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Slave Labor in Germany
Each village had its colony of Poles

by Alexander Janta

Following the German invasion and occupation of Poland in 1939, many thousands of Poles were taken to Germany for work under conditions that amounted to slave labor. Accounts of the travails and situation of these people, less dramatic than that of concentration camp inmates but affecting a much larger number, have seldom seen publication in Englsh. The passages below, taken from Alexander Janta's 1946 book I lied to live, are an exception. Janta, a poet, essayist and roving international reporter, joined the Polish Army in France following the fall of Poland in 1939. When France collapsed, he was taken prisoner by the Germans. Fluent in French, as well as German, he thought it wise to hide the fact that he was a Pole and instead pass himself off as a Frenchman. It was thus that with a group of other French POWs he was taken to Germany, quartered in the Westphalian village of Oberberg and sent to work for Schnabel, a peasant whose farm stood in Unterberg, the next village over. To his utter astonishment he found that the farm already employed two "voluntary" Polish workers, Wanda and Stasiek, who had been sent there by the German Arbeitsamt. So as not to break his cover, he was unable to speak with them in Polish, but observed and understood all that passed between them. After two years in captivity, he escaped, made his way, through Spain, to the Allied side, and thereby was able to write the book herein excerpted.

Each of the two villages had its colony of Poles; there was a lad or a girl, or both, on every farm, sent there by the government Arbeitsamt (Labour Exchange) Before long I was to learn the details of their existence in Poland before and after the outbreak of war, and of their journey through Germany, and finally of their life among the peasants, who looked upon them as a kind of plunder, belonging to the State and to themselves by virtue of their conquest of Poland. A further palpable proof of the victorious progress of their armies was now to be found in the presence here in their villages of Frenchmen as well as the Poles. They furnished external, incontrovertible evidence that the war was going well, and that it was worth while to wage it. Many, indeed, already made no secret of their conviction that the war was a necessity for Germany, if it was to emerge from the misery and debasement into which, magnificent and incomparable country though it was, it had been plunged by the "dictation" of Versailles.

