Recently, I stayed with my father in Bavaria, where life is informal and one can put the feet on the table and smoke inside the house. We were both preoccupied with reading, my father with the newspaper and me with a book about the end of the Soviet Union, when I took a cigar from the casket on the living-room table.
It is a wooden box, elaborately ornamented, with amber intarsia, or so I had always thought, until I noticed upon closer inspection that it was straw. The treasure trove has clearly been in use for a long time, but it is still recognizable as the result of a love affair between creativity and craftsmanship.
“Nice box,” I say appreciatively, because I really like it and because parents like to hear that some of the household objects for whose acquisition they once toiled on the assembly line are appreciated by subsequent generations instead of being taken to the recycling centre or handed over to the aunt, who sells estates at the flea market, immediately after the demise of the original purchaser.
“Dimitri made it,” my father says cryptically. We do have carpenters and other wood artisans in the family, but I have never heard of any Dimitri. Having noticed my questioning look, he continues: “He was a Soviet prisoner of war, living on my grandparents’ farm in the Bavarian Forest.”
It sounds a bit like someone having a nice time in the countryside, but I am not that easily deceived: “A forced labourer, then?”
“In a way,” my father admits. Unlike other members of his generation, at least he is not into historical revisionism.
We both talk ourselves into believing that it was not the family’s fault, because prisoners of war were probably allocated as forced labourers, and that Dimitri, of whom we know nothing else, must have had a better time on the farm near Kötzting than in a mine, an armament factory or a concentration camp. Still, I am shocked. If even a small farming family with a few cows had a forced labourer during World War II, how many other families and companies in Germany had them? The cookie princess is probably not alone in her ignorance.
And as always when it comes to the Nazis: the more you read about a topic, the more horrible it becomes. First, it was not only prisoners of war who were forced into labour, but millions of Eastern European civilians were abducted to the Reich as well.
Second, Germany continued the racially motivated war of annihilation even against Soviet prisoners of war. They were systematically under-nourished and were treated much worse than Western European or North American prisoners. About half of them died during their captivity in Germany.
Third, the surviving Soviet POWs were then stigmatized in the Soviet Union after 1945, being regarded as traitors and collaborators. Often, they were directly sent to another labour camp. Internment in Germany was a life-long stain and a taboo, both in public as well as within families.
And fourth, the successor countries of the Third Reich denied any compensation to civilian forced labourers until the 1990es. Only in 2000, the Foundation “Remembrance, Responsibility and Future” was established for that purpose. By then, most of the victims had passed away. The prisoners of war never received any compensation at all.
I wonder what became of Dimitri.