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Letter from a Forced Laborer to Her Family

Letter Home from a Forced Laborer
Archives of the Russian Federation Ministry of Defense
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tags: censorship food & hunger forced labor

type: Letter

In this letter from May 1943, an unnamed young Russian woman wrote to her family back home describing her experiences and daily life as a forced laborer in Germany. She had written to her family numerous times before but had concealed the conditions at the camp in those letters to avoid censorship by German authorities. Although propaganda portrayed life in Germany as a laborer as ideal, the truth was well-known in the Soviet Union by summer 1942. In this letter, which was delivered by a German soldier who agreed to send it for her, she was honest about the hardships and hunger she and the other women faced in the camp.1

The woman's letter describes a camp located on the edge of the factory grounds—she does not say what kind of factory—and surrounded with barbed wire. Like most other labor camps, workers there were housed according to their nationality and separated by gender.2 Laborers endured brutal conditions: crowded and unsanitary lodging under strict surveillance by German overseers and security personnel, 11-hour working days, and insufficient food. She describes in detail the poor quality of rations that were barely enough to prevent starvation.

This forced laborer’s experience was not unique: workers in factories often lived in far worse conditions than forced laborers in rural areas or on farms. Laborers from the occupied Soviet territories were treated more harshly than those from western Europe.3 The composition of the letter illustrates her distress, painting a vivid picture of a difficult life in Germany. It is likely that the document was later used as evidence by the Soviet government to highlight the terrible treatment of Soviet forced laborers in Germany.4

Following the summer of 1942, workers from the East were allowed to send one letter home a month and families were allowed to send packages, although many of them never arrived. Letters were supposed to pass through the censors, but the volume of mail proved too much to review every letter. Regardless, workers were not always free to write what they wanted because they were monitored most of the time and many times wrote in coded language. It was not uncommon for German soldiers or Polish workers, who had more freedom of movement, to send mail for Soviet laborers. Karel C. Berkhoff, Harvest of Despair: Life and Death in Ukraine under Nazi Rule (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008), 257–258. 

Whenever possible, laborers from the Soviet Union were separated from the other workers. People from the Soviet Union were automatically considered suspect by the Nazis because they had been exposed to Communist propaganda.

Berkhoff, Harvest of Despair, 256.

The Soviet Union launched a major campaign of protest against German treatment of Soviet citizens in labor camps. It reproduced letters, like this one, from forced laborers describing horrible conditions in the camps. As a result, the German authorities temporarily halted all postal service from the labor camps, although it was resumed in mid-summer 1942. See Ulrich Herbert, Hitler's Foreign Workers: Enforced Foreign Labor in Germany Under the Third Reich (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 174.

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[pg. 40]

May 8, 1943

Christ is risen! [Orthodox Easter greeting]

Greetings, my dear family, Papa, Mama, Marusia, Kolia, and Liuba. Only now do I have an opportunity to write and tell you about my life. In all my earlier letters, I kept quiet about everything, but if I had described things, the letters would not have reached you. And in those letters you would have had to understand some hints. Now I’m writing clearly and putting it directly into the hands of this soldier. So far I’ve made every effort to get a letter to you through a soldier. One letter was given to a soldier on December 13 for delivery to Orel [also transliterated as Oryol]. It did not reach you. Another was written on April 15 but not handed on by a soldier. He promised but did not come. I talked with him. He works in the Kromy headquarters. We were just coming from the dinner break and he called us over and told us to write letters. Tania Z., Klava T., Shurka B., and I wrote. He didn’t come, and we did not hand them on. In general, it’s very hard to hand on letters for delivery in our circumstances. After all, the police guard us and they also escort us to work, so that it’s impossible to linger for even a minute. In these letters I described everything. If you had received them, you would really know how we are living. And you would not keep asking for a photograph and about what we eat. And so I’ll begin my story. We live behind a factory fence, surrounded on all sides by a tall stone fence. The barracks, dining hall, and bath house are also surrounded by barbed wire fencing. On the one and the other side there are two tall gates, which are opened when we walk to and from work. The windows in the barracks are interlaced with wire, or rather, with rods thicker than a finger. In the camp, 4 policemen always watch over us; we are more securely locked in than in the Shakhovo camp. Admittedly, when spring came they started letting us take walks outside the camp fence. We walk around the square; it is very pretty,

