The project is an offshoot of a compensation fund founded by the German government and major companies in 2001 for survivors of a programme that saw 12 million people rounded up and conscripted to work during World War II. The 341 men and 249 women featured in the videos tell of working in concentration camps or munitions plants under gruelling conditions for little or no pay, miserable living conditions and exposure to hunger and disease.
“Their suffering should not be forgotten,” the head of the “Remembrance, Responsibility and Future” foundation managing the €4.4-billion ($5.7-billion) fund, Günther Saathoff, told reporters.
Some 1.66 million people from nearly 100 countries received compensation from the German fund between 2001 and 2007. Saathoff said the online video project was launched because the former forced labourers were seeking more than reparations.
“The victims did not want only money that was owed to them – they also wanted to tell about things that no one wanted to hear about for decades,” he said.
In one account, a Hungarian Jew in his 80s who has lived in Atlanta since the war’s end, Henry Friedmann, explains that he was the only member of his family to survive the Holocaust. Friedmann told of being beaten and while he was forced to work at a huge arms factory in Budapest in 1944, before he was assigned to transports for German troops fighting the Russians in the countryside.
“We were taken by the Germans to a German outpost, and we were given orders that every day we would assemble at 3 am and would climb the mountain and would be over there from between three till five, six the next morning,” he said. “At that time, in the mountains, it was maybe 40 below zero. No clothing, not the right clothing… When we finished supplying the hot food, we brought down on stretchers the wounded or dead Germans to the base of the mountains. That would be our job.”
He said Jews suffered particularly brutal treatment among the workers.
“In case someone gets hurt, don’t even ask for any kind of bandage or anything because you’re a Jew – you’re not entitled to – which meant that if you’re lost or hurt, you have to freeze to death or bleed to death,” he said.
The €2.5-million documentary project began in 2005. Survivors ranging in age from 65 to 98 were recorded on video primarily in Eastern Europe but also in the United States, Israel and South Africa. One-third of them were so-called “slave labourers”, often Jews or Roma who were forced to work in concentration camps in particularly degrading and frequently life-threatening conditions.
A former slave labourer at the news conference, Felix Kolmer, said the online archive would make increasingly rare personal accounts of the Nazi programme available to researchers, teachers and students.
“Victims will finally get the public recognition and attention for which they have often waited in vain over the last decades,” said Kolmer, who is also vice president of the International Auschwitz Committee, a Holocaust survivors group.
The project can be viewed at: www.zwangsarbeit-archiv.de