Berlin’s Arbeitserziehungslager. The penal camps for forced labourers in Berlin-Wuhlheide and Großbeeren.

Denkmal für den Opfer des Fascismus (Gedenkstätte Großbeeren, February 2013). No © needed. Photo by Joep de VisserExcept for forced labour camps and concentration camps and concentration camp, Nazi Germany also developed Arbeitserziehungslager (AEL’s, work and education camps). The main goal of these AEL’s was to exploit forced labourers who were caught for minor offences. AEL’s made it happen to treat the relative protected forced labourers nearly as bad as concentration camp inmates. To a lesser extent, political opponents and Prisoners of War (PoW’s) were brought to the AEL’s. An AEL’s inmate was shaven bald at his head, legs and chest. The duration of imprisonment in an AEL took between the two weeks and three months. When they were released, the inmates had to undersign a declaration in which forbade them to talk about the AEL. Then they were usually sent to their former forced labour camp. Some of the AEL’s inmates were worse off and sent to a concentration camp by the Geheime Staatspolizei (Gestapo, Secret State Police). In Nazi Germany, a total of 500.000 forced labours have seen an AEL from the bloody side of the fence.

The first Arbeitserziehungslager in Nazi Germany was located at Berlin-Wuhlheide in April 1940. May 28th 1941, Himmler declared that the concept of an AEL is effective. Since then, every regional Gestapo department in Nazi Germany had to develop one AEL. In 1942, another AEL for Berlin’s forced labours opened in Großbeeren. Although general information about these two AEL’s were hard to find, I found useful witnesses who told their personal experiences within the AEL. Unfortunately, this long update can’t be altered with many photos. Original propaganda photos of the Arbeitserziehungslager and their inmates are not to be found, let alone the scarce photos who reveal the truth. In the meanwhile, what can the witnesses tell us about their experiences in the AEL’s? In what way did the AEL’s differ from forced labour camps and concentration camps? And how are these AEL’s memorised after the Second World War?

In 1938, the Reichsbahndirektion Berlin (RB, Berlin’s Railways Company) initiated to build barracks for its workers. For this reason, they hired a surface of 29.000sq.m. around the Schlosspark Friedrichsfelde. In April 1940 it came to an agreement between Berlin’s Gestapo department and the RB. The Gestapo hired two barracks and provided the RB in cheap labour. According to the nazi’s, ‘Arbeitsscheue‘ (‘work-shy men’) were the target group. In reality they were foreign forced labours who were sentenced for small offences, or were basically unlucky. In August 1941, another two barracks were hired from the RB. It is known that 527 inmates were imprisoned in the four barracks of AEL Wuhlheide by July 1942. They were controlled by 46 guards. The number of inmates increased with another hundred in the next year. About 2000 men did not survive AEL Wuhlheide and its slavery.

In the case of the Dutchman De Wit, it was bad luck which brought him to Arbeitserziehungslager Wuhlheide. De Wit was aged 17 when he was forced to work in Berlin in March 1943. One year later, he was arrested by the Gestapo for an outdated biking accident in Amsterdam. In 1941, De Wit once bumped into a walking women with his bike and she fell in a bad way. De Wit was hold responsible for the costs of the ambulance service – something he never paid for. In the underground Gestapo cells around Alexanderplatz, De Wit was held and questioned for fourteen days. For his work to reconstruct damaged railway tracks, De Wit had to march for two hours to the south of the AEL Wuhlheide. At the end of his twelve hour shift, he had to march back again. Once, a guard felt like beating someone up, and blamed De Wit for spreading bedbugs – which was even more humiliating than painful. Especially when the SS guards came in the barracks after they drank alcohol, De Wit or his fellow inmates were beaten up. After ten or twelve weeks of imprisonment, De Wit was released in the poorest state. De Wit’s brother, who happened to be in Berlin, did not even recognise him.

The Frenchman Cramard tried to escape as a forced labour various times. He was always caught and sentenced twice to Arbeitserziehungslager Wuhlheide (23 and 40 days) and once to AEL Großbeeren (92 days). About his time in AEL Wuhlheide, Cramard remembered that his hands sticked to the railway tracks sleepers because it was between the -10°C and -15°C. When he saw a Soviet prisoner, Cramard could see by his clothes whether he was brought to Berlin during the summer or the winter. Once, a Soviet inmate did not attend the roll call – probably because he was dead or escaped the AEL. Because of this, another Soviet prisoner was executed as reprisal without any form of trial. It remains unclear how many people were imprisoned at the AEL Wuhlheide during its existence.

