Forgotten Victims Forced To Build Hitler's Highways

Regional hobby historians are documenting nearly forgotten Nazi-era forced labor camps that helped build a Polish road motorists still use today.
During the occupation of Poland by the Nazis, the German army forced many, including the Jewish locals seen here, to help build roads and highways.

“People have no idea what happened in these forests,” says Slawomir Milejski.

Standing at the edge of the woods near the Polish village of Lagow, the hobby historian gestures towards what Nazi Germany once intended to be the “Reichsautobahn ,” or RAB - in English, literally, the German empire's motorway. In the early 1940s, ghetto prisoners cleared the forest and leveled the roadway with heavy rollers to accommodate the route between the eastern German city of Frankfurt an der Oder and Poznań, Poland.

“All that was lacking was the concrete surface,” says Mr. Milejski, who has meticulously documented evidence of the forced labor.

The work stopped in the summer of 1942 because the German military’s blitzkrieg strategy had failed and building the autobahn was no longer considered essential to the war effort. But later in the 1950s, the section between Frankfurt and Rzepin was completed along the route originally prepared by the forced laborers, including the use of the bridge foundations they had cast. Plans to extend the motorway to Poznań were drawn up decades later, in the 1990s. Dubbed the “Autobahn of Freedom,” this stretch was completed in 2012, running almost entirely along the route prepared during the Nazi era. A section near Lagow is one of the few sections that were shifted a few kilometers because of environmental considerations.

Over the decades, vegetation has concealed the topographical and material traces of the forced laborers’ efforts, but even now Mr. Milejski still discovers barracks foundations, fragments of crockery, scraps of laborers’ clothing, or barbed wire from the camp fences that old pine trees have long since encircled.

For the public, the wretched pre-history of the roadway has been almost completely forgotten. Neither German nor Polish history books have devoted much attention to what were at least 37 labor camps used in the construction of the “Reichsautobahn.” The lion’s share of what is known today is due to the efforts of a few local and regional historians.

Mr. Milejski sees himself as a lone warrior in that arena. Though he has both Polish and German allies who support his plan to memorialize the laborers and their efforts, so far, the only official RAB memorial site in Poland is in Lubon, a city not far from Poznań. It’s home to a small museum in the former National Socialist police prison and labor education camp Posen, located directly on the old and new route of the autobahn, not far from one of the autobahn camps.

On the German side, there is a research project on forced labor for the RAB led by the historian Matthias Diefenbach. He is a co-founder at the Institute for Applied History in Frankfurt (Oder), an initiative of former students from the European University there. The project will soon publish its findings in an illustrated brochure. The initiative is also working on an audio guide to inform interested residents and travelers about the dramatic history of this section of autobahn near the Polish-German border.

Even before the invasion of Poland began on September 1, 1939, Hitler’s strategists intended to expand the RAB, already in operation since 1933, into occupied Poland. The general inspector of transportation, Fritz Todt, was put in charge of planning.

The requisitioning of forced laborers in the Lodz ghetto began in the autumn of 1940. In December, the first 638 Jewish inmates were brought to a camp along the planned route. In all, some 10,000 people would ultimately pass through the RAB camps, including non-Jewish prisoners of war as well as forced labor from other occupied countries. In these clusters of single-story wooden barracks hastily set up on confiscated fields or wooded areas, thousands died of hunger, cold and epidemics, in addition to work accidents, mistreatment and arbitrarily imposed death sentences.

Lagow, an idyllic village between two lakes in what used to be East Brandenburg in Germany, was already a popular recreational site back then. Though there is no record of what village inhabitants and tourists knew about the nearby camp and the autobahn construction site, Mr. Milejski has a source: His mother’s account of what his grandfather Edmund Napierala saw.

Born to a Polish family in Herne in Westphalia, he had returned to Poland and in 1939 fought against the Germans. Captured and sent to a camp near Fürstenberg an der Oder, he was assigned to a German farmer in Lagow as an “Eastern laborer.” The farmer provided the guards at the RAB camp with fresh milk, and Mr. Napierala drove the horse-drawn wagon into the camp past columns of emaciated laborers on their way to the road. After the war, he remained in the district, raised a family and didn’t remain silent about what he had seen. “My grandfather wanted future generations to remember this era and its victims,” Mr. Milejski says.

The Frankfurt historian Matthias Diefenbach considers today’s designation “Autobahn of Freedom” to be a “clear sign of historical ignorance.”  The history of the RAB camps has been forgotten due to the historical circumstances in the different areas in which they were located, he says.

The Poles who lived near the camps could have offered testimony about events in their occupied country. But in post-war Poland, the memory of the Jewish forced laborers was suppressed. And in the former Neumark region of Germany that today belongs to Poland’s Lubuskie Province, there was an almost complete exchange of populations after the war. The Germans fled, and the Poles who came there had little to do with the remains of the camps. A contemporary witness such as Mr. Milejski’s grandfather is a rare exception.

Another effected area near the village of Güldendorf, where there were three camps, remained German. Mr. Diefenbach says that its inhabitants were influenced during the German Democratic Republic by a “special policy of remembrance” that mostly excluded Jewish victims. His own grandmother came from the border area and must have known about the RAB camp in the village now known as Swiecko – although she always denied this.

Things are similar for Boleslaw Lisek. The 89-year-old from Wasowo is the only direct witness willing to talk that historian Mr. Diefenbach could find. In April 1941, the Germans set up an RAB camp for 300 Jewish forced laborers on one of his father’s fields.

“They begged for bread when you passed by,” he says. But the guards made it impossible to pass anything through the fence, he adds. His father was compelled to carry those who died in the camp to the nearby cemetery in a hay cart. But once when his father was seriously ill, the almost 12-year-old Boleslaw had to stand in. Was it a traumatic experience? “No,” says Mr. Lisek. “As a boy, you simply did what you were told.”

The camp crew withdrew in 1943, but Mr. Lisek remained – and with him, the memory of the camp, one that he did not speak of until he met Mieczyslaw Janas, a local researcher 25 years his junior from Wasowo. He managed to accomplish what hobby historian Mr. Milejski is still dreaming about in Lagow. When the “Autobahn of Freedom” was inaugurated, Mr. Janas set up a commemorative stone at the edge of the Lisek family’s nearby field to honor the forced laborers who helped build the historical autobahn project.


This article originally appeared in Handelsblatt's sister publication, Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel.