The unchristian history of Berlin’s churches. The barracks in Neukölln and the forced labourers at the graveyards.

Memorial to the location of the barracks. Berlin-Neukölln, April 2013. No © needed. Photo by Joep de Visser.

Lees de Nederlandse vertaling op de site van Jonge Historici Schrijven Geschiedenis.

Neukölln is full of surprises. I’m slowly getting over the shocking fact that an external concentration camp was located at the Sonnenallee. Then, it turns out that Berlin churches builded a barracks for over a hundred ‘Ostarbeiter‘ (‘Eastern workers’) in Neukölln’s Schillerkiez. Recently, the seasonal exhibition is opened again at the St. Thomas Friedhof, informing the visitor about the churches’ unchristian history. A glass structure hosts a bunch information panels, accompanied by two friendly pensioners who are waiting for the few guests who heared about this history and come over. Why did the churches recruit forced labourers? How did these labourers work and live in the city? And how is this remarkable history remembered?

It is May 1942 as the financial director of the Jerusalems- und Neuen Kirchengemeinde Berlin, Walter Kinkel writes a letter to Neukölln’s Baupolizei (construction authorities). In this letter, a union in name of 27 churches asked for money to build barracks for forced labourers. Most of these churches in this union were evangelical – a few others were catholic. Together with the Berliner Stadtsynodalverband (Berlin’s city church organisation) they gathered 133.000 Reichsmark and build a barrack for the forced labourers in August 1942.

Map of the barracks for the Eastern labourers who worked for the churches (1942)

The forced labourers replaced the German burrowers who were one by one sent to the battlefront. Replacing the German workforce by forced labours was not a reason which benefited the churches themselves. The churches benefit came with paying the wages – since the forced labours were way cheaper. Initially, Croatian and Bulgarian labourers were used. Because they were given ‘Trennungsgeld‘ (‘seperation money’), they were not that much cheaper than German labourers. Only Soviet forced labourers turned out to be cheaper. By October 1942, only Ostarbeiter from Ukraine or Soviet-Russia were operative on these graveyards. Before they worked on on the graveyards, the Ostarbeiter were deported to the Durchgangslager Wilhelmshagen in Southeast Berlin. Here, the young men were controlled on diseases and organised by their working skills. As Michail Fedotowitsch Iwaschtschenko remembers, it was an unpleasant experience given the lack of hygiene and nutrition. Since there was only one pipe for fresh water, groups of labourers made argues and fights with each other. In the meanwhile, one had to stand at a roll call square from 6am till 7pm. The most men had to wait two or three days till an employee hired them as a forced labour. Michail, only a boy aged 15, wasn’t skilled at all. Therefore, he was forced to do unskilled work – such as digging graves.

Michail and another hundred of the youngest men were brought to a camp in Neukölln. By a fence, the barracks were seperated with one graveyard between the Neuer St. Jacobi Friedhof and the Tempelhof airfied. Although the camp was amidst a neighbourhood, it was relatively good hidden for the surrounders. The church did not want to let people know that the forced labourers belonged to them. The camp was not strictly guarded, which was rare for a labour camp with so called Ostarbeiter. Nevertheless, there was a Lagerführer (camp’s commander) named Gustav Weniger. He complained that he lived next to a barrack with 100 ‘dirty and bugged foreigners and criminals’. The men who were forced to live in there, were even worse off. And although molestation was officially forbidden since February 1943, some of the forced labourers were beaten up by Weniger. The latter also worked closely with the Gestapo (secret state police).

The main job which forced labourers had to do was digging out graves and moving gravestones. It was a physical heavy job in which many accidents occured. Usually, a working day lasted 8 up till 10 hours, though sometimes even 12 hours. The work was hard – especially when the ground was frozen during the winter time. Sunday’s were off, but then – the burrowers weren’t allowed to travel for free. Most of the Soviet forced labours were paid a salary which was about 40% till 50% less than German labourers. With this loan, they also had to pay rent for their obliged stay and a daily 1.30Reichmark for food. Their meal consisted of soup, a quarter loaf of bread, 10 grams of sugar and a minimum of butter. Except it wasn’t enough, everyone suffered from health problems such as anemia or diarrhea.

The most people who had to be burried were victims of the Allied air raids. By the middle of 1943, these air raids became a daily threat for the city and its inhabitants. Since the camp was located close by the Tempelhof Airfield, the barracks were bombed up to three times. For shelter, the forced labourers had to stay in the Splittergraben which barely protected them. In January 1944, this shelter was even destroyed during a bombing. Ever since, the men went to the U-Bahn at night. Wassilij Kudrenko, former inmate of this camp, explained that they looked for shelter between the coffins and at night – in the U-Bahnhof. During one bombing on April 29th 1944, the barracks were hit and burned down within a couple of minutes. During air raids, they were not allowed to make use of the official bunker at S-Bahnhof Hermannstraße. In other bombings, the burried were hit. Graves broke, bodies, limbs and intestines went all over the place. The forced labourers had to recover them again. Many of them couldn’t go through this without becoming psychologically disordered.