In September 1942, the other Arbeitserziehungslager for Berlin’s forced labourers opened in Großbeeren, somewhat south of the city. About 45.000 inmates have been imprisoned in the AEL, of which more than 1200 inmates did not survive. The general forced labour was the same as in the AEL Wuhlheide, so the inmates had to repair broken railway tracks. One inmate of the AEL Großbeeren was named Rinus van Galen. He remembered that he had to wake up daily at 4:30am. The roll call took one hour, and at 6am – the unit had to walk for three quarters before reaching the working location. When someone left the group for more than 25 meters, he was shot. Van Galen remembered that the guards at the camps were Belorussian and Baltic nazi’s. At 7pm there was another roll call which took generally two hours, though sometimes it took six hours. Sunday’s were off from work, but the inmates were forced to do sports. Executions generally did not take place in the AEL itself, but the executed was brought to another location – and nothing was heared about the man anymore.

Once, a Dutchman was caught during his attempt to escape. He was sent to the Arbeitserziehungslager Großbeeren for six weeks. Although he was infamous in the camp for his loud and inresponsible behaviour – his fellow inmates felt sorry for him when he came back. The Dutchman lost so much weight and behaved apathic. When a fellow inmate was allowed to take a vacation in the Netherlands, he smuggled the victim as his luggage in a kit bag. In the case of William Legrand, he was sent to AEL Großbeeren in March 1945 for being too late at the location for his forced labour. That he could not be on time because the railway tracks was broken after an air raid was somehow not believed. Nevertheless, repairing railway tracks was exactly what he had to do afterwards. He was accused for sabotage, brought to a Gestapo cell at Alexanderplatz and to AEL Wuhlheide the day after. As all inmates, he was shaved bold at his head, breast and legs. At April 13th, the Nazi’s gave him vouchers for one day and released him from the camp. At the same time as mister Legrand, mister Cramard was imprisoned in the AEL Großbeeren. About his time in the latter AEL, Cramard emphasises a cruel torture of a fellow inmate. This man had to balance on a frozen, wooden fence. When this men fell, he could fall at the side of a barking SS dog or in the ice cold water at the other side. His fellow inmate was both bitten and frozen and screamed so loud that Cramard couldn’t watch it happening any longer. Furthermore, Cramard told that hunger became the topic for all the conversations in the later months of the War. Also, diseases as typhus, dysentery and furuncles spreaded the easiest.

In some ways, the Arbeitserziehungslager were closer to concentration camps than forced labour camps. As anywhere, we can estimate that Soviet inmates were worse off than inmates of countries in Western Europe. As in all forced labour camps, the barracks in both the AEL’s Wuhlheide and Großbeeren were full with bedbugs and flees. Forced labourers and AEL’s inmates both worked twelve hour shifts. In forced labour camps, roll calls were held daily. In the AEL, they were held twice a day – and I’ve got the impression that these were used more as a humiliation in the AEL. As well as beatings – they occured in forced labour camps, but had a systematical character in AEL’s. Other important circumstances made the AEL’s even more of a penal camp. When it comes to food, AEL’s prisoners had the same circumstances as concentration camp inmates. They were barely given food. A thin soup, a small piece of bread and some fake coffee was all the men were given for a day of physical hard work. Illustrating it the example in which someone couldn’t recognise his brother, or when inmates were shocked to see the apathy of his fellow inmate after six weeks in an AEL. The biggest difference between an AEL and the concentration camps, is that AEL’s inmates were still directed by the Gestapo. The nazified secret police hold forced labourers for the judicial maximum of fourteen days in their prisons – and an additional three months in the AEL’s. In contrast, the concentration camps were ruled by the SS – and an inmate was usually sent from the one to the other concentration camp.

When it comes to memorials, the fact that both Arbeitserziehungslager for Berlin’s forced labourers became GDR’s territory has been important. The GDR memorised these camps in a propagandistic way, in which the victims were mostly seen as anti-fascist victims. It is unlikely that all the AEL inmates consciously risked and sacrificed their lifes for an anti-fascist ideology, rather than trying to escape the tough life of a forced labour or having bad luck. Although foreign forced labour was barely a topic in Western Germany either, the GDR did not remember forced labours and AEL’s actively for other reasons. For instance, many Soviet forced labourers were sent to Gulags in Siberia after WWII. If they survived these, they were not allowed to visit the GDR. The GDR had a particular fear for the Soviet Union, remembering ‘their’ forced labours. What could even be more important is that the GDR still had a law which could force ‘antisocials’ to do forced labour. The best known example are GDR’s inmates who made furniture for Ikea from the 1960s till the 1980s.

