The Destiny of East European Forced Labourers, Convicts and Prisoners of War

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place/state: Lower Saxony
INSTITUTIONS: T. Heuss-Gymnasium Wolfenbüttel/Memorial for the Victims of National Socialist Justice
FACILITATORS: P. Maibach (teacher) / W. Knauer (Memorial)
age group: 14 years and older
subject: Crosscurricular study group

learning activities
Encountering eyewitnesses
Resurrecting biographies
Working with archives

Forced labor
Memorial day
Peace and reconciliation work

additional links

Supported by the Memorial, students compile a data base of biographical data of former forced labourers and prisoners of war in the region. At the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the end of the war, survivors and relatives of victims are invited and accompanied by the students during their stay. Through this direct contact, students experience the ongoing impact of historical events and are sensitised for the effects. In addition to the historical aspect, the projects facilitates a more competent use of information technologies.

Project Aims

Between December 2004 and April 2005, a group of 38 students (later the number decreased to 25) from Wolfenbüttel schools met to work on the topic "The Destiny of Mainly East European Forced Labourers, Convicts and Prisoners of War in Wolfenbüttel" and to investigate the personal history of victims of National Socialist justice. The project was initiated by a group at the Theodor-Heuss-Gymnasium Wolfenbüttel and their teacher Peter Maibach. The project took place at the occasion of commemorating the 60th anniversary of the end of the war in Wolfenbüttel on 11 April 2005.

The Memorial for the Victims of National Socialist Justice at the Wolfenbüttel Penitentiary, represented by its director Wilfried Knauer, was a co-operation partner of the project. The Memorial houses a former place of execution, and it keeps many, until now only insufficiently registered, files on the destiny of former victims of the National Socialist regime. More personal data are to be found in the burial registers of the Catholic and Protestant church offices, the register of the registrar\'s office of the municipality of Wolfenbüttel, the register of publicly maintained graves of the municipality of Wolfenbüttel, the register of executions carried out at the Wolfenbüttel penitentiary and the files of the Wolfenbüttel state archives. It was the aim of the project to bring together these different historical primary sources and compile them in a single data base.

Carrying Out the Project

Following an article in the local newspaper, the "Braunschweiger Zeitung" introducing the project and its aims and calling for co-operation, 38 students of grades 9 and 10 volunteered to take part and were invited for a preparatory discussion at the Wolfenbüttel Penitentiary on 15 December 2005. During the meeting, they were introduced to the topic; a visit to the former place of execution and a tour of the permanent exhibition on National Socialist justice were organised. Then Mr Maibach and Mr Knauer presented the project in detail and explained the tasks students would have to take over if they participated. It was amazing that all students present agreed to take part although the project was to be carried out during the Christmas holidays.

Philip, 17 years old: During the winter holidays, about 30 pupils aged 14-16 met to collect data about the East European victims of National Socialism in our town. We received valuable support from two teachers of the THG, Mr. Maibach and Mr. Wuttig as well as from staff members of the Memorial at the Wolfenbüttel Penitentiary.

The sources we used were death certificates of the Wolfenbüttel registrar's office of sixty years ago, which have been kept in filing cabinets until today. All the information, e.g. names, causes of death or places of birth were entered into a computerised data base, using the spreadsheet programme Microsoft Excel. The personal data of about 500 victims have already been entered into the spreadsheet.

Data Entry

The data entry was done by groups of three students each, using the six-eyes-principle to minimise the possibility of mistakes, as these make data harmonisation at a later stage more difficult. The groups took turns in dictating, entering and checking the data, so that each student became familiar with the different work steps.

Jan, 16 years old: When we had entered the data, we started searching the victims\' places of origin on the Internet. Then the places were marked on large historical maps. A pin with the number and death year of each deceased was pinned into the respective place. One difficulty was that many files were written in old German script, and we students found it difficult to decipher place- and family names. We managed with the help of a historian and a printed alphabet of old German script.

