The first experience as a forced labour. The Durchgangslager Rehbrücke and its slave trade.

The 'Heizhaus' from Durchgangslager Rehbrücke (Potsdam-Rehbrücke, March 2013). No © needed. Photo by Joep de Visser.

Deze update verschijnt in het Nederlands op de site van Jonge Historici Schrijven Geschiedenis.

Before a foreign forced labour arrived in Berlin, he was sent to a Durchgangslager (passage camp). Here, the men were checked for diseases and fleas, registered with a photo and given a professional qualification (for example ‘carpenter’ or ‘farmer’). In the Durchgangslager, the men were picked up by delegates of factories who looked for them. The most forced labours from the Netherlands, Belgium and France were sent to the Durchgangslager Rehbrücke in Potsdam. Other Durchgangslager in Berlin were situated at Priesterweg and Wilhelmshagen. In a way, it was the first experience with the whimsical life as a forced labour. But how much can we reconstruct of what happened here? How were the conditions in these Durchgangslager? Were there already penal commando’s in these camps or was it a relatively easy time?

Map of the Durchgangslager Rehbrücke (May1942)

The order to build 46 Durchgangslager in Nazi Germany came at December the 9th 1941. Although detailed plans to build the camp existed in May 1942 already, the eight barracks and the facilities of the Durchgangslager Rehbrücke were not finished before March 1943. The Durchgangslager Rehbrücke was meant to host 1200 men, though it occured often that 2000 men were kept here at the same time. Two peculiar facilities at the Durchgangslager were the Wirtschafthaus (economy house) and the Entwesungsbarracke (desinsection barrack). The railway tracks went directly to the latter, so the inmates were desinsected before they would see the rest of the camp. The slave trade took place at the Wirtschafthaus, which was the tallest building in the camp. Here, delegates of various companies from Potsdam and Berlin – among them AEG, Argus, Siemens, Borsig or Heinkel – gathered and paid to take the forced labourers with them. Some men were picked up by an employee within a couple of hours after their arrival. Others had to wait up till two weeks. Surprisingly, the Durchgangslager was guarded by a private security company.

Durchgangslager Rehbrücke. Photo between 1943 and 1945.

One Dutch men who came in the Durchgangslager Rehbrücke in May 1943 told: “It was extremely dirty in Rehbrücke. Although there were no mattrasses anymore, there were still bedbugs. You were given only one meal a day – Kartoffelsalat (potatoe salad). When you returned your plate, you were given two slices of bread. The Frenchmen did not understand this because it was said in German, so we returned their plates!”

For the Dutchman Frans Raspé, this salad and two slices of bread were not enough. After refusing to do construction work for the Atlantikwall in the Netherlands, Raspé was sent to Durchgangslager Rehbrücke in 1943. Although another two years of forced labour passed by before he definetly survived the War, Durchgangslager Rehbrücke impressed him the most. Raspé said he was so hungry in the Durchgangslager. Besides, the barracks were overcrowded. There were a lack of beds, which were too small to sleep in with two at the same time. There were no mattresses, sheets or pillows either. In contrast to most men in the Durchgangslager Rehbrücke, Raspé was sent to a dynamite factory in Silesia.

Except from these personal experiences, there is not much basic information known about the Durchgangslager Rehbrücke. It is said that in November 1943, the Rehbrücke camp was shortly closed for forced labourers. Particular public authorities from Berlin who lost their office during an Allied air raid were situated in this camp. In the meanwhile, Durchgangslager Wilhelmshagen was used for the trade in forced labourers. Nevertheless, I haven’t found much proof for this extraordinary detail. It is likely that the Durchgangslager Rehbrücke existed till the very end of the War, although forced labourers from France and Belgium were hardly to be found after the liberation of these countries in the (late) summer of 1944.

Memorial board to the Durchgangslager Rehbrücke (Potsdam-Rehbrücke, March 2013). No © needed. Photo by Joep de Visser

In September 2005, a memorial was revealed to memorise the men who suffered in the Durchgangslager. Frans Raspé, who was in contact with the local authorities since 1999, had the honour to reveal the memorial. The memorial used to be located at the Arthur-Scheunert-Allee but it has been moved to the the station Potsdam-Rehbrücke after it has been vandalised. The former location of the Durchgangslager turned into an industrial yard. Some of the railway tracks and the barracks are visitable, though it is confusing to recognise which barrack is exactly original. Although the Heizhaus (warmth facility) and the desinfection barrack are not broken down, the latter is not publicly visitable either. Unfortunately, the Wirtschafthaus is broken down completely.

Taking everything into account, the Durchgangslager Rehbrücke must have been a sinister experience. Although beatings did not occur yet, one was humiliated at his arrival by the control for fleas and diseases. The food and the overpopulated barrack conditions were not promising at all. For the German industrials, the Durchgangslager was an effective way to hire new labourers. The foreign forced labours to be must have experienced the Durchgangslager as a slave market. Nevertheless, the worst for them was yet to come.

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