The Place of Remembrance – an Authentic Place
In the late 1920s, the vision of mass motorisation along American lines gains momentum in Germany. Many designers and engineers are working to make real the idea of a car for personal use that is available to broad swathes of the population. The National Socialists take up this idea and turn mass motorisation into a propaganda tool for their social utopian programme of government. In June 1934, Ferdinand Porsche is commissioned by the Reich Association of the German Automotive Industry (Reichsverband der Automobilindustrie) to develop a “Volkswagen”, a “people’s car”.
On 28 May 1937, the German Labour Front (Deutsche Arbeitsfront) founds the “Gesellschaft zur Vorbereitung des Deutschen Volkswagen mbH” (company for the preparation of the German people’s car). The opening of the Midland Canal in 1938, the existing rail connection and the central location at the heart of the then German Reich all feed into the decision to go ahead with the ambitious project of building the largest automobile factory in the world at this location. Construction begins in February 1938 and the laying of the corner stone takes place on 26 May 1938. The company, renamed Volkswagenwerk GmbH on 16 September 1938, builds its main plant in what is now Wolfsburg, while the outlying plant is established in Braunschweig. Vehicle production is scheduled to start in autumn 1939. But with the outbreak of World War II on 1 September 1939, the then Volkswagenwerk GmbH becomes part of the German armaments industry, and series production of the civilian version remains a dream. Instead, workers, mainly foreign forced labourers, are tasked with producing military vehicles and other armaments.
During the construction of the plant, shelters are provided in accordance with the provisions of the Air Protection Act. During World War II, these air raid shelters provide protection to German employees and forced labourers alike during bombing raids. This measure is not so much for their welfare as for maintaining their ability to work.
In one of these air raid shelters, where former forced labourers survived aerial bombardments on the newly built factory complex, an exhibition is set up in 1995 by Volkswagen trainees on the initiative of the Works Council. At this historic site in shed 1, the reworked permanent exhibition “Place of Remembrance of Forced Labour in the Volkswagen Factory” opens on 17 December 1999.
The Exhibition Rooms
Room 1 – The “Volkswagen” Project
Ferdinand Porsche submits a “memorandum concerning the construction of a German People’s Car” to the Reich Ministry of Transport on 17 January 1934. The “fully-fledged utility car” is said to offer space for four adults, have “normal dimensions but a relatively low weight” and allow a “motorway-proof” continuous speed of 100 km/h. The Reich Ministry of Transport demands a purchase price of no more than 1000 reichsmarks.
To produce the car, a “Nazi model plant” is built on the Midland Canal near Fallersleben for the mass production of up to 1.5 million vehicles a year. Shortages of resources and labour make it difficult to build the factory, so foreign workers are drafted in from mid-1938. The newly founded company of the German Labour Front also lacks a core workforce to start up the plant.
With the outbreak of World War II, the ambitious plans to build the world’s largest and most modern automobile factory, and with it the “Volkswagen” project, are at risk of failing. The mass motorisation of the German people propagated by the National Socialists through the mass production of the KdF (Strength through Joy) car remains an illusion. In line with the demands of the war economy and armaments interests, the company carries out orders from outside the industry. The Volkswagen plant undertakes the repair of aircraft components and manufactures, among other things, wooden airplane drop tanks as well as land mines and bazookas.
The first forced labourers from the countries occupied by the German Wehrmacht arrive at the plant in June 1940. These are 300 Polish women assigned by the Lower Saxony Labour Office and deployed in the construction of wooden airplane drop tanks, which are classified as essential to the war effort.
Room 2 – The Expansion of Armaments Production and the Systematic Development of Forced Labour
The forced labourers are initially temporary workers on temporary armaments projects. The start-up of production of the Kübelwagen, the military version of the Volkswagen Beetle, and the Schwimmwagen, a four-wheel drive amphibious vehicle, as well as the manufacture of bunker stoves and, above all, air armaments, contribute to the company’s development. Having accepted large orders for armaments in the summer of 1941, forced labourers, both prisoners of war and civilian workers, are increasingly used to maintain production.
Volkswagenwerk GmbH is one of the first companies to use Soviet prisoners of war, starting in October 1941. Already weak from their ordeals, they are forced to take on physically heavy and dirty work, and many perish. The largest group of foreigners are the “Eastern workers” from Poland and the Soviet Union. The civilians, most of whom were deported with massive use of force, are subjected to numerous acts of racial discrimination.
