{Germany} Dokumentationszentrum NS-Zwangsarbeit

September 8, 2014


One of the neat things about living in Berlin, is that I’m constantly learning new things about the history of my native country. Obviously, I was aware of Germany’s brutal history of concentration camps, but I didn’t know as much about the forced labour camps which were spread across the country. So when Museum140 was invited to organise a Tweetup at the ‘Dokumentationszentrum NZ-Zwangsarbeit’ (DZNSZA) – or, in English, the Nazi Forced Labour Documentation Centre – located in Berlin Schöneweide, it was a perfect opportunity to brush up on another piece of local history.

DZNSZA labour camp 01

Originally there were around 20-25 forced labour camps in Schöneweide, and a staggering 3000 in the whole of Berlin! The DZNSZA, which was built in 1943, is the last well-preserved former Nazi forced labour camp in Germany. One of the main reasons it remained largely intact is that it was built from stone, whereas many other camps where built from wood and destroyed e.g. through fire from bombings.  Today, the grounds are protected as an historic monument, and the Documentation Centre first opened its doors in summer 2006. Four years later, the well preserved ‘Barrack 13’ was made accessible to visitors, and last year a permanent exhibition about daily life in in forced labour camps completed the experience.

DZNSZA entrance

Although we were a small group – many Tweetup participants had not made it in time due to a breakdown of public transport – we still split in to a German and an English fraction, and our little English group began with a tour of the grounds. We learned that the forced labour movement initially started in 1938, when workers were sent along by the local job centres or recruited from neighbouring countries with promises of good wages and a better life in general. As the majority were from foreign countries, they were referred to simply as ‘foreign workers’ at the time. However, most of the promises turned out to be lies, and it was not long until German powers in charge resorted instead to just kidnapping people of the streets.

DZNSZA labour camp 02

Originally, there were 13 sleeping barracks at the site, of which 11 remain. Some of the former barracks now hold e.g. a sauna, a physiotherapy practice and a nursery, whilst others are part of the DZNSZA. ‘Barrack 13’ is the best preserved of all the housing barracks and was part of our guided tour. It used to house Italian military internees from 1944 to 1945.

DZNSZA barrack13 04

DZNSZA barrack13 03

Below you can see a view down the main corridor of Barrack 13, which had ten sleeping quarters with over a dozen people to each room. Conditions were stark. Without the forced labourers, German economy would have crashed around 1942, so workers were looked after but as cheaply as possible. There was no heating, only single glazed windows, and a single lightbulb to dimly light the rooms. Daily food rations were organised according to nationality, e.g. a Polish worker would receive 250g of bread, one piece of margarine, and one ladle of soup.

DZNSZA barrack13 02

It was not just in terms of food rations that workers were treated differently – the Nazi racist ideology also showed in the wages of the workers, and Eastern European workers especially were discriminated against. For example, weekly wages for Germans were 44 marks, and for Russians only 5 marks. Each of the rooms in Barrack 13 has a collection of quotes on a different theme, such surveillance, free time, hunger or despair, showing how workers from different nationalities were treated differently (not all of the quotes refer to Barrack 13).

There was a simple fence & we were free to come and go. (French worker)

We were watched day & night. (Italian worker)

We could go nowhere, there were 3 to 4 rows of barbed wire. (Ukrainian worker)

DZNSZA barrack13 01

Keeping clean was also a challenge – there was one wash room in Barrack 13 for around 200 people and if you didn’t watch out your clothes might be gone once you had finished washing. There was also only one toilet room, with 6 toilets – again for around 200 people – and no cubicle walls in between! At a time when modesty was rated even higher than it is today, many labourers instead tried to keep their toilet visits for when they were at work.

DZNSZA toilets

Barrack 13 also has an air raid shelter in the cellar, which apparently was unusual. Many of the cellar walls carry inscriptions from Italian forced labourers.

DZNSZA air raid shelter 01

DZNSZA air raid shelter 02

We ended our guided tour with a look around the permanent exhibition ‘Alltag Zwangsarbeit 1938-1945’, which presents “the history of forced labour during the time of National Socialism as an omnipresent mass phenomenon. It shows the day-to-day lives of displaced men, women, and children – inside the camp, at work and in exchange with the German population. It visualises the impact the racial hierarchy of the National Socialist-regime had on the lives of forced labourers.” (description via DZNSZA website)

DZNSZA exhibition 02

DZNSZA exhibition 03

The exhibition includes many historic photographs and also some original film footage. For example, one film clip shows shows the public humiliation of a German/Polish couple – forced labourers were not permitted to fraternise with Germans!

DZNSZA exhibition 01

There are also several examples of recruitment posters, such as this one aimed at Polish workers promising that everything will be better in Germany (where the sun is shining). Labourers ended up working in all areas e.g. industry, agriculture, building & crafts, kitchen & church, railways, and even brothels.

DZNSZA recruitment poster

The exhibition also tells the stories and biographies of some of the individual forced labourers who lived and worked at the former camp in Schöneweide, some of which are still alive and have visited the DZNSZA since it opened. Workers were aged 16 to 60 but the average age was early to mid 20s. But not only the victims, but also some of the perpetrators are named, such as the doctor who was responsible for performing abortions. Generally, abortions were illegal in Germany during that time, but when it came to the labour camps, less time would be lost through women recovering from abortions than through women recovering from giving birth, so many – especially Eastern European women – were forced to abort their children, even as late as 8 months pregnant! As a mother myself, this was a particularly horrible ordeal to imagine.

DZNSZA worker biographies

And finally, this map shows the distribution of forced labour camps across Berlin – to date, the locations of around 1200 of the initial 3000 camps have been verified.

DZNSZA map of labour camps

There was a lot more to see, read and learn in the exhibition, but as we had spent so much of our tour visiting the grounds and Barrack 13, we ran out of time. I definitely want to go back to the exhibition and spend some more time there. It may be a little far out from the city centre – when public transport is running properly, it takes you about 45 minutes – but it is definitely worth the trip out. Admission to the DZNSZA is free, though you can only visit Barrack 13 as part of a guided tour but there is currently also no charge for this. The best thing is to contact them if you are interested, the details are on their website. The DZNSZA is open Tuesdays to Sundays from 10am to 6pm.

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  1. {Germany} Batterien für die Wehrmacht | Museum Diary - March 21, 2016

    […] Last Friday, I headed out to the Dokumentationszentrum NS-Zwangsarbeit – the last well-preserved former Nazi forced labour camp in Germany – for a Museum Tweetup, or ‘MuseUp’, around their special exhibition ‘Batteries for the Wehrmacht’ (you can read about the permanent exhibition in my previous post!) […]

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