Letter to the Arbeitsamt (working authorities) explaining that these men are ill and already replaced by other men. Unfortunately, this may have meant the death of these five men.

Since 1944, the Ostarbeiter had a health insurance. In reality, men were treated to be sended to the Gestapo when they said they were ill. Especially when the men were old and suffered from injuries, they were put in a camp in which the hygienical conditions were bad and the medical care was underdeveloped. In those cases, basically they were sent to death – although the churches covered it with the excuse that the ‘few places’ at the barracks should be used for ‘other’ labourers. One forced labour who became ill at 12 February 1944 was given three days off to recover from his illness. When he couldn’t work on February 15th, he was beaten up – threatened with a pistol and sent to Arbeitserziehungslager Großbeeren. After six weeks here, he was sent to concentration camp Sachsenhausen on April the first. The 6th of June 1944 man was sent back to the graveyard where he used to work.

In despite of everything, there were also minor reliefs for the forced labourers. Sometimes, they managed to benefit from Berlin’s population who tried to visit the grave of the one they’ve lost. Because the graveyard wasn’t open daily, the men were asked to maintain those graves – for which they were given clothes, a bit of food or money in return. Of course, this was highly forbidden. Besides, the men who worked for the church were allowed to make use of public transport without being under surveillance – which was unusual for Eastern workers. In their memories, the former gravediggers told that they tried and stole potatoes. Of course, this was not without risk. In his attempt to steal some provision, Machtej Schepel was caught by the police and sent to the Arbeitserziehungslager for eight weeks. When one of the forced labourers found a provision card which could provice 500 grams of butter, he became suspicious. The seller warned the police, who busted him. No one exactly knows what happened to this man.

By the end of April 1945, the forced labourers were liberated by the Red Army. Mostly, they were given a weapon and forced to fight the last couple of days in Berlin. With the start of the Cold War, the usage of forced labours were slowly forgotten during the decades. When the forced labourers were told that the church was their employee after fifty-five years, they were stunned. The men were told they worked for the ‘städtischen Beerdigungsbüro‘ (municipal office for burials). 

The permanent exhibition at the St. Thomas-Kirchhof (Berlin-Neukölln, April 2013).

In 2000, bishop Huber revealed the violent past of the churches and their graveyards. It was the begin of a serious research which was publicised in 2003. In the meanwhile, four former forced labours who were still alive were visited. The churches asked them for forgiveness and gave compensation money for the past. At 1 September 2002, it came to the opening of a memorial at the St. Thomas-Kirchhof. A memorial stone and a memorial pillar with eight information tables remember the grief and the poor circumstances in which the forced labourers worked here. At Volkstrauertag ‘national day of grieve’ at November 14th, 2004, former forced labourer Nikolai Galushkovs visited the historical site. Other forced labourers were interested to visit the site, but mostly too ill to make it till Berlin. In 2005, the book ‘Bist Du Bandit? Das Lagertagebuch des Wasyl Kudrenko‘ (‘Are you a bandit? The daily journal of Wasyl Kudrenko‘) was published. The newest development is the permanent exhibition, which is open during the summer months since 2012.

Memorial stone with the names of all churches which took part in the usage of forced labourers. Berlin-Neukölln, April 2013.

As always, Neukölln is surprising. This time, it taught me that even the church was seduced to use national-socialistic inhumane policy. On the one hand, the Eastern forced labourers who worked here were better off than at other locations. Their allowance to travel without surveillance and to stay away from the camp till 11pm gave these men a certain freedom. On the other hand, some workers were directly sended till death when they were ill and considered to be too old. One thing has to be clarified. As soon as the history of Berlin’s churches became known, the churches acted in a respectful way. Former forced labourers haven’t only been compensated in material ways, also a mental forgiveness is asked. As far as I’ve read, the forced labourers did forgive the church. Unfortunately, it has been too late for many others. In the meanwhile, a memorial stone is erected. Besides, an exhibition is organised. Unfortunately it is only opened between April and September – at Wednesdays and Saturdays from 3-6pm. The former location of the barracks can be found on walking distance from here – although the parcel is not public. At the moment, there is a scrapheap at the location of the barracks.

Recommanded book: Erich Schuppan, Sklave in euren Händen. Zwangsarbeit in Kirche und Diakonie Berlin-Brandenburg (Berlin 2003).

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