[page 41]

trees grow [there] and many flowers. In general, the Germans understand how to make surroundings beautiful. Every Sunday now they let us walk into town, from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m., in small groups of 5. Anyone who wishes is allowed to go for a walk. We go out to walk with the sign OST [EAST] on our chest, and it is forbidden to buy anything and to go to movies and theaters. There’s nothing to buy anyway, because with the Germans everything is controlled by ration cards. Our girls don’t hesitate to find a round-about way; as soon as they come into town, they strip off the OST sign, go into a restaurant, and buy beer or some sort of sweet drink. The only pleasure we find is in this. It is the only way we kill our appetite to some extent. People drink when they eat their fill, but we do just the opposite, we drink when we want to eat. And we always want to eat. Both at dinner and after dinner, both day and night. I will tell you what we eat. They make soup from rutabagas or from spinach and carrots and from rotten cabbage. If you knew how disgusting it is! Simply putting it into your mouth is disgusting, but we eat it all. We get only 300 grams of bread, and they give us 5 grams of margarine with it. And in the spring, rutabagas and something like our orache, and there’s also some weed of the wild mustard species. Even the weeds they don’t give us in plenty. Imagine, honestly, how to live on such a portion of food! You get 1 liter of balanda [thin soup served as a camp ration] for dinner, one liter in the evening, and 300 grams of bread. You eat everything in the evening, and from 6 p.m. until [number illegible] a.m. you eat nothing. We have all lost a lot of weight. We have all turned yellow. In the autumn it was better, because we bought rutabagas, kohlrabi, and cabbage, though at a high price. And we ate all this raw. I don’t know how we’ve gotten used to it all and it didn’t make us sick. Dear ……………….. we all ate, another time we gobbled up a whole head of cabbage. The cabbage was dark blue, and we all had dark blue hands and lips and mouths from it. We all go very hungry here. Your two little parcels were a big help to me. I divided them into several parts and ate a little each time. Now I don’t know why, 

[page 42]

we either began to get accustomed or we feel less hungry now. We all got too thin, though. We work for 11 hours. True, my work is easy, I don’t want to complain. But others have heavy work, so they all have wasted away. I don’t get any additional rations though, while Shurka and Marusia get 250 grams of bread every other day. Shurka’s work is somewhat harder than mine. Marusia’s work was heavier before, but after her illness they transferred her to light work and still give her the additional bread. The police wake us for work; we get up at 5 a.m. If you knew how much I don’t want to get up! Now it’s not that bad, we’ve gotten used to it a little, but when we had just arrived we couldn’t eat this balanda and really didn’t want to get up early. Let them shoot us instead! And at work we got too tired, it’s very hard to stand on your feet for 11 hours. Sometimes you come back from work and your feet are swollen. You’re glad to arrive at your place. Then we lay in bed more, and shed more tears than we drank water. We lived in a German bath house, 100 persons together. It was all stone, there were no beds, and we all slept on the floor, like pigs. There were only mattresses. When Sunday comes, everybody sits in the barracks and you hear them crying, now in one corner, now in another. At night it was frightening to sleep. Many were delirious, there were instances when girls ran away, and everyone suffered as a result. They locked us in, and we went to the toilet in tubs, which were positioned right there. By morning, very bad air had accumulated, and everybody had headaches.  I recall, when I was working the first weeks at night, it happened that you come from work dead tired, you can barely drag your feet. And you very much want to eat and you want to sleep. But as you go into the barracks it’s just the same as going into a pigsty. And we slept 3 or 4 hours in all. We went around in clogs, and they clatter a lot on the stone floor, then we go on break, then clatter back from the break, and you don’t sleep through this. In these barracks we always lived locked in, were let out only to walk to the dining hall, to work, and from work. It was a real prison. The windows were high and it was dark, we saw only

