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Memory and Space - The Documentation Center on Forced Labor in Schöneweide, Berlin

If it were not for the gate and the barbed wires, the barracks along Britzer Straße in Schöneweide, a southeastern suburb of Berlin, would stand as humble and self-effacing as their neighbors. Painted in beige and capped by sloping roofs, these single-storey structures invite no solicitude for their contents as they emerge almost naturally from an adjacent churchyard before growing, in rows and in blocks, from one street corner to the next. It is a large sweep of ground, with a small grove of trees, and the late-June heat only makes the site even more sedate: the day-care center is empty, the car shop idle, and the sauna place avoided by even the most loyal customers. Summer lays on the buildings like a peaceful reprieve.

While the barracks have grown and harmonized with what had gone before, their history — as a former forced labor camp under the Third Reich — never deserted the place. Referred to as GBI Camp No. 75/76, the compound was once home to at least 435 Italian forced laborers, but in the grander scheme of war, it represented only one node in the constellation of labor camps under the Nazi regime: during World War II, an estimated 11 to 12 million people from all over Europe had worked as forced laborers in the German economy. In Berlin alone, some 3,000 sites dotted the cityscape, rendering the workers as visible in municipal institutions as in private households. In lieu of peripheral forces slaving away behind closed doors, these forced laborers worked in full public view and played a principal role in the Nazi war machine.

And such centrality is now etched further in public memory with the new permanent exhibition opening in May, 2013 at the Documentation Center on Nazi Forced Labor in Schöneweide. Occupying seven of the eleven standing barracks, the Center, which was founded in 2006 under the auspice of the Topography of Terror Foundation, is one of the latest additions to the remembrance landscape in Germany today, a constellation of museums, memorials and former camps that continue the country’s soul-searching reconciliation with its Nazi past. 

At the same time, the documentation center confronts unique challenges as a remembrance site: given the spatial limit of a single barrack, how could the new exhibition present a coherent narrative that chronicles not only the dimension of forced labor, but also its very diversity in experiences among the victims? Also, with its preserved barracks as artifacts, how should the documentation center recreate a historical experience for its visitors while respecting the vicissitude of history that has physically altered the space since the end of war? These two sets of questions hang over the site and beckon reflection. 

The definition of history and its presentation is a sticky one as it is neither loose strings of random occurrences nor is it a monolith. History is multi-faceted, complex, and multi-directional. Historical presentation, however (especially in the context of museology), is limited by space, time, and dominant narratives. This exhibition attempts to detangle the very notion of consecrating a single history by projecting portrayals by Nazi perpetrators while interweaving the personal struggles and moments of intimate life of forced labor migrant victims and survivors. 

By analyzing the new exhibition and Barrack 13, a restored barrack in the camp, this essay seeks to analyze critically the use of space at the Documentation Center on Forced Labor. We argue that in lieu of being a museum and memorial dedicated to a singular victim group, the Center represents a hybrid space of remembrance where the meaning of forced labor history is multiplied, but never unified, in the collected memories of individuals. At the same time, the continued use of the former camp from 1945 through today has created variegated layers of history upon the barracks — a physical legacy that not only breaks down a mythologized representation of the camp as stagnant in time, but also resists a convenient impulse towards closure in our act of remembrance today. 

Permanent Exhibition

In May 2013, the Documentation Center opened its permanent exhibition with the purpose of educating visitors on the convoluted reality and victimhood of forced laborers during National Socialism. 

Housed in Barrack No. 3, the entrance of on the short end of the building opens onto a central hallway running the length of the building with rooms branching off. Currently composed of two rooms and a corridor, as none of the room walls exist any more, the exhibition is spacious and open. Metaphysical, the exhibition questions the very logic of the presentation of history while showcasing it. Quotations and personal narrative are woven into the fabric of the exhibition along with Nazi propaganda and population figures. This multi-trophic approach to history raises the question - what is history and what are narratives that make up contemporary understanding of a historical period of time?

