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Photograph of Ukrainian Women Brought to Germany as Forced Laborers

Female forced laborers in Bielefeld
US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Courtesy of the Bundesarchiv
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tags: forced labor women's experiences

type: Photograph

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.

For example, in Munich alone there were 286 barracks and housing complexes for foreign laborers, numerous prisoner of war camps, seven concentration camp sub-branches, two labor reeducation camps, and a brothel for western European forced laborers. Adam Tooze, The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy (New York: Penguin Group, 2006), 519.

On the decision to bring large numbers of foreign workers from the east to Germany, see Ulrich Herbert, Hitler's Foreign Workers: Enforced Foreign Labor in Germany under the Third Reich, trans. William Templer (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 163–171.

The use of eastern workers as maids in German homes was intended both to help German women on the homefront as well as allow German girls to serve in the Reich Labor Service and aid the war effort. Further, many Germans serving in the east brought Russian maids home with them and their presence needed to be legitimized. Herbert, Hitler's Foreign Workers, 187–189.

The lack of clarity around the events and individuals depicted in this photograph also applies to the caption in the US Holocaust Memorial Museum collections catalog: "Ukrainian women, who have been brought to Germany as forced laborers, walk along a street in Bielefeld with their hands tied behind their backs." Upon closer inspection, it does not appear that their hands were bound. In fact, contrary to the collection description, the original description attached to the photograph states that this image depicts a group of foreign laborers from Ukraine who were only allowed to exit their barracks within a narrowly prescribed window of time.

Ulrich Herbert, "Forced Laborers in the Third Reich: An Overview," International Labor and Working-Class History, No. 58 (Fall, 2000): 199. 

Herbert, Hitler's Foreign Workers, 176–179.

There was an ongoing debate among different Nazi governmental organizations about how to treat foreign workers, especially those coming from Poland and the Soviet Union. A major point of conflict was whether to follow the economic incentive to treat them better so they could work more, or adhere to Nazi racial ideology which viewed Slavs as inferior. See, Herbert, Hitler's Foreign Workers, 176-187.

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Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Courtesy of the Bundesarchiv
Source Number 89718
Date Created
1942
Location
Bielefeld, Germany
Still Image Type Photograph
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