me more about that day, but she never did. “Be grateful” she’d say sadly, “that you have never known war.”
I was young when I first heard this story. When her hands were busy at some task and her thoughts were free to roam at will, they often traveled back to her experience in the German Reich: how she was taken from her home in Krakow by the Gestapo wearing her apron and house slippers; exposed and humiliated, filing naked past a German doctor whose cursory glance was supposed to determine her fitness for work; locked in a freight car while Gestapo with guns and dogs prevented anyone from escaping during the long, long journey to Germany; walking 3 kilometers each morning deep into a forest where the munitions factory was hidden to prevent detection by the Allies; burnt fingers and hands from hot metal each day; swaying from fatigue and hunger; wearing a bag of kasza tied to her waist with a piece of rope to prevent fellow prisoners from stealing it and assuaging their own hunger; my father throwing her a few beets wrapped in a cloth over the barbed wire fence; constantly under guard by the Gestapo to prevent acts of sabotage; wearing the obligatory letter “P” on her ragged clothes to identify her as a Pole at all times; witnessing the loss of hope, the attempts to escape, the suicides. And always, inevitably, if I remained quiet, she would return to that day when the Allies dropped their bombs and the babies died. Always, she came back to this particular story. It was like a photograph from her past that she pulled out frequently and looked at over and over again, looking for answers, looking for a clue.
That day in April when the Allies were dropping their bombs, it was the closing days of the war. Hitler continued to be in denial, but Germany was tottering to its knees. The Allies were trying to bring it to a swift end. Air forces were striking from above while ground troops were advancing from the east and west liberating the infamous concentration camps of Dachau, Ravensbruck, Bergen-Belsen, Nuengamme, uncovering Hitler’s annihilation of the Jews and liberating seven million forced and slave laborers- French, Belgians, Greeks, Italians, Ukrainians, Russians, Czechs, Danes, Finns, and Poles. Their exile was over.
On April 14, 1945, ten days after the bombing by U.S. Combat Mission #351, the British Wiltshire Regiment marched into Unterlüß and liberated the town. My mother, my father, and what remained of the four thousand European men and women held captive as slave laborers in that small German town, were free.
My mother is dead now. Listening to her labor those last breaths I thought about her hard life and especially the war experiences and the day the babies died. It was right up there with the most important events in her life. I knew this because she told it so often. When she became infirm, she’d ask me to come to lie down next to her so we would “talk” but I knew it was just a ruse to get me to listen to her talk. That’s what I thought about the night she was dying, how that event, more than any other was now etched in my mind. From her, to me.
Even before her death I have begun to search for information about that very small town in northeast Germany. It exists. Libraries, research, translations from German and many months after her death my heart starts pounding with a discovery. That discovery brings me here, to this very spot.
There is no monument of any kind to identify the events that transpired here. All is tranquil and serene but once, almost sixty years ago, blood was spilt on this ground. It is holy ground and no one knows it.
From here I go to the local town cemetery in search of the other thing that I’ve traveled so far to see. In one corner of the cemetery there are three gravestones located in fairly close proximity to one another if you just follow the gravel walkway. The first gravestone is little more than a huge rock, its surface rough and unpolished. It identifies Russian, Polish, Serbian, Croatian, French and other “unknown” adults – victims of Hitler’s racist policy that forced them to be transported to an unknown land against their will to work, to suffer and subsequently to die, alone and without family. The gravestones do not say all these things but I know this because I have the memory, passed on to me from my mother.
Further down I find what I have traveled these thousands of miles to see. On another rough hewn rock lies the testimony “Here lie 34 Russian children.” The third, located in front of an enormous evergreen, reads “Here lie 4 Italians and 23 Polish children.” Fifty nine years later I am face to face with the external evidence of the day that lived in my mother’s memory all of her life. My research discovered that the “57 children killed in the bombings were buried in the local town cemetery. Twelve Polish women in childbed also died in the attack.”
I kneel and pray.
Later that evening I take myself to the one Catholic church in this small, predominantly Lutheran town. I have never been here before but I know this church. My mother prayed in this church and it, too, loomed large in her memories. Once a month, the Poles could attend mass. They were forbidden to hear mass with the local Germans and fraternizing with the other ethnic Catholics was also not allowed to prevent collaboration and possible sabotage. Everyone had their own mass. Two armed Gestapo stood at the entrance, checking that everyone who entered wore the obligatory badge: a square piece of yellow fabric with a purple letter “P” sewn to their clothes on the right breast. Music, singing, or sermonizing was strictly verboten. The only thing audible was the hacking, coughing, and oftentimes, the crying of the assembled individuals. The priest said mass, distributed the Holy Eucharist and everyone returned to the barracks.
The church is tiny and the interior rather austere with old wooden benches and hard kneelers. No seat is really inconspicuous in such a small space. A stranger would be recognized immediately no matter where they sat so I choose a bench in the middle. I am early which gives me plenty of time to look around and watch the parishioners gather. I must be in someone’s assigned pew because first one elderly women sits next to me and then another on the other side. I feel strangely comforted.
The Mass is said in German but it doesn’t matter. It is the ancient ritual of the Mass known to me from my earliest years. The priest gives a sermon which I do not understand but I catch the soothing tone of his voice and his earnestness and he smiles towards his congregation as he speaks and I wish desperately that my mother could have heard such a voice so very long ago when she was here in this church. I can’t help myself. I start to cry. I cry for my mother whom I miss more than I can say. I cry because she mourned the women and children that died that day all the remaining days of her life. She had no way to make peace with their deaths. I cry for a lifetime of her having to take antidepressants to deal with her sadness. The women sit closer to me but say nothing.
