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Oral History with Rose Brunswic

Rose Brunswic describes her experiences in Germany as a forced laborer.
US Holocaust Memorial Museum

The experiences of forced laborers in Germany varied widely and depended on factors such as nationality, gender, where a person was assigned to work, and who had supervision over them. In this interview, Rose Galek Brunswic—a Jewish Polish woman who survived the Holocaust by disguising herself as a non-Jewish Pole—describes experiences as a forced laborer living with a family in rural Germany.1 Although German officials instructed German civilians to keep Polish workers at a distance, this was especially difficult to enforce on individual farms.2 This attempt to keep Poles and Germans separate was further complicated by the fact that Polish agricultural workers had been voluntarily coming to Germany to help with the harvest long before World War II, and there was a history of cooperation among these groups.

Like all foreign workers from the German-occupied territories of Poland and the Soviet Union, Brunswic was required to wear a badge identifying herself as a non-German. The badge for Poles was a purple letter "P" with a yellow background and was supposed to be displayed at all times. These badges signified the Nazi racial hierarchy and indicated the set of constantly changing restrictions placed on forced laborers.3 After describing her journey to Germany, Rose details her experience with the German courts after she was fined by a local policeman for not wearing her "P" in the village.

The German court system regulated the behavior of foreign laborers and enforced racial Nazi ideals. For offenses deemed serious—such as refusing to work, sabotage, or engaging in a sexual relationship with a German—workers could be sent to so-called "labor education camps," which were run by the Gestapo. They could even receive the death penalty.4 Lesser violations—failing to wear a badge or entering a restaurant—were handled by local courts. Brunswic’s memories of her treatment by the local court system in rural Germany show that Nazi ideals were not always enforced by local officials. Brunswic's story also points to a dramatic difference in the experiences of Poles and Jews in the Nazi forced labor system.5

Rose Galek Brunswic was born in Sochocin, Poland in 1920 and moved to Warsaw in the 1930s. She was forced into the ghetto there, where her parents were murdered. She managed to escape and went into hiding in the city with the Polish underground movement until she was caught in a general labor raid. An unknown, but not insignificant, number of Jews posed as non-Jewish foreign workers and survived the Holocaust in this way. There were at least 1.5 million Polish forced laborers in the German Reich between 1939–194,5 and substantially more if the annexed territories of Poland are included. For more details, see Mark Spoerer, Zwangsarbeit unter dem Hakenkreuz: Ausländische Zivilarbeiter, Kriegsgefangene und Häftlinge im Dritten Reich und im besetzten Europa 1939-1945 (Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt: Stuttgart-München, 2001), 49–50.

This was particularly a concern for the Nazi leadership in Catholic regions, where a shared religion between the majority of Poles and German Catholics threatened to undermine Nazi ideas of German superiority. The family Rose stayed with was Seventh Day Adventist and they pressured her to convert from Catholicism.

Eastern European forced laborers were subjected to numerous restrictions governing their daily lives. In addition to receiving substantially lower wages than both Germans and other foreign workers, they were not allowed to use public transportation, attend public events, or freely leave their places of work. Nazi regulations grouped all ethnic groups and nationalities from the Soviet Union into one category and these workers were required to wear rectangular blue badges that read "OST" (EAST) in white lettering. Ulrich Herbert, Hitler's Foreign Workers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 71–79, 109–110, 165–166; Spoerer, Zwangsarbeit, 93–95.   

For more on punishments applied to those accused of having so-called "mixed race" relationships, see the Experiencing History item, Public Humiliation of a Young Couple

Rose's entire interview is available at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It is worth noting that she confuses some of the chronology of her experiences. For more information on critically evaluating and using survivors' oral histories, see Christopher R. Browning, Collected Memories: Holocaust History and Postwar Testimony (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003); and Henry Greenspan, On Listening to Holocaust Survivors: Beyond Testimony (St. Paul, MN: Paragon House, 2010).

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...anyway, that was the time, when we parted, and he said we have to part...he took us all...not only me but a lot of other Poles to a church, and he said from there on, everybody is on their own, but he knew there is going to be a raid by the Germans to take the people to work for the Germans. Well, needless to say, there was a raid and we were all taken to Germany and we were taken in cattle cattle trains to Germany, to Berlin.

Q: Describe the trip. Would you please? 

A: The trip was terrible. We were all crowded and, of course, I would never say that I am Jewish. Alright? We were all Poles. I am sure there were a lot of Jews...which I was afraid to talk to anybody. I kept to myself. But then on the way to Berlin, they asked, "Who speaks German?" And I volunteered, and I said I speak German, I speak Hoch Deutch , not Plat Deutch (ph). Hoch Deutch is the cultivated German. Plat Deutch, I didn't know. As such, I was chosen as the fuhrer, what is it? Not the manager, but the manager of the group to go to Germany, because I spoke German and the SS men, they spoke German. So they communicated with me. When they brought us all to Berlin, I was told because I was the fuhrer, the manager, the leader. Fuhrer is the leader. I will have a choice of where I wanted to go to work in Germany which I thought was a good idea. Okay? We came to Berlin. I don't even remember how it looked, but it was a mass of people, not only our group but lots of people, lots of people and lots of mostly Poles. And they said to me, "You have a choice to go either on a farm to an ammunition fabric [factory] or to hotels. I thought for myself to be safer it would be the best thing to go on a farm.