Denkmal Opfer des Faschismus (Großbeeren, February 2013). No © needed. Photo by Joep de Visser

Seen GDR’s little interest in remembering Arbeitserziehungslager, it’s easy to believe that the location of the AEL Wuhlheide is unrecognisable. Already in the 1950s, GDR developed a zoo at the former location of the AEL. This zoo was named the Tierpark (animal park) and had to be an alternative for West Berlin’s Zoologischer Garten. In the Tierpark’s southside, a granite memorial stone is developed in September 1981. At this memorial stone, three bronze plates are placed which remember the victims of the AEL. Another memorial was revealed at April 19th 2000, which was the 55th day of liberation for the AEL Wuhlheide. This design of two memorial pillars by Hans-Joachim Kunsch is also located in the southern part of the Tierpark. Unfortunately, the memorials are not public visitable and one have to pay entrance for the Tierpark (no exception is made for taking photos to be used at blogs). It remains unclear whether this monument is financed by public money or by the Zoo, though it is probably the latter. In the case of AEL Großbeeren, it unfortunately remains unclear to me where the camp was exactly located. Probably it wasn’t far from the location where the monument is erected in 1948. The reason for the monument to be located here are the 1197 buried victims of AEL Großbeeren. They were buried in this former gravel pit since 1942, after the nazi’s buried 200 bodies at the graveyard across the road. No monument is developed for the buried victims at this graveyard. Since 2002, bronze panels with all the names of the victims are placed around the memorial.

The bronze panels with the names which are placed at the memorial in 2002. Großbeeren, February 2013. No © needed. Photo by Joep de Visser

Taking everything into account, the experiences and information told by the former inmates clarified most of my questions. Arbeitserziehungslager Wuhlheide and AEL Großbeeren were used for relatively protected foreign forced labours – but the circumstances were close to the situation in concentration camps. Given the fact that the RB made an agreement with the Gestapo in which work force was provided by the latter, the Gestapo had to make sure that enough forced labourers would break the rules. The only saviour for the AEL’s inmate was the time, which would release them within three months. In the two of Berlin’s Arbeitserziehungslager – this release came too late for about 3200 men. The number of victims which were sent from the AEL straight to an execution site remains unclear to me.

The memorials for the Arbeitserziehungslager were under strong influence of communist propaganda of the SOZ and the GDR. The victims were at first seen as anti-fascists from foreign countries, not as foreign forced labours. It was not in the East German interest to specifically remember (foreign) forced labourers from West European countries or East European dictatorships which still made use of forced labour – as did the GDR itself. The GDR was lucky that it wasn’t in Soviet Union’s interest either. It resulted in GDR’s biggest zoo, the Tierpark, which was build at the former location of AEL Wuhlheide. Ironically, no men are imprisoned and forced to sleep in barracks anymore – but gulls, goliath herons, pig-tailed macaques and reindeers have their cages now situated here. After the Fall and the unification of Germany, not much has been done to change the propagandist memorials.

And after comparing the circumstances in both AEL’s and concentration camps, a question arises which I couldn’t answer so far. In the case of concentration camps, the SS guards behaved so cruel because they unfortunately hated the inmates who often belonged to a ethnical, sexual, political or religious minority. As is the case of inmates from an AEL, there was no ideological Nazi reason in which these men deserved to be punished. Even by nazi’s, they could have been treated as a foreign civilian who commited a small offence. It is clear that the SS guards of AEL’s lacked humanity – but did they have these instructions? Or were they told exeggerated details about the offences of the inmates? Finally: what did the SS guards exactly believe in to humiliate and beat these inmates so cruel in the AEL’s? I think this uncommon but important question is a good finishing line for the topic of which, after all, too little is known.

Notification: another Arbeitserziehungslager was developed in Fehrbellin – where Berlin’s female forced labours were imprisoned seperatly. Unfortunately I haven’t found a way to get there yet since it’s about 50 kilometer outside the city. There is a reasonable chance I will update soon about this AEL, of which information can be found relatively easily.

14 thoughts on “Berlin’s Arbeitserziehungslager. The penal camps for forced labourers in Berlin-Wuhlheide and Großbeeren.

  1. Thank you for documenting such little-known atrocities on innocent civilians.
    You say that “The biggest difference between an AEL and the concentration camps, is that AEL’s inmates were still directed by the Gestapo…. In contrast, the concentration camps were ruled by the SS”..
    In your conclusion, however, you say that “the SS guards of AEL’s lacked humanity” and ask “what did the SS guards exactly believe in to humiliate and beat these inmates so cruel in the AEL’s?”.. Did the SS guard the Gestapo’s camps as well as their own?

    • Hello Peter! Thank you for the comment. You are right, now I notice – it is a little bit confusing. It has been a while, but I’m still reading materials about this topic & if I get to re-read these texts, I’ll let you know again. Till that time, I would say that the SS (indeed) guarded the camp. The Gestapo was in name responsible for the conviction of these forced labourers and circumstances in the camp in AEL’s.

      Thanks once again!

