Forced Labor

By Jennifer Jacobson

About the Author

Close your eyes and try to envision being terrified for your life, not knowing if you are going to live or die, and not having a slight inkling of the horrible ways you might die.  Or on the other hand, the unthinkable things that might, and probably will happen to you if you are picked to live and forced to be a laborer.  You’re thrown off the trains, and put in a line where you are two seconds away from your destiny; being shot to death, or the gas showers, or having hell on earth ahead of you; literally. Your only hope is that the SS physicians will classify you as fit for labor, and not send you cold-heartedly to the gas chambers to die a horrible death, giving you a little more time to live.  There’s a small light of hope that this nightmare would end with you still alive.  But at this point you don’t really understand the meaning, or the repercussions behind the forced labor system.  I don’t think anybody fully realized the very probable chance that they were going to be worked to death in the camps laboring.  It was just a different form of death that granted them longer time.  This is not even a small fraction of the fear and horrible atrocities that went on during the time of the Holocaust.  Thinking about it myself, I don’t know if I would rather be taken away and killed like the rest, or be forced to live the rest of my time; and nobody knows how long that is, laboring to death in conditions that are unthinkable.  Laborers were not treated any differently and definitely not any better than the other Jews who were on their way to the gas chambers.  The Nazis would single out Jewish laborers for cruel and humiliating treatment, just to get their kicks out of it.  I think there are many facts about the forced labor system that is overlooked by everyone, when in reality it is just as important and devastating, as every other event dealing with the Holocaust.  I believe that often, less frequently recognized is the dehumanization forced labor imposed at concentration camps.  The Holocaust, being such an unthinkable time, with events that are unimaginable and shocking, makes it easy for us to overlook and put less emphasis on different parts that  seem to be of less importance when in reality are of just as great significance, it is just mistakenly overlooked.

After World War two, and the “German defeat in the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942-43,” (forced labor – nazi camps), the need for laborers was at large, and because of the economic problems arising there weren’t enough laborers to fill positions.   “This in return led to the increased use of prisoners as forced laborers in German industries.” (Forced labor – nazi camps).  The Nazis exploited the forced labor of ‘enemies of the state’ for economic gain. The workable Jews were sent all over, wherever they were needed for their work.  “The number of people enslaved exceeded seven million…camps such as Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Ravensbrueck, and Flossenbuerg became administrative centers- massive networks of subsidiary forced labor camps.”(Forced Labor-B’nai B’rith Center). (Although I will only be talking on Auschwitz, since that is what my research is on).  There were three different Auschwitz camps, 1, 2 and 3.  “Auschwitz 3, known as Monowitz, was the most infamous of these three camps.  Monowitz supplied forced laborers to a synthetic rubber plant owned by I. G. Farben.” (Forced Labor – nazi camps).  Nazis opened up factories, and staffed them with Jews, gypsies, and anyone that was considered lower than the German race, or what they considered to be the perfect Aryan race.  No matter what, the Jewish people were the main target of these camps.  This was not an opportunity to live, and it did not ensure them their life, but it granted them an escape from death for a short-extended period of time.  The Jews failed to realize that the, “Nazi goal was nothing less than to exterminate ever Jew in Europe.  The second a worker was seen to be working below the accepted level of productivity, his fate was a bullet to the head, or ‘deportation to the East,’ where the death camps waited.” (Forced Labor – B’nai B’rith Center).