[page 43]

the walls of the barracks. Now it has gotten better. Close to St. Nicholas’s Day they moved us to new barracks, where we live with 22 people in each room and sleep 2 to a bed, one below, and the other on top. As for cleanliness, things have improved also. Now it’s not as hard for us as it was the first time. Or it’s because we’ve gotten used to it. Now we look at everything with indifference, but in the early days, whatever we looked at, we cried. And if we remember home, our hearts bleed. When you sit down at the table, then you remember all of you [family members], what you eat. And when they wake you, time and again you remember your own dear mother, who woke you only to eat breakfast.  And when, in winter, you walk at [number illegible] at night on break, almost every time you say: my dear mama had a good supper, lay down to sleep, put her little legs on the stove-bench, and has a dream. She sees her daughters in the dream. Sees that they have come home. But in actual fact, one of them, hungry, is going to work without having slept during the cold night. And the other one, God only knows what she is doing. Maybe working for the common cause, maybe damp mother earth has covered her little bones or maybe they are decaying, scattered over the earth’s surface. When you walk back in the morning after a night shift, the dawn begins. You remember when at home they get up and make pancakes and think of you.  And it seems to you that there’s a smell of pancakes! And with us, everything appears only in memories. As soon as you remember, you weep about everything. And repeatedly you ask yourself why your mother brought you into the world, and why such a fate is bestowed on us. As much as I’ve lived through, there’s nothing for me to remember my own life by. In childhood, I didn’t see childhood. And when I got a little older, I went away to work for strangers. I have experienced a lot of hunger, cold, grief, suffering, torment, always feared everyone and been subservient to everyone, and now it’s even worse. You endure taunts from the people, also from Russians. Specifically, our Russians who work in the kitchen.

[page 44]

They always jeer at anyone who pushes for additional soup or anything else. And you sit in a little corner somewhere, look at it all, and weep. For that stupid balanda, and they get into a fight over it. And even worse things happen, you see girls root in the rutabaga peelings to find some little morsel there to relieve their hunger. I don’t know how God preserves us. We have not been really sick. And if someone does fall ill, they immediately make you well, provide a pill, and send you to work. Only the truth is, that does not happen to everybody. There are favorites even here. You judge the book by its cover. There are some who are not ill but sit in the barracks, and some who are ill  and are working. There were instances when ……………. they feel weak, but the doctor pronounces them healthy. They don’t go to work. For that, they are locked up in a cabin and given nothing to eat. No one from our volost’ has been put in the cabin yet. And we hope that our turn won’t come; we are treated fairly well. They also lock people in the cabin for political agitation. You can’t imagine what the cabin is like. It is made of cast-iron, shaped in a dome, the size of a human being, and you can’t stand up in it, only sit. All right, we’ll survive all this. The hard part is behind us. But if they are going to send one of you to Germany, run away, don’t even think about it. It can easily be done. There’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip.  We were about to run away, but someone interfered, a male prisoner who was going to Germany voluntarily. He talked with us and spoiled all our plans. And we went on the trip. On the way, they fed us poorly. In Orel, for show, they gave us two loaves of bread each and canned meat and fish, but when we headed for Germany they started giving us 100 grams, thank God we had brought a lot of food from home. In Grodno we changed trains, and we washed in the baths. With us were Poles who operate the baths. They treated us very roughly. They even beat some of us.

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
Archives of the Russian Federation Ministry of Defense
Source Number Archives of the Russian Federation Ministry of Defense, RG 22.016 F. 201, op. 386, d. 79, ll. 40–45
Date Created
May 8, 1943
Language(s)
Russian
Location
Germany
Reference Location
Soviet Union
Document Type Letter
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