Slavery in Germany: How millions of Soviet citizens were forced to work for the Nazis

Female forced laborers wearing "OST" [Ostarbeiter] badges.

Archive photo
When the Nazis occupied the USSR in the early 1940s, they used millions of Ukrainians, Belarusians and Russians as forced labor.

My great-grandmother, Yevgenia Mechtaeva, was 22 years old when the Great Patriotic War started. She had just moved with her husband, a Red Army soldier, to Brest, a city on the Soviet-German demarcation line. Brest was one of the first cities to face the German onslaught on June 22, 1941.  

Mechtaeva’s husband was killed as the Germans took Brest. Along with many other young women and teens, she was forcefully sent to Germany where she spent a year in a labor camp and then was ‘fortunate’ to be sent to a German family farm.

There, she was forced to work, unpaid and sometimes beaten, until the Soviets liberated her, allowing her to return home. Up until her death in 2013, she hardly mentioned her time in Germany. Her story is far from unique: according to the Nuremberg Trials about 4.9 million Soviet civilians were forcibly taken to  Germany as slave labor. What was their fate?

Nazi workforce

Female forced laborers being liberated from a camp near Lodz.

By 1941-1942, as World War II marched on, Nazi Germany desperately needed to staff its workforce: the economy was already struggling as most workers were serving in the Wehrmacht. The way out was merciless: forcing people from occupied territories to work in German industry and agriculture.

Those who came from the USSR were called Ostarbeiter – “workers from the East,” and their status in the German hierarchy of peoples was among the lowest; hence, the inhumane treatment.

Trains go west

A Nazi propaganda poster which reads:

At first, the Nazis tried sweet talk, calling on locals in occupied lands to work for Germany. “Ukrainian men and women! Germany gives you the opportunity for useful and well-paid work… you will be provided with everything you need, including good housing!” went the first proclamation published in Jan. 1942. It worked only a few times: letters sent home, though censored by the Germans, told about how the Ostarbeiter lived worse than dogs.

Women at the railroad station waving goodbye to a train to Germany (propaganda photo).

Then, the Nazis resorted to using force instead of propaganda, rounding up Ukrainians, Belarusians and Russians, mainly children and teens in villages and towns, and forcing them onto trains to Germany.

“They crammed us into wagons, as many as they could, so we couldn’t move our legs,” recalled Antonina Serdyukova, who was captured in Ukraine. “For a month, traveled that way.”

For the Ostarbeiter, forced to live thousands of kilometers from home, fate was like the lottery. Metallurgical plants, mines and farms needed workers, and where they ended up depended on who paid the most.

“When we arrived, there was a transfer point, I would call it a slave market,” said Fedor Panchenko from Ukraine. “In an hour, they sold the whole group of people to different hands.” Among a group of 200 people, Panchenko found himself in a factory, at the ironworks in Silesia (now Poland).

Rutabaga, money andescapes

Ostarbeiter in their barracks.

Those who worked at metallurgical plants faced an especially harsh fate: little sleep, hard labor and hungry life in labor camps. “We ate once a day, a bowl of soup, with carrot and swede,” Antonina Serdyukova described her life at a plant near Dresden.

Rutabaga is a common memory for all who lived in German captivity – the cheapest vegetable possible: unwashed, root and tops together, thrown to workers. In such conditions, typhus and malaria epidemics were common.

Ostarbeiter in an armaments factory in South Germany wearing armlets as markings.

Some plant workers were paid – a little, just to give them an opportunity to buy a postcard or some clothing in the camp shop. “You needed three wages like that to buy yourself a small sweater, possibly taken from an executed Jew,” Serdyukova explained.

Many brave youths, especially boys, attempted to escape from the labor camps – so did Fedor Panchenko.  He ran away twice, roaming in Germany and hiding for a month, but then he was caught, severely beaten and sent to Auschwitz and then the concentration camp near Magdeburg, which he barely survived. Also, quite a typical fate for an Ostarbeiter – those who tried to flee usually were caught and sent to death camps.

‘Lucky’ ones

At the same time, life in Germany wasn’t entirely horrible for all Soviet captives. “Some of us were working for landlords. And I won’t lie to you – some begged God for the war to last another four years…” recalled Panchenko. “For those living in a family, it depended on the people. Each nation has good people and villains.”

An Ostarbeiter woman working as a maid in a German house.

Some Germans treated their Soviet servants well, even as family members, while others were cold and violent – it was a total lottery. “My masters even asked me to stay with them in Germany,” said Yevgenia Savranskaya, who worked as a maid in Świebodzin (occupied Poland). “But I said “No,” long before the Soviet army came.”

Friendly fire and consequences

The British Army in North-West Europe liberating Russian slave workers being rescued from a cellar after it had been set on fire by a German policeman, Osnabruck, 7 April 1945.

Victory in 1945 came hard, including for captured Soviets. After facing the possibility of death from Allied bombs falling on German cities, those who survived suffered new hardships. Sent to filtration stations run by the NKVD (Soviet counterintelligence), both war prisoners and civilians were interrogated; several thousand ended up in the GULAG, such as Lev Mishchenko, who was sentenced to ten years for working as a translator in a labor camp.

For those who came home life was also hard: German captivity was a stigma. “Fellow citizens despised us,” calmly recalls Panchenko. “I couldn’t apply for a decent job and spent 37 years working at a factory, and if there was any kind of breakage, they would say to me each time: “Oh, no surprise, you worked for Hitler.” Others kept silent about their experience in Germany for decades – they didn’t want the stigma to impact their careers or families.

Only in the late 1980s and later, after the collapse of the USSR, the fates of the Ostarbeiter received public attention – MEMORIAL, the historical and civil rights organization, along with the Germany foundation, Remembrance, Responsibility and Future, created a web project The Other Side of The War, where dozens of interviews with survivors of German captivity can be found. Their recollections in this article are taken from that site.

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