People under the Terror of National Socialism


place/state: Bavaria
Dr. Bernhard Lehmann
age group: 16 years and older
subject: History

learning activities
Creating an exhibition
Encountering eyewitnesses
Researching local history
Working with archives

Forced labor
Peace and reconciliation work

Students at Paul-Klee High School collect regional and local historical facts on the subject of forced labor in Gersthofen, amongst others in the former IG Farben subsidiary "Transehe" in Gersthofen and further arms factories in Gersthofen and the Dora concentration camp, research Wernher von Braun's role in the production of V-2 missiles and analyse the fate of the Augsburg resistance family Pröll. The students present their results in an exhibition and a brochure, compile an Internet presentation and collect money in a private compensation fund for the benefit of forced labor in Gersthofen.

Project report of class 11 a

Planning phase and reasons for the choice of subject

Everything started so harmlessly. Our class had found out that our history teacher Dr. Bernhard Lehmann and his previous class had won a prize for their Internet project on "history and sociology of the Augsburg train station 1840 - 2000" in the school year 2000/ 2001. Why shouldn't our class also take part in a project he suggested to us? Of course, we anticipated less traditional instruction, more fun and independent tasks and maybe even a prize.
When, in December 2000, he invited Ms Anna Pröll to our high school, who gave an impressive account of her family's resistance and suffering during the National Socialism, we agreed to compile an Internet presentation on the fate of the Pröll family.

At this time we could not yet foresee the complexity of this subject. We found out that Fritz Pröll, Anna Pröll's brother in law, had committed suicide in the Dora concentration camp to avoid having to denounce other prisoners. In the Dora concentration camp, the notorious V-2 missiles were built by forced labor under the surveillance of Wernher von Braun, and under inhumane conditions. The fuel for the V-2 missiles was, amongst others, produced in the Gersthofen arms factory, an IG Farben subsidiary, with the help of Italian military internees who vegetated in terrible conditions in a forced labor camp on the outskirts of Gersthofen.

  1. For this reason we did not merely have one subject, but four:
  2. Forced labor in Gersthofen
  3. The resistance of the Pröll family
  4. Wernher von Braun's role in the production of the V2-missile
  5. The Dora concentration camp

While this multiplied the work load, it also increased the suspense. We became all the more engrossed in the subjects when we found out that there was a Wernher-von-Braun-Road in Gersthofen, where there had been a forced labor camp during the Second World War. At the same time, this road was a permanent provocation for Anna Pröll, whose brother-in-law Fritz had lost his life in the Dora concentration camp. Her various attempts to get the town of Gersthofen to rename the road had previously failed.

The course of the project and problems with the mayor

We began our research in the relevant church archives, in Augsburg's town archive, in company archives and in the Augsburg state archive. But the most important archive to enable a successful and differentiated work on our subjects was the Gersthofen town archive, which is why Dr. Lehmann applied to the mayor to be able to research in the archives. Our first attempt was already a failure. The mayor found it important to put the interests of deceased Gersthofen citizens ahead of the research interests of underage students. According to him, there was a risk of pillorying Gersthofen citizens during the course of our research. People speaking of slave labor also imply the existence of slave-holders, and therefore an objective handling of this subject could not be guaranteed.

Now, the matter escalated. Dr. Lehmann did not back down, and emphasised that the students were very well able to cautiously deal with the subject under his supervision. The expression "slave labor" not only referred to general forced labor, but also to prisoner work in the concentration camps of the region.

The newspapers, television and radio became interested, our position was strengthened. The mayor made a pseudo offer by agreeing to let the history teacher into the archives, but not the school class; furthermore the teacher was not to be allowed to publish his insights or respectively make the results of his research anonymous. When the teacher made enquiries about the whereabouts of forced laborers' graves, the mayor instructed the cemetery administration not to disclose any information.

This was too much for the teacher and his class. After all, they wanted to complete the project within the year. Therefore, on May 2001, they filed an application for an injunction and asked the administration court for access to the Gersthofen town archives.

Victory at the administration court

On July 12th the Augsburg administration court passed a judgement which entirely acceded to the request made by the teacher and his students. Finally, the team was allowed access to the archives.