  2. Thanks for your comments,,Joep. About the grimmest places I have ever visited,(many years ago), was Mauthausen concentration camp, just a short bus ride away from Linz a/d Donau, Upper Austria, and not very far from Hitler’s birthplace, It was on a grey day with few other visitors around to share its horrors..

  3. Dear gentlemen,

    Thank You very much for this interesting blog. I just returned from my visit to Grossbeeren. My reason to visit this place: my uncle died in Grossbeeren and was one of the many victims of the AEL: Van der Horst Johannes 12-6-1906 * 6-12-1943 is written on one of the bronze panels. He was Dutch and my fathers favorite brother, i heard about 2 years ago from a niece. My father was sent for forced labour to Stuttgart (Bosch) and Hildesheim (Trillke Werken). My father survived and never saw his brother again. My father never talked about his experiences in Germany during WWII and never mentioned his brother as long as he lived; my father died in 1984. I found out about my uncle only 2 years ago, his sons and daugthers (nieces an cousins, i think) lived, like we did as a family, in Utrecht. And, until 2 years ago, we never knew from eachother that we excisted.
    I put flowers on my uncle’s name on 6 december 2014, 71 years after he died of pneumonia, according to the Dutch Red Cross. I have lost and found relatives at the same time.

    Again, many thanks.
    Robert Jan van der Horst

    • Dear Robert Jan,

      thank you very much for sharing this personal experience. It gives a good insight of the cruelty in the AEL – and I am sorry to hear what happened to your uncle…

      All the best,

    • Dear Robert Jan,

      thank you very much for sharing this personal experience. It gives a good insight of the cruelty in the Arbeitserziehungslager – and I am sorry to hear what happened to your uncle…

      All the best,

  4. Thanks for this article, it helped me understand the conditions in the AEL camps (I didn’t know that the prisoners had to be bald/shaved) – there is very little written in English about these prison camps (AEL) online. There’s a Wikipedia page about them, but it’s in German so I can’t understand it unfortunately. My Dutch granddad was made to do forced labour in Stuttgart, Germany in January 1943 when he was 17 years old. When he tried to escape he was caught & then sent to various AEL prisons between 1943-1944 (in Krefeld/Antrath, Karlsruhe, and Stuttgart). He spent months in those camps – Krefeld in particular – doing hard labour, and was kicked and beaten (he lost a tooth), and starved (going down to 40kg) and dehydrated (at one time he was given no water for 24 hours, causing kidney damage). He was also transferred to Belsen concentration camp by accident at one stage (when they were supposed to transfer him to a different prison camp) – he stayed at Belsen for only two weeks (until he persuaded a ‘Dutch traitor’ who was working for the German guards that he wasn’t supposed to be there). In 1944 he was released from the prison camps and made to work in the forced labour factories again (Smidt & Schaut, and then Kodak Factory) until the war ended. My Granddad had ongoing physical and mental issues caused by his time at the AEL prisons, and often had nightmares/trouble sleeping. He preferred to sleep with the curtains and windows open, because he had been so confined/trapped in the AEL prisons.

    • Dear Amelia,

      information on AEL’s is hard to find indeed. Most of the information I found came from former inmates. Also therefore, thank you very much for contributing to this knowledge – sharing the story of your grandfather.

      All the best!

  5. Hello, Joep!
    I found your website through Google Images because I was looking for a Bed of honor in Grossbeeren. My great grandfather died in a work camp in that city and also I found him in a list who was buried here(the place on your photos).In 1941 he was on his military service in Minsk(Belarus) when this war began. In July he fell into captivity and sent to a camp Stalag 308 in Germany(now it`s a part of Poland).
    This info I accidentally found in a museum in Moscow( I`m from Moscow) just a few hours ago and now I`m typing this message. Can`t believe it. My relatives hoped till this day that he survived or escaped. Now at least we know where his body is. Maybe you have more pictures of that place or can give me the exact location. Last fall I was in Berlin and maybe next time I can visit this grave. Thank you in advance for any information.
    You can write me an email

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  7. Ik heb in uw blog de naam van mijn vriend ontdekt, met wie ik ongeveer 25 jaar heb samengeleefd, namelijk Rinus van Galen. Hij heeft in KZ Sachsenhausen gevangen gezeten, in Gross Rosen in Polen en in AEL Gross Beeren. Hij is geboren in 1922 en gestorven in 2005. Aanvankelijk was hij als 18-jarige vanuit een vijlenfabriek in Rotterdam als dwangarbeider naar Berlijn gestuurd naar een fabriek waar tanks gemaakt werden (de Altmärkische Kettenwerke GMBHsen). Hij vluchtte en werd aan de Duits Nederlandse grens gepakt en naar Sachsenhausen gestuurd. Wij hebben al die plaatsen samen bezocht. Een keer met een filmploeg, ik heb er nog een videoband van. Is ook uitgezonden op t.v.

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