Postscriptum exhibition

Ostarbeiter in the Third Reich

Photo by Natasha Josef

A year after the beginning of digitization of the most valuable part of the collection of the history of forced labor International Memorial staff, volunteers and interns organized an exhibition based on the described and scanned materials. The exhibition was called «Postscriptum» and was opened in one of the Moscow schools. 

In 1941 the world war reached the USSR. Only a few months after the German assault huge territories of Ukraine, Belarus, western, north-western and southern parts of Russia were occupied by German and allied troops. With the beginning of occupation a new life started for the residents of these areas. Many of them were forced to leave their houses to work at plants and farms in Germany, Poland and Austria. Workers from the Soviet Union were given a bureaucratic name of «ostarbeiters» in the Third Reich (German «East workers»). Their emblem – the OST identification patch on the breast – became a symbol of humiliation and free labor for the benefit of a hostile state and army.

However, behind the symbols and bureaucratic cliches we find the fates of real people, who grew up, made friends, loved and died in a war-struck Europe. They did not know the language of the country they found themselves in, did not know how the war would end or what would happen to them in a year or two. And upon return to the USSR did not know what to do with their experience. They could only share it with each other, as a person who spent the war at the other side of the front, the non-Soviet side, was considered a traitor.

It lasted for almost 50 years. And then an astonishing thing happened. In response to a newspaper article running that Memorial Society would be dealing with the payment of compensations for free labor in Germany the organization received more than 320 thousand letters in two months. People sent detailed stories of their lives in Germany, personal documents and photos. Thanks to the mistake of the journalist (as of that moment Memorial had nothing to do with compensation payments) a whole generation of victims of forced labor spoke out. Now you can also hear their voices.

Soviet victims of the German forced labor system were able to receive compensations only after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Two waves of compensation payments from the German government and private companies in the 1990s and beginning of 2000s embraced practically all those who could prove their stay in Germany. The letters received by Memorial also played a significant role in that process.

By various estimates from 3,2 to 5 million Ostarbeiter worked in Germany during the war. These people survived the horrors of German occupation and forced deportation, saw a thriving Germany with the eyes of slaves with no rights, witnessed the destruction of cities by Soviet and allied air force, returned to their home country devastated by war as traitors and outcasts. Their story is a story of the horror of war and mass discrimination. And we have yet to reflect upon and understand this story.

The exhibition represents a labyrinth. Its several road forks correspond to global forks in the fate of an ostarbeiter (for instance, finding oneself at production site or in agriculture). According to the «rules» the choice of this or that way excludes a chance to return. Thus we wanted to show that the attitude towards those events to a large extent depends on peripeteia of personal biographies. Studying the photographs, documents and fragments of memoirs sent to Memorial, the visitors answer the questions asked on the display stands and record on special cards a biography of an imaginary ostarbeiter made up from the shatters of hundreds of biographies presented in our archive. 

Interviews with authors and the animated film «Ostarbeiter» (directed by Poina Kampioni) produced in the course of an archive internship for school students in International Memorial make an inherent part of the exhibition. 

The exhibition is mobile, and the authors will be happy to organize it in regional museums and schools. To organize the exhibition in your city, write to curator Evelina Rudenko – [email protected]

Curators – Nikita Lomakin, Evelina Rudenko.

Authors of the exhibition – Maria Dubovskaya, Sofia Eremina, Elisaveta Novokreschenova, Natalia Rakitina, Lena Reger, Anastasia Sokova, Elisaveta Starikova, Margarita Khakhanova.

Designer – Stas Zhitsky.

Editor – Natalia Altukhova.

The archive was digitized and exhibition organized with the participation of Ilya Alexeev, Natalia Baryshnikova, Nikita Bityutsky, Daria Bogdan, Dmitry Vasiliev, Anna Vasyukova, Ekaterina Gurtovaya, Anna Dzyadko, Kira Zhukovskaya, Mariana Kozlova, Fyodor Morgunov, Sofia Morgunova, Elena Novoselova, Vassily Starostin.

Acknowlegements to Elena Zhemkova (International Memorial), Alyona Kozlova (International Memorial), Irina Ostrovskaya (International Memorial), Irina Scherbakova (International Memorial), Evgeny Kulbatsky (Rastr-Technology), Zhanna Nasupkina (the Book Institute).

The exhibition is implemented with the financial support of the EVZ Foundation and the Enlightener Prize.

© International Memorial, 2018




Фонд «Память, ответственность и будущее» Премия «Просветитель» Центр Гиляровского