Local Historical Research on forced Laborers


place/state: Brandenburg
AUTHOR: Hannelore Franek
age group: 16 years and older
subject: History

learning activities
Creating an exhibition
Interpreting eyewitness reports
Researching local history
Working with archives

Forced labor

On the grounds of the former Pulp and Rayon Staple Factory Wittenberge, there was a branch of the Neuengamme Concentration Camp. Prisoners were forced to work in this factory. Students from the Wittenberge Comprehensive School are researching this little-known aspect of their local history. At the 700th anniversary of the city of Wittenberge in 2000, they presented their results in an exhibition at the Wittenberge City Museum.

Working Process

As part of the preparations for its 700th anniversary celebration, the city of Wittenberge asked the History students (grade 11) at the Wittenberge Comprehensive School to research a dark chapter in the city's history: the barely known Wittenberge branch of the Neuengamme Concentration Camp. Volunteers with a knowledge of local history aided in the two-year school project. A set designer and a specialist consultant from the Free University of Berlin helped the students plan the exhibition showing the results of their research.

Project phases

Research phase

At the first meeting in October of 1998, the city presented the project and its goals to the students. (The project was supported by the RAA Wittenberge and the Brandenburg Museum Association.) Most of them were unaware of the existence of a branch concentration camp on the grounds of the old pulp and rayon staple factory, the more so as this building was torn down after Germany's reunification, to make room for a new industrial park. But the students were not only to do research; depending on their results, they also had to find appropriate ways of presenting what they had found out. Despite some initial skepticism, the students quickly became interested and excited about the plan.

At the following meetings, the students got to know our volunteer aids, and formed work groups with various research focuses:

Group 1

Going through files on the prisoners, especially the death lists from Witten-berge. At first a member of the Jehovah's Witnesses, who is researching the fate of his fellow believers in Wittenberge during fascism, led this group.

Group 2

Researching on the grounds of the former pulp and rayon staple factory, where the branch concentration camp Wittenberge was located. This group was led by the former Assistant Director of the company vocational school at the VEB Pulp and Rayon Staple Factory Wittenberge, who had written a history of the factory.

Group 3

Researching literature and other materials on the Concentration Camp Neuengamme, the branch camp in Wittenberge, etc. At the beginning, a former History teacher from the Higher Grammar School in Wittenberge, who has researched local history for many years, supported the group.

Group 4

The group 4 came about in the course of the project, and concentrated on Internet research on the topic.

The groups worked every afternoon after school. At the end of 1998, they sorted, evaluated and processed their initial results, with some help from the volunteers. The students then took two days of the subsequent 'Project Week' for extensive research in the Neuengamme Archive. The Archive staff had already selected all relevant material, and also provided us with copies for further work at the school.

In the files of the cemetery administration, the first group quickly found evidence of a mass grave in Wittenberge. Very probably, only a small number of prisoners were buried here, since the number of deaths does not correspond with the death lists, and prisoner reports also lead us to suspect that the number of victims was actually much greater.

The second group's main focus was to construct a model of the branch camp on the company grounds. This proved difficult, particularly because almost nothing is left of the factory build-ings from before 1990. Just after the Reunification, the factory was closed and largely dismantled to make room for new industrial facilities. Students had only the few fragments of foundations still left in 1998 as a reference base. Former employees gave us a layout of the original factory. Though the camp did not officially appear on this map, we did discover that after the war, the Wittenberge Vocational School had been housed in what was formerly the SS guardhouse. The school's teaching lab was very probably set up in a former camp barrack. Both the barrack and the former SS guardhouse were torn down when the school was rebuilt in the 60's. The prisoners' reports studied in Neuengamme also gave us some clues in the form of sketches and descriptions of the camp. The camp model we constructed based on this information is hopefully as close as possible to the original, and was later included in our exhibition.

Group 3's literary research turned up relatively little of use in our study of the Branch Concentration Camp Wittenberge, which as yet has only received marginal attention in specialist literature [see bibliography]. The fourth group's Internet research also found nothing on our specific topic, so that the students decided to take a broader look at other schools' projects on National Socialism and the Holocaust, some of which gave us new ideas for our own work. The group also kept their fellow students informed on current developments in the debate on reparation payments for former forced laborers. Their main source of information on life in the Wittenberge camp was the reports of former prisoners, whose statements they summarized [see documents].

The Neuengamme Memorial Site gave us the addresses of former prisoners, with whom we tried to establish contact. Unfortunately, our letters went unanswered. Despite several appeals in the local press, and advertisements in retirement homes [see documents], our planned discussions with contemporary witnesses from Wittenberge were limited to one meeting with an elderly lady who had been forced into homeland service during the war and sent to work in the Pulp and Rayon Staple Factory Wittenberge. For the students, talking with this contemporary witness, for whom the conversation brought back longrepressed memories, was an important experience that brought history to life.

Exhibition phase

After all the materials had been collected and prepared, the second phase of the project - from the start of the school year 1999/2000 - involved putting together an appropriate presentation of the results. A talk with the head of the Wittenberge City Museum led to the idea of forming a (traveling) exhibition open to the public, as part of the city's 700th anniversary celebrations. To get ideas for how to present their results, the students visited a professional exhibition on this topic in Sachsenhausen. With guidance from a set designer, the students worked independently on the exhibition panels [see photos], each of which was dedicated to one subtopic of the project. The panels were set up to form an open room with four inner and four outer sides. The inner sides of the panels were made dark, to underscore the horrors of camp life which were shown. This section included the model of the camp, a prisoner's report, the map and aspects of camp life. The students made the outer sides more colorful, as they held more general information. Besides a section on forced labor in Germany and in Wittenberge, there is a report on how rayon staple, used in munitions, is made from straw. There is also an outline of the project.

Many prominent guests were present at the opening of the exhibition during the festival week, on July 18th, 2000. Seeing their work honored in public was an unforgettable experience for the students.

Pedagogical and methodological reflections

This project has shown that students are indeed capable of working independently, creatively and intensively, if they are committed to the assignment. The two-year work on the project, which - except for the project weeks - took place outside the classroom, led to a positive feeling of cohesion among the students. Learning that teamwork is much more productive than going it alone, but also that research involves mistakes and disappointments, was an important experience for the students. In the course of the project, it was evident that students began to develop and strongly defend their own views on the specific points, for example concerning their presentation in the exhibition.

Methodologically, group work has proven very effective. At first the individual groups, which formed by themselves, were led and supported by volunteers. Among other things, this was to help acquaint the 11th graders with the independent and critical study of source material. However, it was vital that the students develop their own project and not simply carry out the adults' instructions. In the course of the project, the students working in each area became increasingly independent, developed new ideas and changed the formation of the groups according to what the work required. The groups coordinated their work in all-group "planning sessions", especially in the final project phase.

In terms of content, dealing with the topic of how forced labor affected local history has made History class come alive for the students. The reports of survivors [see document] were very thought provoking for them. They were especially shocked to realize that the prisoners had been their age when sent to the camps. Many discussions focused on how the general public behaved during the Third Reich. As a teacher, I realized that I must deal with students' reactions much more carefully and sensitively.