Depending on the respective country, it was quite difficult to identify the places of origin. It is not easy to retrieve places after sixty years, especially in the Eastern European countries where place names have changed in the meantime or where, as in one case, there are ten different places with the same name. In some particularly tricky cases, clear result could only be obtained through reasoning. Frequently changing borders at that time and the spelling of some proper names were an additional problem. Fortunately, the age of modern technology provides a great help through the Internet. Only the Internet enabled us to retrieve particular places, including maps, within split seconds using search engines like Google – a work which would probably take a long time in archives.

In January 2005, after three days of work, we had identified the data of 500 persons. These data could now be processed, i.e. harmonised, sorted by the places of origins of the persons concerned, death causes etc., and printed. To round off the work during the Christmas holidays, the group visited the German Historical Museum at Berlin to see the exhibition "Myths of the Nations".

Preparation for Encountering Eyewitnesses

However, the work of the students did not only aim at compiling data. The data were to be used to get into contact with families and relatives of victims of National Socialist rule. A ceremony to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of the war in Wolfenbüttel offered a suitable platform for this. Survivors and/or relatives of victims from several European countries were invited. Some of the newly compiled data could even be used to make the contacts. Contacts were established through the Memorial.

Tuba, 16 years old, about the preparations: At the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Wolfenbüttel Penitentiary by the Americans, a commemoration ceremony took place on 11 April 2005. In preparation of this event, we met to plan the agenda of this day. An important point was to identify the relatives of the victims and invite them to come to Wolfenbüttel. We formed several groups, e.g. to look after the relatives and to prepare documentations of this day. Some of us developed a Power Point presentation about our project, which was to be presented at the city hall. The "Braunschweiger Zeitung", NDR TV and a camera team of the Hanover Academy of Arts were also informed and invited.

Encountering Eyewitnesses

25 persons from Poland, France, Slovakia, Belgium and Norway accepted the invitation and participated in the commemoration ceremony and the two-day accompanying programme.

Annika, 16 years: On April 11, about 150 persons met at the church of the Wolfenbüttel Penitentiary to commemorate the victims of National Socialist justice. Among the participants were relatives of the victims, a former prisoner from Norway, consul generals and honorary consuls of the countries concerned and high-ranking representatives of the Land of Lower Saxony.

Afterwards, a wreath was laid down in a moving ceremony in front of the former place of execution. The entire event was documented by a camera team of the NDR and a film team of the Hanover Academy of Arts.

Then the participants shared lunch at the premises of the Wolfenbüttel Penitentiary. Here the relatives and invited guests were given the opportunity to exchange their experiences and impressions in discussions and to inform themselves about our project. They gladly took the opportunity, and the guests were very pleased with our commitment. The discussions made it possible for us to get into contact with the guests and to gain more impressions. (See also Document)

After the commemoration ceremony at the church of the Penitentiary and the laying of the wreath, the students joined their foreign guests and spent some time with them.

Katharina, 16 years old: During lunch, we had the opportunity to get to know the French guests. In spite of the different languages, we did not have great problems to communicate with them. Besides historical aspects, we also spoke about our personal interests.

The differing perspectives of the respective countries were very interesting, for example the usual stereotypes about eating habits. The French people also wanted to know what we learn about France at school.

In any case, the evening with the guests was great fun. The guests also assured us that they enjoyed it very much and that they were very happy that young people were interested in this very important topic.