Time was limited, therefore the opening of the exhibition was postponed to mid October. But one thing was clear: After "ZDF", "Bayerischer Rundfunk" (German Television stations),"Der Stern", "Süddeutsche Zeitung", "Bildzeitung" and "Die Welt\" (German newspapers and magazines) had become interested in our project, we could not afford to fail and were practically obliged to do not only a good job, but an outstanding one [see document].

Support of and resistance to our project

A further subject joined the four we had already encountered: the subject of how a town deals with its history. Not everyone in the town was willing to provide information, many categorically refused to cooperate, many accused Dr. Lehmann of "contaminating the nest". The height of the abuse was an anonymous death threat: "Beat him to death, as soon as possible!".

But we would not be prevented from achieving our goal. Our research work was the result of a free time occupation we had not known to date. It was no longer in class that we studied and scanned documents, searched the Internet, finally put our results down on paper and started to contemplate how they could be realised in an exhibition, but in the holidays and in numerous afternoons.

What boosted us were numerous letters from all over Germany, which encouraged us and assured us financial support. Dr. Hamm-Brücher, retired minister of state, personally called us and had the Theodor-Heuss-Foundation transfer a sum of DM 5000,-, as we not only wanted to do historical work, but also reconciliation work and invite former forced laborers to Gersthofen.

From the rulers' sources we viewed in the archives we were able to find out something about the role of forced laborers in war economy, their classification and treatment according to the national socialist racial delusion. We found out nothing about the outrage and disappointment of the forced laborers, nothing about their degradation and loss of rights, heteronomy and terrorisation, about their fears, their dealings with suffering and unjustness, about ruined health, stolen lifetimes and lost perspectives. This led to the necessity to contact surviving forced laborers in Russia, the Ukraine, Poland, Italy and France [see document].

Opening of the exhibition on October 18th 2001 with five former forced laborers

No-one can imagine the logistical work needed to locate four former forced laborers from the Ukraine who used to work in Gersthofen or the region, to provide them with passports, organise their journey to Germany, to lodge and cater for them, to compile a program for them and collect some form of compensation. Furthermore it was merely thanks to a classmate that a French former Dora concentration camp prisoner agreed to come to the opening of the exhibition.

What also made us proud was the fact that, thanks to our research, the Catholic Church was able to compensate Ms Antonia Piwowar with a sum of DM 5,000,-. But all the other guests were also compensated with a sum of DM 2,000,- each. The historical exhibition and the collection of meanwhile DM 52,000,- was our way of apologizing for the injustice they had experienced.

Dr. Bernhard's two trips to the Ukraine

In February 2002 our teacher finally brought a large amount of the money that had been donated and gathered to the Ukraine and visited forced laborers there, who had not been able to come to Gersthofen for health or other reasons. Through a tribute event in February 2003 featuring Dieter Hildebrandt, who appeared free of charge for our initiative, we were able to gather more money and Dr. Lehmann travelled to the Ukraine again to visit a further 8 former forced laborers and support them financially.

Compilation of a brochure about forced labor

In February 2002 our history teacher finally edited a 92-page brochure with the help of 3 experts from our class. Unfortunately, the local industry hardly contributed financial aid, which is why we had to collect another DM 5,000,-. But the sale of our brochure showed the public's enormous interest in the subject. The money earned through the sale of the brochure will be used to establish a type of future fund for the forced laborers formerly working in Gersthofen, as we do not yet consider our commitment completed. Therefore, in July 2002, Dr. Lehmann was able to give the son of a Ukrainian forced laborer a further € 3,000,- to take back to the Ukraine with him and deliver to surviving forced laborers that we had only located after our exhibition and therefore not yet "compensated".

Depending on the interest in our exhibition we would also like to show it in other parts of Germany; the concentration camp memorials Dora-Mittelbau and Dachau have already signalled their interest. The concentration camp memorial Dora-Mittelbau nominated our exhibition for the "Kurt-Baumann-prize", which recognizes merits involving the research of the fates concentration camp prisoners.