Nestled between residential buildings in the Berlin district of Treptow-Köpenick stand flat barracks that today house the Documentation Centre Nazi Forced Labour. Here, in a former forced labour camp, you can learn how forced labourers lived in Germany during the National Socialist era, read a lot about human fates and tragedies.
Between Britzer, Köllnischer and Rudower Straße was a large plot of land overgrown with pine trees and surrounded by numerous residential buildings. Part of it was owned by the Deutsche Reichsbahn, another area belonged to two Jewish brothers. The residents used the area as a recreation area.
History of the Documentation Centre Nazi Forced Labour
Plans initially envisaged building a home for the Hitler Youth on the site. However, the idea was discarded when it became apparent that the neighbouring residential buildings could provide too good a view of the events.
In 1942, the owners of the site were expropriated and it was transferred to the country’s property administration.
Forced labour camps during the Nazi era
Other plans now developed and in May 1943 the surveying of the property began. The plan was to build GBI camp 75/76 within a very short time. After only four months, the first of the 15 symmetrically planned stone barracks, intended to house more than 2,000 people, were in place. According to available sources, about 900 foreign forced labourers were housed there during the period of use. Thirteen barracks were used as accommodation buildings, one building was a service building and one was a building for the guards. However, the complex was not completely finished.
Since the site was strategically favourably located close to important war factories, the visibility of the population was accepted. However, as many pine trees as possible were left standing to protect the site from air raids. In addition, and this distinguishes this camp from other forced labour camps, there were air raid shelters that offered the residents protection.
Italian military internees and civilian workers were housed in one part of the camp. Other barracks were occupied by “Eastern workers” and in two houses that served as concentration camp outposts lived female prisoners who worked in the nearby battery factory Pertrix (VARTA).
Use after World War II
Immediately after the Second World War, the Red Army initially used the complex as barracks and as a warehouse for printed matter and grain. When they needed less space from the end of 1945, the Berlin civilian population was able to take over some undamaged buildings. The first craft businesses quickly set up shop. For example, a bathing establishment and dairy were built in the former farm building. Some of the buildings are still used by private owners today.
A vaccine factory moved into the six barracks to the west. From the 1950s onwards, it was the national research and production centre for vaccines in the GDR.
A documentation centre is being built
In 1991, the institute was liquidated in the course of reunification. The site became the property of the federal government and was unused for several years.
During the question of subsequent use and initial preparations for redevelopment, it was discovered that the buildings were the remains of a forced labour camp. In 1995, an exhibition was installed on the fence around the site, thus bringing the history of the site back into the public eye.
During this time, citizens’ initiatives and individuals campaigned to establish a documentation and learning centre on the topic of Nazi forced labour in the empty buildings.
In a first step, the building ensemble was listed in 1995 and a commemorative plaque was installed in 2001.
Memorial Documentation Centre Nazi Forced Labour
Some time passed before the Documentation Centre on Nazi Forced Labour could open its doors to visitors. Barracks fell into disrepair and for a long time it was unclear who would use the site.
In 2005, the state of Berlin took over part of the site. They commissioned the Topography of Terror Foundation to legally organise the project Documentation Centre on Nazi Forced Labour and to supervise its organisation.
After extensive historical research, two barracks were renovated and prepared for exhibitions and educational activities by summer 2006. Today, six barracks on the grounds of the Documentation Centre and barrack 13 a few steps away are managed and used by the Documentation Centre on Nazi Forced Labour.
Visit to the Documentation Centre Nazi Forced Labour
My visit begins with a short walk around the grounds, although I have to admit that I didn’t get very far at first. There are numerous information boards hanging on the fence right next to the bus stop in front of the main entrance. As I begin to read, I realise how little I actually know about the subject.
What is forced labour?
From 1938 to 1945, the National Socialists set up the largest forced labour system since ancient times in Europe. In the German Reich and the occupied territories, about 26 million Jews, Sinti, Roma, prisoners of war, civilian forced labourers and concentration camp prisoners had to work as forced labourers. Looking only at Berlin, there were about 420,000 foreigners forced to work in 1944.
Forced labourers were employed throughout the economy and in agriculture, in hospitals, churches, private households. Civilian forced labourers received very low wages, others worked to survive (i.e. without pay). People often worked in shifts of up to 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. They were housed in guarded camps, which were often overcrowded. Poor hygienic conditions and inadequate medical care prevailed there.