Often times I think that people misinterpret forced labor as an opportunity for the Jews to escape a harsh and unthinkable death that thousands and thousands of other’s were facing daily.  I believe this is where people start to draw false conclusions about the forced labor system.  There are many possibilities as to why this is so.  One could very possibly be the fact that all other aspects of the Holocaust tend to keep the topic of forced labor in the dark.  Thus, people were and have been uneducated on this topic, unintentionally.  It is difficult to even know where to begin when describing the working conditions the Jews had to endure in the camps.  A quote from an article I cited gave me some interesting and solid information stating that, “Slaves often worked shifts of up to eleven hours in conditions of almost no food or warmth and with a minimum amount of sleep. They were literally worked to death.” (Forced Labor – B’nai B’rith Center).  This is very ironic, seeing as how the extermination of the Jews was top priority among European countries.  A man recalling his experiences in Auschwitz states, “…You couldn’t cry in Auschwitz. You cried, you died. If you showed even more weakness than you already had, you didn’t survive the day.” (Forced Labor-B’nai B’rith Center).  “No Jewish laborer was indispensable; nothing could impede the ‘Final Solution’ not even economic utility.  The Nazis regarded the slave laborer as an easily replaceable product, not as a capital investment.  If a Jew died on the job, there were many more Jews who could fill the empty spaces.” (Forced Labor – B’nai B’rith Center).  The result of this was; the workers could not show any weakness, for they knew it would only mean immediate death.  No matter how weak they were, even if they could barely crawl to their barracks, they had to somehow show that they could still walk, and were strong enough to give one more day. They were living in a world where every waking and sleeping moment they were in fear for their lives, where their living was just as bad as their dying.

As I stated earlier, the number one goal was the extermination of the Jews, but there were a few setbacks that hindered the extermination process.  By killing every Jew right away risked, “Damaging Germany’s war effort.” (Forced Labor – B’nai B’rith Center).  Since Germany was suffering from severe manpower shortages, forced labor was a brilliant idea to the Germans.  Auschwitz was so large that it needed thousands of workers to run it and keep it going.  What better than to use the Jewish people, who were the main priority to exterminate anyways.  This process was a smart idea to get rid of them, without killing them all at once through mass genocide.  This was the smartest way to get rid of the Jews without damaging their war efforts any more.  There were many tactics they used to work the Jews to death at a slower rate.  Working them to the point where they cold barely move, where they were so weak from being so undernourished and working in the harshest of harshest conditions that they could hardly go on was the most common tactic and reason for death.  The workers were severely beaten, and subjected to many other cruel punishments and treatments that not one of us could even understand. “The conditions in the barracks were deplorable.  There was massive overcrowding, causing great discomfort and disease.  In some camps, including Auschwitz there were twice as many workers in barracks as health standards would have allowed.  There were maybe a few toilets per thousands of workers, and the result was the excrements would just cover the floor.” (Forced Labor – B’nai B’rith Center)  “Over 50% of the registered prisoners died as a result of starvation, labor that exceeds their physical capacity, the terror that raged in the camp, executions, the inhumane living conditions, disease and epidemics, punishment, torture, and criminal medical experiments.” (Auschwitz – The Concentration Camp).  “They were on a level below that of the slaves.” (The persecution-1)

I don’t know which is worse.  The life they had to endure while laboring or the fear they had to live in every day knowing they could be the next group to be taken to the gas chambers.  The laborers were literally worked to death, but being a forced laborer gave them the chance to spare their lives for a little bit longer.  If they were lucky they managed somehow to survive, and tell their story today. Auschwitz quickly became the largest concentration camp, composed of three different camps.  A camp so large means that you need the workers to staff it and keep it running.  This was a job only low enough for the Jews. The terrible conditions and the horrible jobs a forced laborer had to do made it nearly impossible for the imprisoned Jews to stay alive and somewhat healthy.  If they didn’t die from the horrible treatment and punishment they received, then they probably died from disease, or undernourishment.  Even though I think that the labor system within the concentration camps is highly overlooked and particularly misunderstood, integrating this topic into more subjects and by making it more known and learned about will help to educate more people on the importance on this topic.  My goal on this research was to personally learn more about the labor system in the concentration camps, especially Auschwitz, and also try and inform others about the importance of this issue and how highly it is overlooked.  It’s devastating to know that these are things that human beings are willing or persuaded to do by other human beings and actually succeed in following through with something so unthinkable making such a impression in history.  The Holocaust as a whole is a subject that will be studied in generations and generations to come.