The definition of history and its presentation is a sticky one as it is neither loose strings of random occurrences nor is it a monolith. History is multi-faceted, complex, and multi-directional. Historical presentation, however (especially in the context of museology), is limited by space, time, and dominant narratives. This exhibition attempts to detangle the very notion of consecrating a single history by projecting portrayals by Nazi perpetrators while interweaving the personal struggles and moments of intimate life of forced labor migrant victims and survivors. 

Walking into the Histories of a Forced Labor Camp: An Exhibition Tour

On the right of the entrance is an introductory wall in which viewers peer into ‘peepholes’ to give the illusion of looking through a fence into a camp. Metaphorically simulating the positioning of members of the neighborhood, the wall provides an orientation to visitors of the physical proximity of German neighbors but the disconnect between the lives between Germans and forced laborers. On walls are inscribed quotes from neighbors such as “it was a hotel for workers” or “I slipped sandwiches through the fence” to give an aura that neighbors did not really know what the lives of the workers looked like. The quotes provide an invitation for the visitor to look beyond the symbolic fence and into the lives of laborers.

The main exhibit separates into four parts: 

A. The logic behind Nazi forced labor industrial complex (room one), 

B. The daily life of forced laborers (split between room 1 and 2), 

C. Survivors’ Stories: Between daily life bifurcated into two rooms, the corridor features 13 personal stories of survivors 

D. The aftermath of 1945 and the end of the Third Reich (room 2).


A. The logic behind Nazi forced labor industrial complex

The section is comprised of four displays and informs the viewer of the continental and German national historical context of forced labor as a German economic enterprise for empire expansion. This section provides details of how forced labor emerged and grew through bureaucratic systems that regulated recruitment and migration flows to Germany. This section also highlights the institutional and social hierarchy that developed between forced labor German ‘enemies of the Third Reich’, Western European civilian migrant workers, war internees, and Eastern Europeans. The displays and artifacts in this section map out migration movements and population estimates of laborers who emigrated by the thousands. This macro approach provides the visitor with a top-down lens to measure the sheer size of the forced labor industrial complex. This segment of the exhibit also toys with the dilemma of ‘agency’ of migration and sets up the question whether or not these migrants were victims of National Socialism. The displays showcase propaganda posters designed to lure in citizens from the Ukraine, Russia, Italy, and other parts of Europe promising a good life and honorable working conditions for migrants. By setting up the riddle of what life as a migrant was advertised to look like, the exhibit leads into the next section that portrays the reality of migrants’ lives.

B. The daily life of forced laborers 

From the macro puzzle of migration and victimhood, section one flows into part one of ‘daily life’. Part one features the type of work, forced laborers endured. Recognizable company logos such as BMW and Lufthansa are projected on the wall to demonstrate how German industry was bolstered by thousands of laborers. Artifacts such as light bulbs and an airplane motor showcase the types of industries and war economies that used forced laborers. Images of laborers in action such as a men hammering at metal are from the lens of German cameramen but still show the working conditions in factories and the type of work laborers did. These pictures show the laborers not as individuals but a collective, a monolithic group of faceless laborers whose personalities are not documented but the singular pulse of the factory from the perspective of a German boss.


C. Survivors’ Stories 

After walking to the back of the barrack wall of room wall, the exhibit continues down a corridor in which ‘the faceless laborer’ becomes human. On either side of the corridor stands a total thirteen narratives and screens of forced laborers from all over Europe and of different circumstances of survivors to tell their stories recalling days of forced labor. The lighting is dim and the black of white photographs of each survivor is illuminated onto larger-than-life panels, creating a sancta santorum very different from the bleach-white, bright, and open space of rooms one and two. Suspended between parts 1 and 2 of ‘Daily Life’ the corridor provides an intimate space of reflection and another layer to the multiple narratives of forced labor. These archived interviews unveil the humanity from gritty photographs from the previous section.