In the Documentation Centre Nazi Forced Labour, two permanent exhibitions and regularly changing special exhibitions deal with this topic. These can be visited free of charge. In addition, you can also visit Barrack 13, which is still almost in its original condition, on request.
Permanent exhibition “Everyday Forced Labour 1938-1945
The permanent exhibition “Everyday life in forced labour 1938-1945” has been on display in Barrack 2 since 2013, covering a good 600 m². The exhibition is bilingual and offers numerous photos and documents as well as video/media stations with eyewitness accounts.
I really liked the fact that there is a focus on what is happening in the Berlin city area. Of course, the forced labour camp in Schöneweide is also considered and so you get a direct reference to the location. And not only that, in Berlin there were about 3,000 collective accommodations where about 500,000 forced labourers lived. On a map you can locate about half of the sites in the city.
I found the portrayal of the daily life of the forced labourers in the camp and the places where the work was done depressing. It was frightening to see the illustrations of where and under what conditions forced labourers were housed in Berlin and where they were used everywhere.
The biographies of 17 forced labourers in particular, which are presented in the central aisle, make the events more tangible and understandable. These biographies are juxtaposed with 16 other people and their life stories who were involved with the forced labourers as “actors”.
The permanent exhibition is very informative and you should take the time to read the texts.
Permanent exhibition: “Between all chairs. The story of the Italian military internees 1943-1945”.
Since 2016, there has been another permanent exhibition, which can be seen in barrack 4. This one deals with the Italian military internees who were used as forced labourers.
During the Second World War, fascist Italy and Nazi Germany were allies for a long time. At the beginning of September 1943, Italy withdrew from the alliance. The Wehrmacht then captured the Italian military personnel who were now enemies. It is said that about 650,000 Italians were transported to camps. With the creation of the Repubblica Sociale Italiana (RSI) in 1944, the prisoners were declared “military internees”. This meant that they could be used as forced labourers without regard to international law.
From 1944 onwards, about 400 Italians were housed in Berlin-Schöneweide, working in the surrounding factories.
The permanent exhibition deals with the fate of the Italian military internees. In German, English and Italian, the living and working conditions are shown very impressively with the help of photos, documents and eyewitness accounts.
Like the first permanent exhibition, this exhibition takes up a topic that was not addressed in history lessons when I was at school. Therefore, much of the detailed information presented was new to me. It is an exhibition that has aroused my interest in finding out more.
Barrack 13 has been part of the exhibition area of the Documentation Centre on Nazi Forced Labour since 2010. It is not located on the grounds of the memorial and is only accessible on request. You reach the building after a few metres of footpath that leads past former barracks. Today, these are used in very different ways and only the characteristic construction still reveals the original purpose of use.
The interior of Barrack 13 is still almost true to the original, even the camouflage paint on the shutters can be seen. The typical structure of a barrack in a forced labour camp can be seen very clearly in the building. The individual rooms lead off from a wide central corridor. Depending on the size of the building, there were 10-12 rooms. The barrack had a toilet and washroom with three stone wash fountains. One of these wells is in barrack 13. Next to the toilets is a narrow room. It is still not known what purpose this room had.
In contrast to the unplastered hallway, the rooms were painted a glazed beige colour. According to reports from contemporary witnesses, there were up to nine two-storey wooden bunk beds, nine double wardrobes, small benches and a table as well as a stove in each room. Each parlour was lit with an incandescent lamp.
Today, quotations from former forced labourers hang in the rooms, telling us something about everyday life in the camp.
The building has a basement. An air raid shelter had been set up here. You climb a few steps on an outside staircase into the cellar. A large solid steel door, which can also be secured from the inside, closes the labyrinthine room under the barracks. Inscriptions have been discovered on the walls that show who sought shelter there and when. The following short video (in german) explains this in more detail.
I was very impressed by the visit to the Documentation Centre on Nazi Forced Labour. The topic depresses, shakes, stirs and must not be forgotten.
Britzer Straße 5
Tuesday – Sunday: 10-18 h
Many thanks to the Documentation Centre Nazi Forced Labour for the guided tour and the possibility to use the photos.