The Zollern Colliery, a castle of labour! “The Germans, the Forced Labourers, and the War” opened in a former coal mine, now the jewel of eight German museums celebrating the industrial history of the Westphalia region. During the war, almost 30,000 slave labourers worked in the shops, homes, and coal mines of Dortmund, feeding the Nazi war effort.
A Soviet POW drinks water from a muddy puddle in an open field with thousands of other prisoners being forced into Nazi slavery. In a rare disclosure, my mother described eating ‘black potatoes’ dug from abandoned farms and birch bark torn from the trees during the forced marches from Ukraine into Germany. This image, taken by a German SS officer, is almost more than I can bear.
This photograph depicting an SS investigation of an escape by a slave labourer reminded me of a story my mother told me once during her “Russian Nights in Netherhill”. (See the Trailer). While milking cows in the barn as part of her slave duties, she discovered a French POW hiding under the straw. He’d made a run for it from the neighbouring POW camp. Risking her own life, Agnes snuck back into the farmhouse and stole food for the terrified man. The next morning, he disappeared. I hope that today, somebody in France, perhaps a grandchild, has heard that story and wondered at the bravery of a lone Russian girl. I know that I have.
“No one wanted to touch the subject,” Wagner says. “Not until the 1980’s, were the first articles published, and then not until 2001, when the government enacted a new law declaring that slave labour is illegal, and recognized it as a crime.“ When I first came to Bad Salzuflen, Germany in 1985 in search of clues about my mother’s life as a slave labourer, there was no record at all of the camp where she was kept behind barbed wire with 5,000 other POW’s.
“No one could pretend they did not know about it. The slave laborers were everywhere, on everyone’s front doorstep,” Dr. Wagner told me. Behind him, a German woman gestures for the number of slaves ordered by a local German resident.
The trip into the heartland of Neo-Nazi Germany feeds my curiosity as a journalist, but leaves me wondering, as a daughter, do I really want to know the whole story of my mother? For the first time, I am starting to understand why she kept silent about all that she had endured.