Germany (University of Berlin) The “Forced Labor Archive” collects testimonies. The memories of those affected from western Ukraine are now online.

Roughly 20 million people from all over Europe were forced to work for for Nazi Germany during World War II.

Especially men, women, and also children from the former Soviet Union, from France, Poland, and Italy were abused as workers for the German war economy. They worked everywhere, in German armaments companies as well as in agriculture or in private households.

Those affected often lived cooped up in camp barracks. They were closely monitored by the SS, starved to death due to food shortages, or were killed by the Nazis. Since 2008, the online archive “Forced Labor 1939-1945 – Memory and History” has been providing information about their fate. The online archive is based at the University Library of Freie Universität Berlin and sponsored by the “Remembrance, Responsibility and Future” Foundation.

The archive contains about 600 interviews from 26 countries detailing the memories of of foreign civilian workers, concentration camp prisoners and prisoners of war. The archive is used primarily by researchers, for school teaching, but also by the interested public. The project manager of the archive Verena Nägel points out that the archive regularly receives inquiries from descendants of the victims, but also from descendants of the perpetrators of Nazi forced labor who want to deal with the history of their ancestors.

Interviews with Witnesses from Western Ukraine

In June 2022 a new subcollection containing 40 eyewitness interviews of forced laborers from western Ukraine was added to the archive. In video or audio interviews 17 women and 23 men report on growing up in western Ukraine and being deported to Germany or to concentration camps. After their return home many of them were persecuted again and were interned in re-education camps because the Soviet authorities considered them to be collaborators for Nazi Germany. Anna P., who was born near Lviv in 1923, first reports on her time as a forced laborer on a farm near Bocholt. She says, “I already knew my job, I knew that I had to get up at five and milk the cows. There were twelve cows and I milked them by hand three times a day.”

Later, after her return to Ukraine, she was interned in a Soviet camp. Anna P. remembers: “So we went on freight barges, and we had to drink the water from the river. But it was contaminated with toilet sewage and everything else. We didn’t boil the water. They gave it to us to drink and we drank it.”

The Kyiv historian Kateryna Kobchenko was in charge of the academic editing of the new subcollection. She stresses that the interviews in the collection reflect the special experiences of Nazi forced laborers from western Ukrainian. The area around Lviv belonged to Poland between the two world wars. Due to the Hitler-Stalin Pact, western Ukraine came under Soviet occupation from 1939 to 1941.

Kobchenko explains that this initially led to a rather positive attitude among the population toward the German occupation. She adds, “This changed – not least because of the forced recruitment of workers for Germany.” In addition, the Ukrainian nationalist movement, which viewed all occupying powers as hostile, had been strengthened.

“The interviews contain many details that are hard to find in other sources,” Kobchenko continues. They are particularly valuable because many of the people interviewed had never spoken publicly about their experiences before.

2.4 Million Ukrainian Forced Laborers

There were approximately 2.4 million Ukrainian forced laborers while Nazi Germany was ruling the country. Most of them were from eastern Ukraine. Called Ostarbeiter (“Eastern workers”), they suffered particularly under the Nazi regime. A collection on their fate has long been accessible in the online archive “Forced Labor 1939-1945.”

The fact that the new interviews from western Ukraine were published this year has nothing to do with the current Russian war in Ukraine, as project manager Nägel stresses. Adding this partial collection to the archive had been planned for several years. There were delays, first due to the pandemic and then because usage rights still had to be clarified.

However, Nägel points out that “against the background of the current war, the interviews offer valuable insights into contemporary Ukrainian history. They impressively describe the consequences of war and occupation for the individual.”

The memoirs of the forced laborers from all over Europe are available to all interested parties. Free registration is required for full access to the archive. Nägel explains that this is necessary to protect the personal rights of the eyewitnesses.

Interest in the online archive has been constant for years. It currently has 13,036 registered users. In the pandemic years 2020 and 2021 the online archive and its accompanying learning application were increasingly used by teachers and students in distance learning.