By the second half of 1942, the German economy was dependent on millions of forced laborers. The majority of them were young women from Poland and the occupied Soviet territories, but others included prisoners of war and Jewish concentration camp prisoners. Forced laborers were a visible presence in German cities and villages.1
This image of young Ukrainian women walking past a group of curious onlookers with hands behind their backs, heads down, reflected a common sight in nearly every industrialized German city. Taken in the German city of Bielefeld sometime in the middle of 1942, the photographer—perhaps a passerby, a German official, a soldier, or a reporter—is unknown.2
Was this a common street scene or capturing a specific event? Are the workers, who appear well dressed, headed to church services? Or perhaps they have been chosen for domestic work in German private homes and are expected to dress appropriately?3 It’s also possible that they were not provided with a change of clothes when they were brought to Germany and simply wore what was available, regardless of how poorly suited these clothes may have been to their new positions.
Though they appear to be carefully watching the laborers, much about the onlookers is also unknown.4 Are they all German? Are they there for a specific reason, or are they merely encountering the laborers as they pass by? We can speculate that the image of young foreign women from Ukraine in the streets was still relatively out of the ordinary given when the photograph was taken. Eventually, however, according to one scholar, “the foreigners were simply there, a familiar fixture in the landscape of everyday life in wartime, like ration cards or air-raid shelters."5
Women like those pictured here were subject to harsh regulations and initially were not permitted to leave the premises of the factories or camps where they were held. Only after the brutal treatment of these workers became economically unsustainable did Nazi officials begin to ease certain restrictions.6 The move to improve conditions was also directly related to German losses on the battlefield, as it became clear that forced laborers were going to remain in Germany for far longer than expected.7 Even then, so-called "eastern workers" were treated very differently than their counterparts from western European countries. French, Dutch, and Belgian laborers were allowed to move freely around the cities where they worked and attend social events, a right never granted to those from Poland and the Soviet Union.