What Was Life Like Being Forced To Work For The Nazi Regime?
Nazi Czechoslovakia through the eyes of my great-grandfather
The use of forced and slave labour is not a new phenomenon. Every civilization in history has profited from exploiting people into working under inhumane and illegal conditions. To this day, tens of millions of people still suffer due to modern slavery.
When Adolf Hitler and the Nationalist Socialist party ascended to power in 1933, they began building the largest forced labour system in modern European history.
From 1939 to 1945, the Third Reich conscripted a staggering 20 million foreign civilian workers, prisoners of war, and concentration camp inmates. Foreign civilian workers formed up to 26% of the entire German workforce of 31 million people by September 1944.
This percentage included between 400,000 to 600,000 Czechs who were deported to Nazi Germany. Among these ordinary men and women was my great-grandfather, Miroslav Jeřábek (20 October 1920-23 April 1989).
Save for a handful of old photographs and anecdotes from my late great-grandmother, I knew very little about my great-grandfather’s experience of the Second World War. After some research, I discovered the extent of his journey as a forced labourer in Germany and later as a resistance member in Czechoslovakia after its liberation in May 1945.
This article deals with his time as the former.
Wartime Forced Labour
‘ …work or service exacted from a person under threat or penalty…where the person has not offered him/herself voluntarily. ‘
In March 1939, 90,000 people were registered as unemployed across Czechoslovakia. Meanwhile, the Nazis were keen to fuel their industries with foreign labour after many native Germans had enlisted to fight in the War. Foreign recruitment was vital to maintaining their rapid territorial expansion throughout Europe (Lebensraum).
Miroslav Jeřábek was classed as a civilian labourer due to his profession as a car mechanic. He volunteered for work in the Reich in 1939. This may seem odd, but the ‘voluntary’ nature of his service was debatable.
Many Czechs saw migrating to the Reich as an attractive alternative to their current living circumstances in Czechoslovakia. Although, this rarely proved to be the case in reality. There was an inevitable degree of coercion to migrate from the Czechoslovak Government, now the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. For example, Czechs who refused to migrate risked losing their unemployment benefits.
Miroslav Jeřábek completed a brief tenure at a concrete company before being moved to Dresden. There he worked as a mechanic at a bus company until early 1942, after which time he returned to his home village of Stěžery in Czechoslovakia.
1942 marked a critical turning point in the Second World War.
Allied victories in North Africa and the major Soviet counteroffensive mobilizing along the Eastern Front hinted that the tide of the War was changing in favour of the Allies. This forced Germany to adopt a ‘total war’ economy, meaning that work in the Reich became mandatory.
Miroslav Jeřábek was able to spend a short time at home before this ‘total deployment’ (Totaleinsatz) was enforced in November 1942. Many Czechs had their contracts cancelled while they were still serving in the Reich and were prohibited from returning home.
The Nazis deported Miroslav Jeřábek to the German town of Saalfeld, arriving on 29 November 1942. He worked servicing military vehicles at a car sale and repair shop called Automobilhaus Grille.
His treatment and experience here are revealing.
Czech forced labourers were generally housed in labour camps (Arbeitslagers), where the conditions were deplorable. Miroslav Jeřábek was fortunate to have resided in an apartment building owned and inhabited by his employer, Georg Grille.
The Nazis’ treatment of Czechs was complicated. Hitler hated the Czechs, who he regarded as a mortal enemy of Germany. Yet, despite their status as second-class citizens, or ‘Untermensch’, the Nazis treated the Czechs markedly better than other national and ethnic groups. These included the Poles, Soviets, Jews, and Roma and Sinti Gypsies. Still, the Czechs were less respected than other nations such as Italy, France, Belgium, and the so-called ‘Nordic races’ of Scandinavia and the Netherlands.
A logical assumption would be that a combination of Jeřábek’s status as a skilled tradesman, his Czech heritage and being a fluent German speaker helped to spare him from the more severe fate of his compatriots confined to labour camps outside the city.
Just 19 miles south of Saalfeld was the Örtelsbruch Quarry where forced labour had operated since the beginning of the War. In 1943, the Nazis established the ‘Laura’ forced labour sub-camp in this region as part of the Buchenwald Concentration Camp network.
1,200 forced labourers constructed tunnels here until 1945, by which time the camp registered 600 fatalities and hundreds of deportations to extermination camps.
What Defines A ‘Forced’ Labourer?
Based on the framework provided by historians, Mark Spoerer and Jochen Fleischhacker, to classify as a forced labourer a person could not meet the first and second conditions of the following criteria:
- Was a worker able to end their employment in the short term?
- Was a worker able to enforce legal standards regarding their working and living conditions?
- Did a worker have any voice in complaining about their life and work conditions?
- Was a worker’s chances of survival similar to that of a native worker?
Although Czech workers were treated better than other groups, they could still incur serious penalties for consorting with German women and breaching the terms of their labour contracts. Miroslav Jeřábek was guilty of the latter offence. More on this later.
