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A Visit To My Mother’s Slave Labor Camp

What Visiting Volkswagen’s Place of Remembrance Taught Me About Atonement, Remembrance, and Corporate Responsibility

HisPhoto by Julian Hochgesang on Unsplash

Unfortunately, there are no company records of who worked for Volkswagenwerk during WWII. Either the records were destroyed before liberation, or the company never kept them from the beginning. I find that hard to believe since the Nazis were known to be meticulous record keepers. They tracked and traced Jews using punch cards by IBM. Also, companies collected payroll, social service, and pension taxes on behalf of the National Socialists.

It was one of my first questions when I sat down last week with the Head Archivist at Volkswagen. She had graciously invited me to visit Volkswagen’s Place of Remembrance at the headquarters in Wolfsburg after I had emailed the company seeking answers about my Ukrainian mother. My mother had self-recorded on her International Refugee Organization (IRO) records of 1948 that she had worked for Volkswagenwerk as an Ostarbeiter (OST) forced laborer for 30 Reich Mark (RM) per month about 15% of what a German or Western European would have earned for the same work.

After deductions for National Socialist taxes, prison camp accommodations, watery soup, and bread, and used clothing, she would have barely had pocket money left. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway. Nazis considered Ostarbeiters or Eastern Europeans subhuman so she wouldn’t have been able to shop in the German company store if she even had money to spend. With such low status in the Nazi master race hierarchy, Ostarbeiters were under constant watch of the company’s security services and at risk of harsh treatment. As a woman, she would have earned less than even her male Ostarbeiter colleagues and been susceptible to additional inhumane treatment such as sexual harassment, rape, and forced abortions that could lead to sterilization or giving birth just to find out her baby was starved to death by the Nazis in their “kindergartens”.

Eastern European Worker wearing her OST badge Wikimedia Commons

According to my mother’s IRO paperwork, she worked at Volswagenwerk in Wolfsburg (Stadt des KdF-wagons bei Fallersleben at the time). It was founded by Ferdinand Porche and the National Socialists in 1938 to mass-produce the people’s car for under 1,000 RM. Adolf Hitler even visited the plant in June of 1939. Barely any cars were out of production before the Third Reich had invaded Poland in the summer of 1939, and the world was at war.

Dr. Porche needed a new product for his factory, so he quickly signed a contract with the Wehrmacht Army to produce armaments and military vehicles. Now that he had a new mission for his company, he had to figure out how he would scale the factory with a workforce. The factory was located in a rural area of Lower Saxony strategically set in the middle of an East-West canal and rail line with invaluable logistics but few people.

For this, he went to the Labor Office to find forced labor. At the height of production, Volkswagenwerk employed over eleven thousand forced laborers from all over Europe. They housed them in barracks about 500 meters away from the factory in the area of what is now downtown Wolfsburg. The barracks were separated by a general camp for Europeans, a camp for military convicts and prisoners of war, two satellite concentration camps, and an Ostarbeiter camp. The camps, outside of the general camp, were surrounded by fencing and looked more like prisons and in more deplorable shape than the general camp.

Upon entering Volkswagen, the Head Archivist sat my sister, nephew, and me down for coffee. No photos were allowed so my recollections will have to suffice. As part of my research to write a book about my parents’ experience as Nazi forced laborers and post-WWII Displaced Persons, we had taken a trip to Europe after Christmas to retrace some of my parents’ steps. Volkswagen was one of those key steps. As a reformed C.P.A., I immediately asked the Head Archivist about the employee tax withholding records. She said that her team has searched for employee roster names, but nothing exists if it ever existed. However, since the War, Volkswagen has kept meticulous records of company activities but not before or during. It is now her job to maintain that practice.

Polish Worker Badge Wikimedia Commons

The Head Archivist tried her best to find my mother on any records. In 1998, Volkswagen set aside 12 million Deutsche Marks in reparation payments for former forced laborers. My mother, however, never applied for reparation from Volkswagen so she wasn’t on that list. Since my mother’s IRO records had two entries for work at Volkswagenwerk with the first record saying she was forced to change work in February 1945, the Head Archivist looked to see if my mother had had a child, but she wasn’t in those records either. However, it looked like the records were no longer retained after 1944 probably due to the chaos of the war’s end.

Coming to a dead end with regards to finding more specific information on my mother, the Head Archivist took us on a tour of the factory and then down into the bomb shelter where the Place of Remembrance lies. The factory tour was an incredible sight. We were able to watch the production process of the largest car manufacturer in the world with their automated robots working in unison like a well-choreographed ballet.

The bomb shelter chosen to house the Place of Remembrance was slightly damaged from Allied bombs and had brought back the memories of other forced laborers who had visited the plant in the past. The Place of Remembrance was full of different rooms exhibiting the story of forced, POW, and concentration camp labor. Some film footage, photos, memorabilia, and the Nazi factory cornerstone all survived the war and were displayed in those bomb shelter rooms. The Head Archivist told us stories of French survivors who returned over again with other survivors lest they never forget. When they were too old to travel, the Archivists would visit them in France. Lifelong bonds were developed as a result of this place between both the survivors and those Archivists who ensured they were never forgotten.

Photo by Author of the Volkswagen HQ on a cold rainy day last week in Wolfsburg

At the end of the Place of Remembrance tour, the Head Archivist treated us to lunch at the cafeteria and then offered us a tour of the archives. Over lunch, we discussed the challenges of maintaining hard copy and digital archives on her budget and limited IT support. At the end of our tour, I told her I was writing my parents’ story because the war in Ukraine is proving as a society, we have not learned our lessons from WWII. I have a responsibility to ensure the world remembers. The Head Archivist said that also her work and the Place of Remembrance are important for Volkswagen’s history, the world’s history, and Ukraine’s present. I couldn’t have agreed with her more and commended her for her critical work.

I came out of that day with a greater appreciation for the lengths Volkswagen has gone to atone for its complicity during WWII whether it’s publishing a book about its actions, paying millions in reparations, its employees cleaning up Auschwitz, financially supporting former concentration camp victims, educating young people and maintaining this Place of Remembrance. The compassion and support of Volkswagen’s Head Archivist made me feel at peace with this place that had caused so much death and suffering. While she cannot change the past, her candor and transparency helped me process the atrocities that happened to so many people in that place.

I don’t know if I will ever learn more details about my mother’s time as a forced laborer at Volkswagen, but I came away feeling like Volkswagen has done about as much as it can to atone for its actions during WWII and could teach many other guilty companies what they should do.

It also reinforced my need to tell my parents’ story like an archivist would for my parents, the forced laborers of the Third Reich, and most importantly for Ukraine today.

For Further Reading to Never Forget, See the Following References:

Place of Remembrance | Volkswagen Group (volkswagen-group.com)

Place of Remembrance of Forced Labor in the Volkswagen Factory | Volkswagen Group (volkswagen-group.com)

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