Q: Why? 

A: Because I knew it'll be a lot hard work that I won't meet so many Poles. I was afraid to meet Poles. That was the idea. 

Q: And you still had the false papers? 

A: I still had my false papers as a Christian girl. Sure. As Maria Xowalcik. The middle name was Jadwiga. As such, I came to Germany as Maria Kowalcik. 

Q: Let's pick it up and go back. You were posing as a Catholic Where had you learned your Catholicism to go to Church?

A: I didn't. 

Q: You didn't? 

A: I didn't because I never went to church. I came to Germany and they said, well, you will be awhile with us. Why don't you change to our religion? And I know so little about Catholicism and the girls that were there...there were other Poles in the village. They were all Christians...really Poles. And I was scared to death. That's how they found out...they didn't know ‘til they found out. They suspected that I was Jewish. 

Q: How did they suspect? 

A: Some other girls that were on other farms...they suspected, and I was scared to death. But we were very good friends because when they were talking about Catholicism or about the church, I knew very little about it. And that's...I think they got the idea that I...that there is not quite right. And, uh, of course, I never said anything to them. I remained as Catholic, but I thought it would be a good idea if I changed to their religion. And I did change. And I went with them every Sunday to church....and the whole week I worked very hard. We had to live to get together. Only Sundays. And Sundays I went to church so I had very little connections with the Polish girls that were there. There were two girls...Polish girls...of which I have pictures. But we were very good friends and everybody worked very hard. You really didn't have much time. One of the girls was very badly treated on her farm. She couldn’t eat or sleep in the house. She had to sleep elsewhere near the stables, you know. But I was very lucky. I really had nice people. But, of course, knowing that I am Christian, you know...but they were kind to me, really kind. I had no complaints about that. So I was there, I think it was about 2-1/2 years...or 2 years when the liberation came in 1945. 

Q: Let's not get there yet. When you were talking earlier, you talked about having to wear your [P] and you were taken to court one day about that. 

A: Okay. I was once...I became sick. Okay? [time stamp 05:58 mins] ….  [time stamp 06:33 mins] but all of a sudden I took ill. And evidently that...the gall stones occurred again because of all the fat, and the butter and the milk, I couldn't digest that very well and I got sick. So I had to go to the doctor and I just didn't get...I forgot. And several times also when I went to see the Polish girls, we didn't always wear the [P].

Q: You had to wear your P. 

A: All the time. All the time. But neither one of us wore it all the time. Because it was a small village, but there was one police guy that lived in the village that had very bad...he didn't care very much for Dr. Hard [Mr. Sharp] and he sort of took it out on me. One time when I went out to wait for the bus to get to the doctor and he caught me without the P and needless to say, he really took advantage of me. He really beat me up well. I went back home. I didn't go to the doctor. I went back home and I cried myself sick and I was very upset about it and talked to him. He said, "Why did you do that to her? She's such a good worker...and all that." Well, he said, "She has to wear a P anyway. I went to the doctor without the P at the time, and I went back to crying and I put the P back and I went to the doctor. And he...when he beat me up...he also put in a...he sued me. He took me to the court that I as a Christian girl and I didn't wear the P. He took me to the court. And you know, there is in minority, if I have the original from the court...and I told the Judge the truth that I forgot the P but I got an attack of gall bladder and I had to rush to the doctor and in my rushing I forgot the P and went without it. And, I forgot his name...the policeman’s name, I don't remember anymore…and he beat me up. 

Q: Let's stay… You are telling the court? 

A: The court. What had happened. And the court believed me but the guy, the policeman was there...he said it was not true what I as saying and that I also said that he said...the policeman said when I got to court I'll probably have to pay some money as a punishment and he...the policeman said to me...said to the court that I said money doesn't mean anything to me...German money doesn't mean anything to me. It was a lie...and I said that to the court...the Judge. The Judge really believed me what I said, and he dismissed the policeman and, uh, however, they punished me with…But I told the Judge that I don't have any money. I was supposed to get paid 20…a month, but I never got paid. And I told the Judge I don't have any money, and he can do whatever he wants to with me. If he wants to put me to jail, let him put me to jail. But the Judge was very, very nice to me. He just gave me the punishment and he said whichever way I can pay I'll pay. And I brought the judgment back to Mr. Sharp and Mr. Sharp intervened and they made it to 15…so Mr. Sharp paid 15… I didn't pay anything. And the receipt is there. I have the original receipt. But the Judge was so nice to me. He was so sympathetic to me. What he did, he asked me to be the translator for the Poles when they come to Court. They don't know how to speak German. Would I be translating for them? At the end it was a good thing for me. I helped the judge with the Poles. I translated from Polish into German. So, the judge was very, very nice with me. He believed what I said and he accepted my testimony rather than the policeman's.

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Accession Number 1989.H.0342
RG Number RG-50.030.0044
Date of Interview
October 5, 1989
Rose Galek Brunswic
Linda Kuzmack
Sochocin, Poland
Interview Type Oral History
How to Cite Museum Materials

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