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Good Germans, bad Germans: Encounters of Polish Forced Labor Workers with Germans

Nearly three million women, men and children from Poland had to perform forced labor in Germany during World War II. The encounters with Germans decisively shaped their memories of this.

In the following video, a female and a male witness talk about their experiences with individual Germans.

The video is in Polish with German subtitles.

Gute Deutsche, schlechte Deutsche. Begegnungen polnischer Zwangsarbeiter mit Deutschen. Ausschnitte aus den Videointerviews mit Janina Halina G. und Zdzisław D. Archiv „Zwangsarbeit 1939-1945", Dauer 11:15 Minuten, Konzept und Schnitt: Ewa Czerwiakowski und Tobias Kilgus, © Freie Universität Berlin 2014

Good Germans, Bad Germans: Polish Forced Laborers' Encounters with Germans

The Poles who were deported to Germany for forced labor suffered from the ruthless separation from their families and were completely at the mercy of the difficult living conditions in a foreign country. Six months after the start of the war on September 1, 1939, the so-called Polish decrees came into force in March 1940 - a special law directed specifically at them on racial grounds. Several decrees were intended to regulate the relationship between the German population and the Polish forced laborers during work and in everyday life.

Among them was the compulsory identification of the Poles. The visible letter "P" on their clothing - similar to the Star of David for the Jews and the badge "OST" for the deportees from the Soviet Union - aimed at stigmatization and exclusion. The presence of Poles in public spaces was to be kept to a minimum: They were not allowed to use public transportation, attend churches, cinemas, theaters, or cultural events.

The orders determined the behavior of both sides. Thus, the Germans were also forbidden all private contacts with Poles. This began with the ban on sitting together at the same table at meals. Intimate relationships were severely punished and not infrequently ended in concentration camp imprisonment for the women from Poland and even the death penalty for the men. Most Germans were guided by the racist principles and treated their Polish workers accordingly. Many were intimidated and behaved similarly. Accordingly, the Polish forced laborers mostly experienced rejection, hostility and contempt at work, in the shelters and on the streets.

On the other hand, there were quite a few Germans who treated the Poles humanely, sometimes even kindly. Thus, in almost every contemporary interview from Poland, the memory of the bad Germans is countered by a positive story. Significant in this is a kind of inner obligation to remember those "decent," "righteous," and "good" people, to call them by name if possible, and thus to honor them.

Biographical Data

Zdzisław D.

  • 1924 born in Łódź (Poland)
  • until 1937 finished elementary school and worked in his father's bakery
  • from 1940 forced labor in a munitions factory near Dannenberg (Lower Saxony)
  • 1942 Escape and renewed deportation to work in a bakery in Dannenberg
  • 1945 stay in a displaced persons camp near Hamburg, then return and work as a baker, later as an accountant
  • 2004 visit to Dannenberg
  • Interview za193
  • Duration 4:05 h, Date: 27.11.2005, Language: polish

Janina Halina G.

  • born 1926 in Łódź (Poland)
  • until 1939 attendance of elementary school and entrance examination for commercial high school
  • 1941 to 1943 work as a minor in Łódź.
  • 1943-1945: deportation and work in an AEG armaments factory in Hennigsdorf near Berlin
  • 1945 temporary arrest for helping concentration camp prisoners
  • April 1945 liberation and return home
  • Studies and work as managing director
  • 1987 to 1993 work in the association of Poles harmed by the Third Reich
  • 1995 visited Berlin and Hennigsdorf
  • 2014 died in Łódź
  • Interview za255
  • duration 4:16 h, date: 16.6.2005, 29.8.2005, language: polish