{Germany} Batterien für die Wehrmacht

March 21, 2016

Germany

100 Museums Challenge: Museum No.17

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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The exhibition looks at the story of forced labourers working for leading battery producer Pertrix during World War 2. Batteries were a central wartime industrial product and an important source of income, and Pertrix was the major supplier of dry batteries and torches for the Wehrmacht and fuse batteries for combat aircraft for the Luftwaffe. At least 2000 forced labourers worked for Pertrix, mainly women from Eastern Europe.

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Pertrix Normal Battery No.201, before 1945. Unlike AFA, which produced lead batteries, Petrix made dry batteries. They were used mainly for torches.

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For protection during air raids, many torches were fitted with a flap which stopped the light being seen from above.

Forced labourers at Pertrix worked 12 hour days on the conveyer belt, 6 days a week! Industrial safety was poor & labourers were exposed to noxious chemicals including mercury, chlorine compounds & graphite dust. Generally, they did not have any access to air raid shelters. At that time, around every 5th Berliner was a forced labourer! They were treated differently depending on origin, e.g. only Western labourers were allowed to own & use cameras. Various badges that were compulsory to wear made it easier to identify them, including yellow stars for Jews, and ‘Ost’ badges for workers from the East.

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Image of a ‘Petrix Star’ for Jewish labourers. Made from metal, factory workers had to wear these even before the official introduction of the identification markings on 19 Sept 1941.

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Besides the yellow star, there were other identifications too. From February 1942, Societ forced labourers (‘Ostarbeiter’) had to wear this badge, making discrimination against them easier.

Originally, the museum was just looking for contemporary witnesses who had worked at Pertrix, out of which the plans for an exhibition then grew. Although the exhibition sheds light on the role of the company within the German armaments industry, the focus is a biographical one, with ten personal stories of labourers from different countries being being told, both men and women. The story that struck me the most, was that of Maria Ungvari from Belgium who was pregnant when she was interned. When her baby was born, the camp doctor took him away. She survived the war but never saw her son again. Ever since becoming a mother myself, stories like this particularly break my heart even more than they used to anyway.

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Extract from the register of births at Ravensbrück Concentration Camp, 1945.

In comparison to Germany today, where new mothers are not allowed to work for the first eight weeks after giving birth, forced labourers were sent back to the factories right away, as soon as they were released from hospital. Children in forced labour camps were generally considered to be of no value, as they prevented their mothers from working, though older children also had to do forced labour themselves. Overall, at least 30 children were born at the Pertrix labour camp. 17 are known not to have survived.

‘Batteries for the Wehrmacht’ is showing until November 2016, and you can find out more about it in their flyer. Further information about the camp itself can be found on the Documentation Centre’s website, and there is even a separate website for the permanent exhibition. The Documentation Centre is open Tuesdays to Sundays, closed on Mondays. Admission to the site and all exhibitions is free.

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