Work on the online archive started in 2004. 32 teams from international institutions recorded the testimonies of former forced laborers on a total of 2,000 tapes. In 2007, the Foundation and Freie Universität Berlin signed a cooperation agreement on the compilation and preparation of the interviews. This was the start signal for the academic team under Professor Dr. Gertrud Pickhan and Professor Dr. Nicolas Apostolopoulos, who then commenced assigning keywords, digitizing the audio and video tapes, and setting up the online archive. “With the wealth of material available, the collection opens up innumerable possibilities to gain new insights – it is a treasure trove, and not only for historians,” enthused Dr. Pickhan, Chair of Eastern and Central European History at the Institute for East-European Studies of the Freie Universität. The primary aim of the online archive is to give researchers access to information on a variety of aspects of Nazi forced labor. Professor Dr. Ursula Lehmkuhl, First Vice President of the Freie Universität Berlin, explains, “Autobiographical material, especially when not exclusively in written form, has great educational potential and opens up new paths to understanding for the younger generation. Nothing documents a particular epoch or historical event more realistically than first-hand accounts.”
The online service is currently open to students, researchers, and teachers. More detailed educational materials, such as short film biographies, classroom materials, and a DVD will be available and publicly presented in autumn to mark the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the war.
In 2007, the German Historical Museum also joined the project as partner. A multimedia work station containing 12 interviews has been installed at the museum and was opened for public use on Thursday. The reports and documents are now part of the museum’s permanent exhibition. The interview partners were selected to represent the major victim groups among the forced laborers: a Ukrainian Ostarbeiterin (female worker from the East), a Polish forced laborer, a Soviet prisoner of war, slave laborers from concentration camps, and an Italian military internee report on the various kinds of work they had to do in industry, agriculture, mining, and private households. The interviews can be selected under various categories, for example, “Origins and family,” “Work and terror,” “Return and emigration.” Users can access additional information in the form of introductory texts as well as facts and figures on forced labor. The video interviews have German subtitles.
“With the reopening of the permanent exhibition in June, 2006, befitting space was found in the museum for its displays on foreign workers and forced laborers under the National Socialist dictatorship. And we can add an extra dimension to this theme through the inclusion of the interview excerpts from former forced laborers on the newly installed work station. The particular value of this form of display is that it gives us a direct link to the culture of remembrance and to historical accounts as related by those affected,” says Dr. Dieter Vorsteher, Deputy President and head curator at the German Historical Museum in Berlin.
The project is also supported by Professor Felix Kolmer, Vice President of the International Auschwitz Committee and member of the advisory committee of the “Forced Labor 1939–1945” project.“ As former forced laborers, it is important for us that we do not differentiate or establish a victim hierarchy that distinguishes between Jewish and non-Jewish victims, or between Polish, Czech, Ukrainian, Russian, or Italian forced laborers in this eyewitness archive. All of these forced laborers, who together make up a cross-section of the whole system of German forced labor, are represented by their experiences of suffering and survival and joined together in a common expression of remembrance.
Various speakers talked about particular aspects of the online portal at the press conference held at the German Historical Museum on January 22, 2009, including Günter Saathoff (Member of the Board of Directors of the Foundation “Remembrance, Responsibility, and Future”), Ursula Lehmkuhl (First Vice President of the Freie Universität Berlin), Dieter Vorsteher (Deputy President and head curator at the German Historical Museum in Berlin), Gertrud Pickhan (Project Manager, Chair of Eastern and Central European History at the Institute for East-European Studies of Freie Universität Berlin), and Felix Kolmer (eyewitness, Vice President of the International Auschwitz Committee, member of the advisory committee of the project “Forced Labor 1939–1945”).
Eyewitness Helena Bohle-Szacki was also present to answer questions. Ms Bohle-Szacki was born in 1928 into a German-Polish-Jewish family in eastern Poland. In 1944, she was a forced laborer at the Ravensbruck concentration camp. She survived the death march in 1945. After the war, she studied art in Poland (Łodz) and has lived in Berlin since 1969.
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