Jan and Gunnar, both 16 years old, report about another key experience: At lunch, our group of four students shared a table with four people from Slovakia – children and grandchildren of a man who was executed at Wolfenbüttel sixty years ago. While there were interpreters at some of the other tables, we could communicate in English without major problems. A main topic was of course the fate of their father or grandfather, which had not been entirely clarified. But soon we spoke about other issues, too. We talked about school, work and old stereotypes, and also about the experiences the guests had made during their first visit to Wolfenbüttel. We students explained the work we had carried out over the past weeks, and they were very interested in our work. In the afternoon, they wished to visit their father's grandfather's grave at the Wolfenbüttel cemetery. This first encounter with their dead relative after sixty years led to scenes that gave us the impression that our work may help to come to terms with the past and to improve international understanding, even if only in a small context. We met our guests again at a commemoration service at the Wolfenbüttel main church. We were especially impressed when all participants were asked to shake each others' hands as a sign of peace. The Slovakian guest, who sat in front of us, at once turned around and wished us peace. For us this was one of the most impressive moments as it showed clearly that there is no reason for resentment between Germans and East Europeans.
We all think that we have learned a lot during this day, which ended with a reception by the mayor in the evening – more than history lessons could ever teach. We learned what is going on in the relatives of the victims, how they cope with it, and we often admired how friendly and open-minded especially the younger generation was towards us. The experience will surely help us in the future. A single Europe is only possible if people respect and understand each other.

The presentation of the results of the student project during a public reception given by the mayor of the town at the great historical town hall was part of the accompanying programme.

Katharin, 16 years old: The evening of April 11 was opened by an ecumenical commemoration service at the main church at 6 p.m. During the service, very moving texts of former prisoners of war were read and prayers were said. After the participants had blessed each other in their respective languages as a sign of sharing, the foreign guests, the organisers of the event and the students followed an invitation of the town\'s mayor into the city hall There we showed the results of our project in a presentation and an information stand. The presentation explained our methodology, aims and results. The foreign guests, who now knew that their relatives were buried in Wolfenbüttel, then had an opportunity to look at the lists of names and dates which we had compiled. The church- and graveyard registers and photographs showing the work in January were also available. There were also opportunities for discussions with the guests, which were frequently used during and after dinner.

The data compiled by the students are now completed and used to establish further contacts with families concerned. A student exchange with towns in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia has already been planned for the summer holidays.

Public Relations

From the beginning, the project was scheduled to be covered by the media, because the topic of coming to terms with history is of great public interest. The course of the project and its results were covered by the regional press (Braunschweiger Zeitung) and the north-German broadcasting station, NDR. The NDR even dedicated a one-hour special feature to the topic on 17 March 2005. The presentation of the results during a reception by the Wolfenbüttel municipality met with great public interest and caused the mayor to address a special letter of thanks to the group. The project was especially appreciated by the guests from abroad who addressed the students expressly in their words of thanks and praised their commitment.

Effects and Assessment of the Project

The main goal of the project is the search for family members of victims in the East European countries. Telephone directories, local maps, registrars' offices and institutions working for the clarification of individual fates were of great help in fulfilling this task. The results of the project help a lot to make this search faster and more effective.

For us students, the work we performed represented a totally new experience. In history lessons, original sources are only very seldom used, partly because they are difficult to access and partly because of data protection reasons. Therefore, the co-operation of the Memorial and the state archives of Lower Saxony were of especial importance and help for this project.

Although this project is a mainly historical project at first glance, its importance for the future is obvious. Using modern communication technologies was part of the project and the students gained greater skills and more knowledge in this respect.

As Europe is growing together, especially after the inclusion of ten new member countries on 1 May 2004, the research into the shared, though sometimes very terrible past, has become a central issue to understand each other better. Confronting students with personal stories may help to fight stereotypes about certain countries or groups of people. Knowing about one\'s own past should also contribute toward a more modest and differentiated behaviour when travelling abroad. The international youth camp planned for the summer in Wolfenbüttel is to be a step towards an integrated Europe. More distant goals are student exchange visits or town partnerships.

Meeting the guests from abroad, communicating in spite of all language difficulties, the sorrow experienced at the cemetery, when relatives stood at the graves of their lost family members for the first time in sixty years, but also shared laughter and the discovery of shared every day problems - all these experiences are burned into the students memories and will have a long-lasting effect.

translated by Margrit Mueller