When everyone has emptied out of the church I go to the stand of vigil lights. I press money into the collection box and light all the remaining unlit candles in honor of all the unknown forced laborers buried in the cemetery but especially the mothers and babies. They are not and never have been forgotten. I pray for them and for my mother who lived and could not forget. And I whisper, yes, mama, I am grateful that I have never known war.
Photo by Edward Knab, Unterluss, Germany.
The fate of hundreds of thousands of Polish women as forced laborers during WWII is told in: Wearing the Letter P: Polish Women as Forced Laborers in Nazi Germany, 1939-1945
I've always had a fascination with black and white photos. Maybe it began with the ones that my mother kept in an old gilded box called Schrafft's Luxuro Chocolates. As a kid I'd periodically pull out the box and examine the people in the photographs and question my mother about them. They were pictures of my mother with her siblings in Poland before the war. I could see the wooden house that she had lived in. There was one of a Sunday afternoon spent on the sunny bank of the River San with her sisters, all wearing pretty print dresses. There was my grandmother sitting in a garden wearing an apron, her hair pulled back in a bun and a rare photo of my grandfather during the German occupation of Poland with the Nazi swastika stamped on it that was sent to her after the war. I had never been to Poland. I had never met any of the people who were in those photographs, but the photographs connected me and made them real for me.
When I was researching my last book ,Wearing the Letter P: Polish Women as Forced Laborers in Nazi Germany 1939-1945, I felt I understood when I read that the women of Poland, forced to leave their homes and family and could only take a few personal items with them, chose to take a photograph of the people they loved. Sometimes I think that if there was a major catastrophe, a fire, or a bombing, that box of old photographs of my mother's family would be the only thing I would try to save. I've learned that a photograph can be a very powerful thing. It really can provide emotional comfort. It can offer details and information and most importantly, it stops time. You can go to that time and place and be there with the people or the action in the photograph long after the image was taken, study it and learn from it. The power of it is amazing.
I felt that power when I was at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland researching photographs for the book. One of the hardest things about writing history, especially events in another time, in another country is that you have no visuals in your brain for the time, the events or the place you're researching to help you better understand, to know, to see. I wanted to find photographs that would show me of what it was like to be a Polish forced laborer in Nazi Germany.
In the end it was my husband who found the above photograph in the folders he was looking through. When he showed it to me, honestly, the strength of that image, the power it had on me made me push back my chair and stand up so abruptly it caught the attention of the staff behind the desk.
This is was what T/Sgt. Rickard of the U.S Signal Corps with the 1st U.S Army saw on April 13, 1945 near Meggen, Germany: Polish civilian forced laborers, including their children, behind barbed wire. There's a low rough looking, wooden barrack behind them. There is some kind of rough sketch on the barrack wall. Caricature of a German? The children are young, one, I think, not of an age to walk. The mother looks tired? Unhappy? She does not look toward the camera. In contrast, the dad's smile is ear to ear, maybe an automatic response to a camera, maybe overjoyed to see American troops. Their gehenna, as the Polish people called their experience as forced laborers, their hell, is over. But mostly I notice that the barbed wire fence is so very high and the people behind it, prisoners. With the click of the camera, Sgt. Rickard stopped time, took me to 1945 and helped me to see.
Thank you Photographs and Prints Division at National Archives at College Park, Maryland.
In 1987 I jotted down my first notes about my mother's memories of her time as a forced laborer in Nazi Germany during World War II. They were quick notes: Rheinmetall Borsig, Unterluss, Kreis Celle Germany. It was the return address she wrote on envelopes and postcards to her family back home in Poland . She repeated it frequently as if not wanting to forget it.
I wrote it down in what I was using as my journal - a cheap steno notebook bought at the nearest drug store. It wasn't the first time she had said it nor would it be the last but by then I had learned that people talk about those things that are most important to them, the things that are closest to their hearts, so I wrote it down. I thought that, if anything, this was family history and I should remember it too. But on another level I wondered why I couldn't find any books about the forced labor experience, why I couldn't put what happened to her into context with the rest of all that happened during World War II. The literature was abundant when it came to concentration camp survivors so I knew what my aunt, my mother's sister, had experienced but the history books came up empty about the forced labor experience. I was kind of lost about this part of my mother. I knew her experiences were real. There were other women in our Polish American community who had been forced laborers in Germany as well. How to make sense of it?
At the time I was using my steno notebooks for a lot of different things but central to their use was to write things down about Poland, mostly the customs and traditions that I had grown up with and that the Polish American community was interested in when the articles ran in the Polish American Journal. And then in 1991, when she was 80 years old, my mother came to live with my husband and I. Frail, depressed, feeling no one needed her anymore, she spent most of her time in bed but she was very alert and really loved to talk. Sometimes when I was doing something around the house, she'd call for me to come to her bedside. "Pogadamy sobie," she'd say, meaning, "let's talk." I'd lie down next to her on the double bed and she's ask me what was I doing and what were we having for supper and other general things but that talk was just a pretext for what she really wanted and that was for me to listen to her talk. And among her talk of growing up in Poland were her memories of her time as a forced laborer in Germany during the war. I wrote them down in my steno notebooks during the seven years she lived with us. She would ask me what I was writing and I said to her, believing it with all my heart, "Mama, someday I'm going to write a book about what happened to you in Germany." I kept my promise.
My latest book, Wearing the Letter P: Polish Women as Forced Laborers in Nazi Germany 1939-1945 is my finally making sense of what happened, not just to my mother, but to the hundreds of thousands of other Polish women who suffered and died during that terrible time known as World War II. I wish I knew what I know now while my mother was still alive.
One of the biggest moments in my life was being able to sign for my very own library card. When I'm not reading, researching and writing I'm riding my bike, sewing or gardening. I love flea markets, folk art, and traveling to Poland.