Mom was one of Hitler’s Slaves in Nazi Germany. She worked for an elderly German couple, the Vollands, in the Nazi spa town of Bad Salzulflen. When I was a kid in Saskatchewan, she led me to believe she spent the war, working in the German fields, milking cows.
“She let me ride her bareback at the end of the day, to carry me back to the camps, ” Mom said.
I will never forget the story of Emma. In the retelling, in the midnight hours, underscored by the sounds of the Russian Red Army choir on the family HiFi in our living room in Netherhill and the howling prairie winds outside, my mother wept. I had never seen her cry before. I was ten years old.
Her toughness was her armor, not to be penetrated even by those who knew her best.
When we think of slavery, we think of the American South.I was reminded of the stark horror of that when I saw the critically acclaimed film, “Twelve Years a Slave” this weekend. But what about 20th century slaves? My mom was one of them. And the story of twenty million people, (mostly Slavs, Poles, French, and Nazi POW’s) forced to work for the Third Reich is a story that has yet to be told, according to Dr. Jens-Christian Wagner, the leading curator of an international traveling exhibit, “Forced Labor: The Germans, The Forced Laborers, and The War”. And in many ways, their experience in captivity in Germany was not that different from the slaves working the cotton fields of the Old South. They were physically poked and prodded by prospective ‘owners’. They were beaten. Humiliated. And denied all contact with their own families. In fact, any social contact with the German owners was also forbidden. The loneliness and isolation is unfathomable.
When we met in Dortmund in 2012, Dr. Wagner described the traveling exhibit of photographs, diaries, and documents, as Germany’s first efforts at its own “Truth and Reconciliation” with this dark and unexplored chapter of its past, almost seventy years later. He gave me a glimpse into the day-to-day reality of those slaves, including my mother, at the hands of the ordinary German families who ‘employed’ them.
The photograph below, taken by a Nazi soldier, belies the terror faced in the day-to-day life of Hitler’s Slaves in Germany. On a whim, these women field workers, forced to pose for a soldier’s camera, could be beaten, raped, or murdered.
This Nazi-era newspaper drawing (“Schaubild”) exhorts German civilians employing Polish forced laborers in their homes not to allow them to sit at the same table during meals, or to socialize with them on any level. (Those ordinary Germans who defied the SS directives could face draconian sanctions themselves, including being sent to the concentration camps).
” One should not forget to keep the required distance during the utilization of Polish people in industry and farming.
Only Germans should be company at your dinner table!”
It took six hours of digging, but German archivist, Arnold Beuke, head of the Stadt Archives in Bad Salzuflen, finally located my mother’s actual slave labor registration card in the winter of 2012.
Note the two farmhouses in the foreground of this aerial shot of the Hoffman Starch factory: this is where Mom worked as a ‘housemaid’, according to her records in Bad Salzuflen. The farm had three buildings and skirted the border of the Hoffman Starch Factory. On the factory grounds, there was a really miserable slave labor camp for 80 French/Italian POW’s, as well as 10-12 Russian women taken as so-called ‘eastern workers’, (ie. not POW’s, but transported by cattle car from Ukraine). Five of those women died during their captivity. They remain buried there today in unmarked graves. No one has ever come looking for them, they are lost to history. Beuke suggests those women may have succumbed to malnutrition and the effects of the extreme cold of the winter of 1944, or, rhetorically, he asks, “did they simply give up?”
My mother never spoke of the details of her life at the hands of the Nazis during the Second World War. The tears she shed for Emma the Cow, in the midnight hours in our house on the Number Seven highway, bore witness to the extreme loneliness and isolation of the slave laborer, held captive thousands of miles away from her own family in Russia.
It is the memory of those tears she shed for Emma the Cow, the creature she described as her only friend, that haunts me today.