Exiting back into ‘Daily Life’, part 2 carries on the spirit of intimate memories by describing the personal struggles that forced laborers had to endure. The first display, for example describes the forced sterilizations and abortions of forced labor women and horrific accounts of mothers who saw the few children in the labor camp perish from malnutrition. Next to quotes about forced sterilization is an abortion device that illustrates the weight and reality of a woman’s place and lack of agency over her body in the camp. What was once a private detail of the female body is now on display as a definitive reality. More and more personal anecdotes are displayed such as love letters between forced laborers and Germans, a once taboo, intimate, and forbidden interaction during the Third Reich now part of the historical discourse of forced labor.


D. The aftermath of 1945 and the end of the Third Reich 

The last section transitions from the intimate to national and international contexts again, mapping out both a topographical network and the sheer number of labor camps in Berlin and in Germany as well as the historical continuum of forced labor politics and recognition in Germany today. This section provides a platform for the Foundation of Remembrance, Responsibility, and Future (EVZ) to address reparation programs and contemporary efforts to recognize this newly identified victim group of National Socialism. 

The last display is a collage of contemporary products representing companies that have benefited from forced labor during National Socialism till today. This collage demonstrates how the history of forced labor is not very distant from current times as the products found in our cupboards have a legacy that is deeper than our skin. The exhibit does not end with a closed book rather an invitation for visitors to ponder as to how distant we are from this history.

Barrack 13

There is no sudden moment of encounter when one approaches Barrack 13. Situated at the northeastern corner of the camp right next to a bowling alley, also a former barrack for forced laborers, the stone-walled structure retains the largest amount of original structures, making it one of the best preserved sites on exhibit. After visiting the exhibition where the visitors learn the history about forced labor during National Socialism and can listen to private testimonies of the survivors, they continue on a guided tour to the Barrack 13 to get a personal taste of the physical environment.

The interior of the Barrack is well preserved: it features the division of the entire space into separate small rooms on both sides of the long corridor. One can easily guess that the structure was simple but at the same time functional. The four layer bunk beds were used to squeeze as many laborers as possible. The authenticity of this place helps a visitor to have a vivid picture of the daily life of those people performing their daily duties. In a bathroom section of the barrack, a round communal wash basin is preserved. It is the place where laborers would satisfy their hygienic needs. Two or three people would stand inside the basin and splash water on the rest, making an improvised cold shower for them.

After visiting the ground floor, the visitors are then taken to the cellar of this barrack, which gives them another controversial perspective of a daily life of the inmates. The cellar was used as a bunker during the air raids of the allied forces, which became regular since 1943. The irony of the story is that while the inmates realized that the war was coming to an end, they were also on the brink of death, as the cellar was not suited to protect them from direct hit of the air bombs. The walls of the cellar feature inscriptions of Italian inmates, which are carefully protected behind glass.

Yet despite their seeming authenticity, these vestiges of the past often distort, rather than correct our historical perceptions. For the uncritical eyes, the cellar — with its green baffle paint and falling walls — evokes an experience that seems even more horrific than reality. “Some visitors asked me whether the cellar was an execution place for the Jews,” said Sabine, a former tour guide at the center. “People just did not know about this history.” While historical ignorance about forced labor in Germany could help explain the reaction, such statement perhaps also reveals our very idea of witness upon visiting an “authentic” site of the Nazi past. As if a visit to former Nazi sites implied a moral obligation to feel something. Anything. Given the enormity of the sufferings — nearly 12 million forced laborers during war — people mistake imagined experiences for lived reality and relish, in often conflated images, a vision of trauma that they have conjured in their mind.

After the war the labor camp was used by the Soviets as a paper storage facility. From 1946 on, several craft businesses moved into the site. The western part of the camp, for instance, was used by a vaccine production company, which set up laboratories in the barracks. Some of the barracks feature remnants of that history as well. For example, traces of tiles on the walls of the barracks left there by the pharmaceutical company.