Czechs were also unable to enforce any legal standards for their working and living conditions. This was a luxury afforded only to privileged German and Italian workers, (until Italy defected to the Allies on 13 October 1943).
Miroslav Jeřábek received this wage slip not long after arriving in Saalfeld. For completing 50 hours of work, he received a total of 31.23 Reichsmarks, following deductions for income tax, health insurance, unemployment insurance, and ‘invalid’ (injury), and age insurance. Albeit a small amount, his eligibility for these privileges suggests that he received a similar standard of employment rights as most German citizens.
While this currency is difficult to convert, his comments scribbled in Czech on the back of this document for the benefit of his partner imply that this sum was not an adequate salary: ‘look at the riches we are bringing in’.
In terms of whether he had a voice in complaining about his working and living conditions, the disclaimer footnoting this document is interesting:
‘ Reklamationen sind sofort anzubringen! ’
This translates to:
‘ Complaints must be made immediately! ’
Forced labourers employed by private companies as opposed to labour camps appeared to have some voice regarding their payment. Of course, this was at each individual employer’s discretion and dependent on the nature of the industry. Even so, the fact that he was paid confirms his status as a forced labourer rather than a slave labourer. A slave labourer had no right to complain at all.
Miroslav Jeřábek’s chances of survival were not too dissimilar to the average German living in Saalfeld. While foreigners were at higher risk of death by the arbitrary massacres which became common towards the end of the War, foreigners and Germans were both under threat from Allied air raids on Nazi Germany and its occupied territories, as will become more evident shortly.
Official records note that Miroslav Jeřábek left Saalfeld in June 1945. This is not true. After spending over two years in Saalfeld, Miroslav Jeřábek contracted tonsillitis and was granted medical leave to return to Czechoslovakia for treatment in March 1945, encountering the bloody aftermath of the Allied blitz of Dresden (13-15 February 1945) on his journey home.
As events later transpired, it turns out he was very lucky.
Over the course of the War, British Bomber Command and the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) targeted Saalfeld due to its strategic importance as an industrial centre with a large railway station. Air raids increased in frequency and ferocity, culminating in a major assault by the 9th Air Force on 9 April 1945.
This attack claimed 208 lives, mostly civilians, both native and foreign, and obliterated many residential and commercial properties. This included Miroslav Jeřábek’s place of employment, Automobilhaus Grille. His employer, Georg Grille, was not harmed. Had Miroslav Jeřábek remained in Saalfeld, it is likely he would have perished.
Upon arriving in Czechoslovakia, Miroslav Jeřábek returned to his home village of Stěžery. After receiving hospital treatment, he went into hiding instead of returning to Germany, contradicting the terms of his release. He lived in an apartment above the local village cinema, (today a grocery shop) until Czechoslovakia’s liberation on 9 May 1945.
He inevitably sensed that the War was ending, or had learned of the chaos and devastation back in Saalfeld. Both of these factors motivated his decision to stay in Czechoslovakia, despite the risk this entailed. After all, there was little reason for him to return to a war-torn Germany, now besieged on two fronts.
After the War was over, Miroslav Jeřábek was able to reunite with his friends and relatives. He continued to work as a car mechanic at a company based in the nearby city of Hradec Králové.
The Legacy Of Forced Labourers
How Europe has remembered its forced and slave labourers has overall been disappointing.
The Czech Forced Laborers Association (1990-2004) and the Czech-German Fund for the Future (1997- ) and its German counterpart, ‘Remembrance, Responsibility, Future’ (2000-2007) have all tirelessly worked to commemorate and compensate former forced labourers spread all over Europe. Yet, international awareness of the plight of forced labourers is not as mainstream as it should be.
In post-War Czechoslovakia, forced labour became stigmatized or forgotten. There were several reasons why this happened. People often viewed former forced labourers as cowards and traitors who contributed to the Nazi war effort instead of fighting.
The Communist Regime which governed Czechoslovakia for the next 40 years after the War echoed this contempt. The authorities suspected the former forced labourers of collaborating with their sworn enemy, the Nazis. The personal shame and embarrassment of forced labourers also guaranteed their collective silence. Major humanitarian crises which had unfolded across the War such as the Holocaust also diminished the urgency of this group’s comparatively ‘minor’ struggle.
Even so, the forced and slave labour system under the Nazis during the Second World War was a serious abuse of human rights. Sadly, this issue is not isolated in the past.
Modern slavery, human trafficking, sexual exploitation, and forced labour are still widespread issues across the globe today. In 2016, 40.3 million people were enslaved, including 24.9 million in forced labour.
World governments and societies have a pressing responsibility to abolish these cruel and barbaric practices. They can start by giving their victims, both past and present, the respect and recognition they deserve.
- Dr Dirk Henning, a German historian and director of the Saalfeld City Museum since 2001, and the City Archive Saalfeld since 2007.
- City Archive Saalfeld / Stadtarchiv Saalfeld.