* * *
The Germans quite evidently could not appreciate the primitive, organic honesty of these people. I was amazed at it myself, observing it as I did secretly but closely in my thankless role of foreign and indifferent fellow-worker.
        They read aloud in my hearing letters which arrived from Poland, and they told one another of their life there; Wanda's in the country near Cracow, Stasiek's in the country near Przemys'l. How the war had come, and after it the Germans, and how they had been taken from their villages and ordered to enroll as "volunteers" for Germany. Mrs. Schnabel also always insisted, as though trying to soothe a not quite pure conscience, that her Poles were "volunteers" from Poland.
        "They said if I didn't put down my name as volunteer they would take me by force," said Stasiek.
        They had been in very low spirits on the journey. At Cracow there bad been at first a medical examination. All the girls were stripped naked, Wanda said, and German soldiers came to look on. They cried bitterly, she said, overcome with shame. Some of them even had the hair on their heads and everywhere cut off because of lice. And then they were packed into a train without being asked who wanted or did not want to go, and off they were sent.
        And so they landed here. She had not known Stasiek before; they had first met here. After all the fright she had had, and the worst forebodings on the way, it was not so bad here, for at any rate there was the land, and there was a village; if only it had not been so far from home, from her beloved mother.
        Whenever Wanda mentioned her mother she had to wipe her eyes violently with her fat hands, to prevent herself from crying. And her sister, who had once before the war gone to work in "Zaksy" (Saxony, Germany), had earned as much as two hundred marks a month, and had come home saying how good it was in Germany; but now, when they had taken her again, she complained bitterly in her letters that things were not the same. Stasiek's brother had been sent to the neigh bourhood of Hamburg. One day Stasiek got a letter, which Wanda helped him to read, and as I had gone into the cow-house for some reason or other and noticed that they were just discussing its contents, I started some work so as to have an excuse for staying there a while. Evidently my presence did not worry them, for they read the letter a second time. In it Michal awkwardly informed Stasiek that he was having a hard and bad time, and that at the first opportunity he would try and escape from Germany, come what might. Stasiek cried. More than once I saw them crying.
        Despite appearances their situation here was not easy. They had no rights, only duties. In this respect we prisoners-of-war were incomparably better off. We were protected by the Geneva Convention, which, though it was only a scrap of paper, it was true, was in general respected by the Germans; though later on we were to become convinced that there were exceptions, and important ones, to this attitude. But for the Poles carried off from Poland there was no appeal. The police authority which was over them had a heavy hand, which did not shrink from beating the unarmed. They were needed, it was true. Their physical strength was needed for work on the land, in the stone-quarries, on the roads, and in the factories. And as long as that strength accepted the compulsion laid upon it obediently and without complaint, so long it had by German favour the privilege of life. But if it once tried to break the bounds set to it, to escape from the place appointed for it, to manifest the slightest shadow of dissatisfaction, to say nothing (God forbid!) of revolt, woe to it! The whole weight of superior force, the whole ruthless and merciless machinery of administration, clad, not in the stern toga of the dispenser of justice, but in the green uniform of the policeman, was employed to carry out upon the insubordinate the sentence of destruction. No, there was no appeal. The Poles were branded in the minds of the average German as barbarians, as inferior beings, who did not deserve the same rights as the Germans, the future rulers of the world. This propaganda sank deep into the minds even of those simple folk who hitherto had had no direct contact with the Poles or with Poland. Consequently there were only a few who were capable of a just appreciation of the Poles and their methods of work, and of forming an independent opinion on the subject. But I met some.
        The Poles were, further, officially marked off from the rest of the community as a lower species of man by the obligation of wearing on the lapels of their coats, jackets, or overcoats a violet "P" in a yellow square, which was to enable good Germans to distinguish from a dis tance that foreign, uncertain, suspected element whose only justification for existence in Germany was its capacity for work; nothing besides.
        Mrs. Schnabel liked frequently to recall what those Poles looked like when they had sent for them to the station, after receiving notice of the impending arrival of a party. How poor they had been, how hungry, bow wretchedly dressed, in rags almost! But look at them now! They are quite different people. How German culture is able to raise the backward peoples of the east! What a good influence it has upon them!
        But I knew the other side of the picture from the accounts of Stasiek and Wanda. They had been forbidden to take anything with them from home, but had been carried off in whatever they happened to be wearing. Then there had been quarantine at Cracow, and then the long journey, cold and dirty, into the unknown. They never knew till the end where they were going. Never in their lives had they been so lost, so frightfully helpless. And of course the country in which they were now living, the conditions in which they were now working, were so very different from those which made up their life before, and closed in their world. The country here was undoubtedly wealthier, untouched as it had been by war for over a century, for even the passage of the Napoleonic armies was not to be compared with the ruin and destruction left in the villages of Poland which had been within the field of operations even in the last war, to say nothing of the present one.
        But it was no merit of the Germans if these compulsorily transplanted people, when beginning their existence under new conditions, thought first of making themselves as clean and tidy as they could. It was their natural instinct to care for their appearance and their clothes, and, on Sundays at least - for the few hours they had of free time, when they went out and met one another and talked of their troubles and read to one another the letters which they had received during the week - to take pride in showing that they were not ragged, that they were clean, and that with the few marks which they had earned by the sweat of their brows they had bought for themselves what was most essential. In those days money still had value, and bargains might still be picked up in the shops. The Germans looked the other way, and sometimes even gave them hints where they could get things cheapest. If they worked, they let them do what they liked outside of working hours. No-one took any interest in their private affairs. The most observant Germans were struck not only by their care for their appearance, but also by their personal cleanliness. They had a bath at least once a week - for frequently during the summer work there was really no time for more - taking a pail of hot water to the cow-house or the stable, and in the mornings there were few who did not wash at least their face and hands. More than one Ger man was surprised to see this; not having supposed, after all the accounts of Poland with which the press in those days was full, that the Poles felt any natural inclination towards cleanliness at all. Others, less keen witted, concluded that the Poles had always been as dirty and lacking in cultural advantages as they were in their misery under the German occupation.
