Project Tells Story of Nazi Forced Labor

By: Jessica Mann
By: Jessica Mann

BERLIN (AP) -- Helena Bohle-Szacki was seized by the Nazis in 1944 and thrown into the Ravensbrueck concentration camp as a forced laborer.

Her story is one of 590 audio and video interviews of former forced laborers from 26 countries made available online Thursday by the German Historical Museum, the Remembrance, Responsibility and Future foundation, and Berlin's Free University.

The online archive, "Forced Labor 1939-1945," is intended to make the experiences of former forced laborers available to researchers, teachers and students worldwide. In 398 audio interviews and 192 video interviews in 25 languages, eyewitnesses tell the stories of their lives.

In one of the video interviews, Bohle-Szacki gazes at the camera, cigarette holder in hand, describing how she and a friend survived as teenagers - and even mustered small acts of resistance, like sabotaging a drill press.

Bohle-Szacki, 80, said Thursday that she had felt an obligation to participate in the project.

"There are so few witnesses left from this time and I think one has to talk about it, particularly now with a certain distance and new knowledge."

During World War II, more than 12 million people, mostly from Eastern Europe - like Bohle-Szacki, a Polish Jew - were forcibly transported to Nazi Germany as laborers.

They worked in concentration camps, for companies, on farms, in private households, and even for churches and public authorities.

The Remembrance, Responsibility and Future Foundation has paid euro4.4 billion ($5.7 billion) in compensation to 1.66 million former forced laborers. But Guenter Saathoff, a member of the foundation's board, said more needed to be done to recognize the victims.

"It's not just about money," Saathoff said. "It's about the restoration of their dignity."

Free University professor Gertrud Pickhan said that, while the Nazis' forced labor program has been thoroughly researched, the online archive still is a valuable addition.

"What was missing were eyewitness experiences," she said. "Their firsthand accounts provide unique insights into the reality of their lives."

For now, the videos are subtitled in German and most of the audio interviews remain in their original languages. Organizers hope to have transcripts in German for the entire collection soon. An English-language version of the site is a long-term goal.

Access to the site requires registration, but anyone can use it as long as he or she confirms the material will be used only for education or research.

A scaled-down version also is available at the German Historical Museum in Berlin.

"It was a very hard life," said Felix Kolmer, a Czech survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp, and an adviser on the project. "There was just the thought about how to survive - not to survive in the future, but just to survive the day, to survive every hour, that was the most important thing."

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On the Web: http://www.zwangsarbeit-archiv.de

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