After the fall of Benito Mussolini in autumn 1943, Italian military internees from prisoner-of-war camps in the German Reich also arrive at the factory, where they are treated on an equal footing with Soviet prisoners of war. From the spring of 1943, the Volkswagen factory also recruits French and Dutch students, who are obliged to work as prisoners of war or civilian labourers through compulsory measures. In terms of pay, sustenance and accommodation, civilian workers from the Western territories are privileged among foreign workers in accordance with Nazi racial ideology. Due to their language skills and technical qualifications, they take on key tasks alongside the German management staff.
11,334 persons from various countries of origin formed the majority of the total workforce of 17,365 on 30 April 1944. During the Second World War, some 20,000 people are deployed as forced labourers at the then Volkswagenwerk GmbH. Among them are also around 5,000 concentration camp prisoners.
Through the Gestapo, the Nazi dictatorship has a far-reaching influence on the company. The company’s own plant security is the most important tool for surveillance and meting out punishment. Sentries and patrols monitor not only the plant premises but also the warehouses and the surrounding areas of the city to punish non-compliance, alleged sabotage or refusal to work. The catalogue of punitive and arbitrary measures is long: corporal punishment and withholding food are just as much a part of this as the admissions to Penal Camp 18 located near the factory premises or the dreaded Labour Education Camp 21 near Salzgitter.
Children of the Forced Labourers
Among the deported “Eastern workers” are pregnant women who are returned to their homeland only until December 1942 due to the permanent labour shortage. Despite bans on contact and threats of sanctions, children are born in the camps. Initially, they are housed with their mothers in a barracks near the camp and, from June 1944, in the so-called foreigners’ children’s foster home in Rühen. The babies are separated from their mothers a few days after birth, and the women are immediately put back to work. By the end of the war, 365 children die as a result of neglect and inadequate nutrition.
Room 3 – Concentration Camp Prisoners
The massive expansion of the German war economy necessitates even greater exploitation of the labour of prisoners from concentration camps. Thus, in January 1942, the management of the Volkswagen factory and Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler agree to use prisoners to complete the construction of the light metal foundry, which had been lying dormant since October 1939. The foundry is to be used for the plant’s own production of aluminium cast parts for armaments requirements and the manufacture of components for the civilian version of the KdF saloon after the war. To this end, the “Arbeitsdorf” concentration camp is set up on the factory premises in April 1942 as the first independent company concentration camp. Prisoners from Neuengamme, Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald concentration camps perform heavy construction work and are guarded by SS men and dog patrols. Due to a lack of urgency for the war economy, the “Arbeitsdorf” concentration camp is dissolved in October 1942 and the prisoners are sent to Sachsenhausen.
Various orders for air armaments secure the existence of the Volkswagen company. From January 1943, the plant is also the main supplier of the first 100 cells of the Fi 103 flying bomb, the so-called V1. For the demanding production process, plant engineer Arthur Schmiele selects 300 Hungarian Jews from the Auschwitz concentration camp in May 1944. They are assigned to work as skilled metalworkers on the flying bomb assembly line at the main plant. These men were to form the core workforce of the underground manufacturing and assembly plant at Tiercelet in France, designated as a “concentration camp operation” and to train other prisoners as labourers. These skilled workers are considered difficult to replace, so harassment remains the exception. After the SS-dominated Mittelwerk GmbH is awarded the main contract for large-scale production of the Fi 103, these concentration camp prisoners are transported to the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp in October 1944. Many of them die here.
In May 1944, 800 prisoners from Neuengamme concentration camp arrive at the Laagberg camp not far from the Volkswagen plant to build a barracks complex. The concentration camp prisoners have to perform physically difficult excavation and construction work under adverse conditions. They are subjected to constant bullying and abuse from the commanders. The concentration camp under construction is secured with an electrified fence and watchtowers. On the factory premises, the prisoners are used for clearing rubble caused by American air raids and for loading work; the production of armaments remains the exception for them.
Between July 1944 and January 1945, transports of female prisoners arrive at the Volkswagen plant from Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, among other places. The women work at the plant primarily on the production line for land mines and bazookas; occasionally they are called upon to do loading work and to clear debris. They are housed in the converted washrooms of shed 1.