The preservation at Barack 13 has been minimal — other than fixing a broken wall, the curatorial team did not alter greatly the existing. But for other sites, like the former concentration camp Sachsenhausen, the changes in detail could be as subtle as a barbed wire that was not part of the original design. The electrical poles they installed were larger models employed in camps in Poland, but not the original structures at Sachsenhausen. “Most tour guides would not tell you that,” confided Russel, a former guide who worked at the site. “Most people just want to tell horrible stories and emotionally scare people.” In any case, we argue that often the works of preservationists directly shape our understanding of the situation.

Such ambivalence in preservation raised new questions about the very notion of authenticity: how can we recreate the real experiences of the sites anyways? Could there be an authentic site? Are we building the museum merely as a physical container to preserve all the memories and histories? For most academics, the historical reality of forced labor — or of the Holocaust — is forever lost, and no museum or former site could ever substitute such experience. In fact, while there was inscription on the wall, we could hardly determine the exact feeling that drove them to write down these words in the first place; we could only imagine.

At the same time, perhaps such possibility to imagine — something that one might call an imaginative moral exercise — is the best value these sites can offer us: to imagine a kind of suffering that is becoming increasingly alienated to our generation today, who do not know the full horrors of war. “If you want to talk about ‘never again,’ showing these conditions would be the best way to inspire people not to repeat the same mistakes,” said Anne, an activist. “Being in one of these sites teaches people about compassion.”

And such commitment to education is the primary focus of the documentation center, which has worked with many educators and students. Accomplishing such task, however, is not easy: sometimes tour guides can hear from the visitors that the place is not so bad, that it’s made of bricks, quite spacious, that conditions are the same as in the army today. Some tour guides prefer not to respond, some feel like bringing up such counter arguments as forced deportation of laborers from their homeland, loss of a family, psychological traumas, etc. The general opinion of the guides is that it is a normal process, an educational interaction between the guides and the visitors. In fact, to facilitate the educational process, each guide develops his or her own tour program; some prefer to avoid personal stories of the survivors and focus more on the historical perspectives such as statistics, geography, and the scale of the crimes. Others prefer to make the point focusing on humane stories and personal memories of the survivors. Some “open the door” to the issue wide enough to prompt person’s interest in the issue for his or her further research and self education.


Looking ahead

The Center is planning to renovate one of its barracks to establish a youth educational center on forced labor, where workshops will be held. The Documentation Center is working in close cooperation with the Foundation Remembrance, Responsibility and Future on the issue of forced labor during the times of National Socialism in Germany. The areas of cooperation will continue to include critical examination of the history on forced labor, commitment to the victims of National Socialism and human rights. Exhibitions both national and international, conferences, panel discussions are to be used as major venues to bring up the issue of forced labor during National Socialism.  

One of the biggest tasks in the field ahead is the recognition of the Italian internees and claiming of a monetary compensation for them. The issue will be discussed in the dialogue between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Germany and the Italian Embassy which is facilitated by a third stakeholder, the Foundation Remembrance, Responsibility and Future. 

At present, there is skepticism that new authentic places of forced labor exploitation during Nazi Germany will surface that could be reclaimed as a remembrance site. Almost all of them are integrated into today’s Germany’s infrastructure and lost their authenticity. Today the Documentation Center on forced labor remains the only national memorial to the victims of the forced labor, which fulfills a multi-pronged approach: education, research/documentation and cooperation. 





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Schmitz, Frank. Documentation Center on Nazi Forced Labor Berlin-Schöneweide.Berlin: Stadtwandel-Verl., 2010. Print.

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Bock, Martin, Foundation Remembrance Responsibility and Future, Personal interview. 22 June 2013.

Gerhart, Sebastian. Email interview. 21 June 2013.

Glauning, Christine, Documentation Center. Email interview. 22 June 2013.

Irmer, Thomas. Personal interview. 20 June 2013.

Oberndörfer, Ralf, Historian. Personal interview. 20 June 2013.

Stalfort, Anne. Personal interview. 23 June 2013.

Hammer, Sabine, Tour Guide. Personal interview. 23 June 2013.

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