Thursday, April 18, 2024

Polish "Slave" / "Forced" Laborers under Nazi Occupation

Liberated forced laborer
A doctor of the U.S. Army examines a former forced labourer from Russia who was ill with tuberculosis. The Americans had discovered the sick forced labourers in a barrack yard in Dortmund. Dortmund, 30 April 1945.

Female forced labourers from the Soviet Union on their arrival at the Berlin-Wilhelmshagen Transit Camp, December 1942. Source: Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin

Author, translator, and historian Filip Mazurczak responded to my Facebook mention of the terms "forced laborer" and "slave laborer" to refer to Poles and others forced to work for Nazis during WW II. I found his response so interesting I requested and received permission to repost it here.

Filip Mazurczak writes:

I use the two terms interchangeably. During the war, 1.5 million Poles were sent to Germany to work as slave laborers. They lived in barracks, and running away from them carried grave punishments, including death. And in German occupied Poland, there were many forced labor camps for both Jews and non-Jewish Poles. The difference was that Jews, if they were not killed in the labor camps, were then shipped off to concentration and extermination camp and killed. Non-Jewish Poles, however, did have a chance of surviving them, although many were shot for resistance or died of hunger and disease amidst the appalling sanitary conditions.

Today, in fact, when writing my dissertation, I dealt with how the underground press in Krakow wrote about the Szebnie forced labor camp. Szebnie is in Sub-Carpathian, 10 km outside Jasło and 42 outside Rzeszów. Maybe a history of this camp can be useful. The camp was originally established for Soviet POWs; the intention was to starve them to death. Locals were strictly banned from coming into contact with inmates, but some of them did bring the POWs food. Almost all of the Soviets died of starvation or typhus and dysentery. There were epidemics of these diseases among the Soviet POWs thanks to the terrible hygiene standards: they were given one uniform each and both worked and slept in it, and they were not given the opportunity to bathe. Between 5,000 and 6,000 Soviet POWs are estimated to have died in Szebnie. During the war, more than 3 million Soviet POWs died in German captivity. This is one of the great tragedies of the war, yet it is IMO relatively unknown.

In 1942, having killed most the Soviet POWs, the Germans turned Szebnie into a forced labor camp for Poles and Jews. I couldn't find what kind of labor they engaged in exactly. Some of the non-Jewish Poles at Szebnie were killed, but the Germans' intention was to eventually kill all the Jews. Many of them were shot on the roads outside the camp near houses, so there were many local witnesses. According to some testimonies, after the executions streams of human blood flowed to the nearby villages. The killed prisoners were buried in mass graves or incinerated; later, the soil was plowed to get rid of traces of human ashes and cover up the crime. The remaining Jews were later all deported to KL Plaszow or Belzec, where they were killed.

There were thousands of forced labor camps in occupied Poland, but Szebnie was one of the most brutal. In total, 10,000 Soviet POWs, Jews, and Poles were killed there. I also just read a lot about it today, so it's fresh on my mind. While non-Jewish Poles could realistically survive slave labor, able-bodied Jews were exploited for slave labor and, if they didn't survive, would eventually be killed.

In Kraków, where I live, there was a forced labor camp named Liban. "Liban" is Lebanon in Polish, but the camp doesn't have anything to do with the Middle Eastern country. For a long time, I wondered about the name origin, but eventually I read somewhere that Liban was the family name of the industrialists who owned the quarry there. During the war, the Germans used 2,000 Poles and Ukrainians as slave labor there. Many were killed for insubordination or attempting to escape or died because of the horrible conditions, and there is a mass grave with a monument with the Polish eagle to commemorate them.

Interestingly, the scenes at KL Plaszow in the movie "Schindler's List" were shot at Liban. A whole concentration camp set was built, and some of the set remains. If you're curious about why it wasn't shot at Plaszow, which is literally next to Liban, the fact is that literally nothing is left of KL Plaszow today. In 1944, as the Red Army was advancing westwards, the Germans forced the inmates of KL Plaszow to destroy the camp infrastructure to cover up the evidence. There is not a single barrack left. All that remains is the "Gray House," which is where the staff of KL Plaszow lived. There are also several monuments: the biggest is a socialist realist tribute to the victims of fascism built in the 1960s that's visible when you go to Wieliczka or the Bonarka shopping mall and smaller monuments to Hungarian Jews killed there, Polish Jewish victims, and several dozen members of Poland's "Blue" police who were shot in Plaszow for being agents of the Polish underground. There is also a big cross with a crown of thorns erected at the main place where the camp's most notorious SS-man, Albert Hujar (like many of the most sadistic SS-men, he was from Austria, which gave the Reich a disproportionate number of camp commandants and guards, including KL Plaszow's commandant Amon Goeth, famous for shooting at prisoners from the villa of his balcony for target practice) carried out shootings. 

The problem is that what used to be KL Plaszow is now a green space, and a very pleasant one. In the spring and summer, you will see many couples holding hands, people walking their dogs, and families with baby strollers walking there, on the very ground where thousands of Poles and Jews were mistreated and killed. There are signs that say that this is the site of the martyrdom to thousands and to show the proper respect, but people still have picnics there and drunks litter the former concentration camp with bottles. If there is nothing left of the infrastructure, it's kind of difficult for people to treat this as something other than a park. Fortunately, there are plans to build a museum there, but this decision is decades late.

I found an interesting article (in Polish) about the forced labor camp in Szebnie. I found out some of the kinds of work the inmates were forced to do: picking beets, working in a nearby oil refinery, and asphalting roads. As punishments, inmates were forced to do pointless but backbreaking labor such as lifting heavy furniture. The article also quotes Edwin Biberstein-Opoczyński (who was Jewish, since his testimony comes from the 301 archive collection from the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, where the testimonies of Holocaust survivors are collected), a physician who survived Szebnie, as saying that Polish-Jewish relations in the camp were "very good." The non-Jewish Polish inmates were treated slightly better and were allowed to receive packages; the Poles often shared their packages with the Jewish inmates. 


  1. It is good to see a blogspot featuring the many kinds of victims of Nazi Germany in an even-handed manner. The article correctly notes that 3 million Russian POWs were murdered by the Germans, yet are almost unknown. Unlike the millions of Jews sent to the gas chambers, who died within minutes from poison gas, the millions of Russians died of agonizing starvation over weeks and months. And in the end they were just as dead. So were millions of Poles.

  2. The POWs were Soviet, of dozens ethnicities, not Russian only. About 30% were Ukrainian.

  3. Polish male workers had sometimes adventures with German women, which was illegal, called Rassenschande. The men were hanged.

  4. Newborn chilldren of slave workers were taken by German administration and sometimes starved to death by caretakers.


Bieganski the Blog exists to further explore the themes of the book Bieganski the Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture.
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