        In those days I often used to see the poison-green uniform of the district policeman, who came on a motor-cycle with a portfolio under his arm and a huge mauser in a cover: a man with the red mouth of a born brute, who was always cross-questioning Stasiek or Wanda, trying to find out whether they had anything to do with the transgressions of other Poles like themselves in the neighbourhood. Stasiek was always frightened and timid when called to these inquiries, while the policeman threatened and thundered, saying everything was the fault of the Poles. If a bicycle was stolen, or a young German girl assaulted, the culprit was always looked for first among the Poles. The policeman called Schnabel to witness that these miscreants were capable of anything, and that they must be dealt with without mercy; and Schnabel, his ears red with emotion and curiosity, faithfully assented to everything he said.
        In this connexion I learnt how numerous were the regulations limiting their freedom of movement, and how severe were the penalties for the least infringement. The offence of failing to wear the prescribed "P", or of having it only pinned on instead of sewn on, was punished with a Éne equal to a month's earnings, to say nothing of the rough handling at the police station which was always the lot of these unfortunates when they were caught in ignorance of the German regulations. The police man sometimes grew impatient when writing out his report, and said jokingly that his hand itched and wanted to have a rest; but he kept that rest until after he had returned to the station, where a few Polish scoundrels were waiting for their just punishment.
        They had to be home by ten o'clock at night; they were not allowed to go wandering about at night, but there were always some who tried. They must be taught a sound lesson. So he said, and laughed, and mumbled something to Schnabel, who obviously understood very well what was referred to. The Poles were not allowed to have bicycles, or to go beyond the limits of the village where they lived, or travel by train, or go to public institutions - with the exception of one, when they got passes to the town. Stasiek, presumably did not know all this, and out of two old bicycles he rigged up a new, or at least a usable, one, and then rode over on it on a Sunday afternoon to see his sister, who worked seven or eight miles from Unterberg.
        And that was why the policeman came. What was the matter? He had gone without permission, and by bicycle too. Where is the bicycle? Stasiek, browbeaten and driven to the wall, had to reveal his treasure, stowed away behind the wood-pile in the yard. It was no good trying to get out of it by saying it was not his, but that he had borrowed it from a comrade, who had got it from a German because he needed it to go to work. The bicycle was confiscated. In addition to that, for moving without a pass and returning after 10 p.m., there was a fine, as stated in an official letter. Stasiek had tears in his eyes, as he stood like a nervous examinee, twisting his cap in his hands. There was no appeal. Now gee-up! Back to work with you, and if there is anything like this again, you will see that we can deal with you Polish band of robbers. Order, you must be taught! In Poland you didn't know what order was!
        To whom could he complain? Before whom could he lament? That Frenchman, though he was a prisoner-of-war, would not understand, and anyway he was not a countryman, only a stranger. So he would talk with Wanda about it for the whole of the remainder of the day, telling the story over and over, and saying why had he chosen just that Sunday to go, and not the one before, when perhaps no-one would have noticed; a real misfortune it was for the wretched Poles in this country that it was not like it was at home, although it was difficult enough to live with one's father, when one came, to think of it. Sometimes his quiet grief would be interrupted by a sudden onfall of rage: "Wait, you bloody dogs! You don't know yet whether all this wrong and that damned `P' won't recoil on your own heads. And then we won't fix a `D' on your clothes. No, we'll brand it with a hot iron on your foreheads. We'll teach you to remember."
        I observed them diligently and attentively, both Wanda and Stasiek, all day long, and then for weeks, and afterwards for months. As I understood every word they said, they began, after only a short time, to be transparent to me, and I came to know them inside out.
        Wanda, a thoroughly good girl, was quite unable to keep her tongue within bounds. It was moved by the absolute necessity she felt of chattering to anyone about anything. As a result, she certainly learnt German more quickly, though she spoke it ungrammatically and did not always understand what was said to her. The main thing was that she could talk. She could not quite control the tone of her voice. She always spoke too loud. Irrespective of the fact that others were speaking, or of what they were saying, she used to interrupt the conversation of the Germans, particularly at table, with some irrelevant remark, which gave Schnabel occasion to say that the Poles were badly brought up. Wanda did not take this seriously, and committed the same fault again next time she opened her mouth. It couldn't be helped. It was her nature. And there was the same trouble when she laughed, as she did too loudly and too long. The stiff, stern and Puritanical Germans were very obviously irritated by these outbursts of dynamic feminine vitality. Their whole standard of conduct required the repression of natural reactions. They wore a stiff and rather tight-fitting mask of conventional behaviour, and adhered to it strictly, as though they were ashamed of possessing such things as human feelings. When a mother and son were parting before he left for the front - as I later observed in several cases - they confined their farewell greeting to a quick and awkward hand-clasp, though this did not at all mean that they had no feelings. It was just that it was not "the thing" to fall in one another's arms, to weep, or to give way to tender emotion. Among the peasants children were merely one more normal product reared on the farm. Instead of hiring a worker, one made one for oneself in one's own circle. After fifteen years, more or less, and sometimes sooner, he was already good for work, and therefore valuable. The death of a son was a misfortune for the farm, like the loss of a horse or a cow. No less serious, but very little more.
        Wanda's emotional potential, on the other hand, manifested all the time without restraint or limitation, appeared, against this background, both exotic and embarrassing. Her frank reaction to every letter, nay, to every talk about her home, which ended in tears, produced in the Germans a kind of disgust. Equally, there was no measure or restraint in her outbursts of merriment, when anything occurred to give her cause for merriment. They looked at her then with greater sympathy, slightly amused, but not too much, and laughing gently at the childishness and simplicity of her demeanour. Wanda had neither time nor desire to accommodate her life to the subtlety of their critical approach. She noticed it only when the master or mistress let themselves go and turned to account the advantage which the situation gave them. Then a regular scene began. She gave them as much as she got, both in shouting and in calling names. But unfortunately the victory was always decided in advance. Then she would retire, feeling vexed and injured, and remained inconsolable for several days. She would make great plans with Stasiek, even for running away; but usually the spasm of indignation passed without serious result.



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