Forced labour, punishment and concentration camps on the factory premises and in the “city of the KdF car”.
Penal and concentration camps
2 KZ ”Arbeitsdorf” (Work Village)
4 Satellite concentration camp in Hall 1
11 Satellite concentration camp Laagberg
5 Penal camp 18
Forced laborer camps
1 Foundry camp
3 Canal port camp
6 General camp
7 Camp for military convicts and prisoners of war
8 ”Eastern workers” camp
9 Reislingen camp
10 Laagberg camp
12 Hutted camp Hohenstein
Room 4 – Dispersal of the Volkswagen Plant to Underground and Decentralized Locations
From mid-1943, Allied bombing raids on industrial targets of the German armaments industry increase in frequency, leading to the relocation of operational areas to provisional facilities, some of which are far away. The Volkswagen plant is also involved in the early underground relocations, which served to ensure production for air armaments and to protect the irreplaceable machinery from damage.
In March 1944, the Volkswagen plant is allocated production space at the Tiercelet iron ore mine in Lorraine. Due to the urgency of armaments deliveries, it is converted into an underground factory by forced labourers in just six months.
At the beginning of September 1944, however, the Tiercelet mine is abandoned in haste ahead of the Allied advance, so that production of the V1 and other armaments no longer takes place. Further relocation plants are built in Dernau, Eschershausen and Schönebeck, and the Volkswagen plant also outsources parts production, machinery and materials to the surrounding area. The main plant retains the production of land mines and bazookas, as well as the assembly lines for Kübelwagen production, which are to be protected by relocating them from the shop floor to the basement floor.
Especially during the hectic expansion of the underground mines, concentration camp inmates and other forced labourers are used ruthlessly. Chaos, the intense pressure to complete the work and systematic deprivation claim many lives.
On 7 April 1945, the SS gives the order to evacuate both concentration camps. The women from shed 1 at the Volkswagen factory are taken in freight cars to Salzwedel and liberated by American troops on 14 April 1945. The prisoners of the Laagberg camp are deported via Salzwedel to the Wöbbelin subcamp near Ludwigslust. By the time they are liberated by American soldiers on 2 May 1945, many of them had died of disease, general physical deterioration and starvation. The remaining forced labourers of the main plant in the city of the KdF car are liberated by American troops on 11 April 1945.
Room 5 – Remembrance
The conversations with those affected and more than 200 interviews conducted with former forced labourers support the company’s historical research and are part of the comprehensive reappraisal of forced labour at the former Volkswagenwerk GmbH.
The memories of contemporary witnesses are many-voiced. The ways in which people deal with their experiences and process them are as varied and individual as the people themselves. There is a growing need to talk about their experiences and to set an example against despotism and deprivation of rights.
The “Remembrance Room” gives a voice to those affected. The testimonies of forced labourers, prisoners of war and concentration camp inmates printed on glass give an idea of the extent and intensity of what they experienced. At a listening station, contemporary witnesses speak, in part in their respective national languages, about their experiences, which accompany and shape them throughout their lives.
The Listening Station Interviews
- Jean Baudet on how he started to deal with his time as a forced labourer
“I can tell you that it was almost always on my mind. Even then, when we were there, we were already thinking about our fate. Why are we there? What for? What will happen to us? Later we dealt with it because we had memories. Family and friends urged us to tell what we had experienced. So we thought about those years again. And then, when life gradually resumed its normal course, when I went back to study and later built up my business with my father and grandfather, I was fully engaged in life, in building something new. And so, little by little, I filed those two years at Volkswagen away in a corner of my brain. I had completely forgotten about them. When people asked me about it, I could talk about it – that worked. But I didn’t talk about it anymore. I didn’t think about it anymore. It was finished, in the past. So I no longer thought about what had happened. Only later, when I retired, did I have contact with former forced labourers who had been in KdF. We talked about our memories, about the moments we shared together, about what had happened. Everyone has their memories, and those memories differ. And so we began to think again about what we had experienced. But this time deeper than before. Because we had learned some things, had learned what had really happened - not only at Volkswagen, but also throughout Germany. That led me to think about things I had repressed in my professional life.”
>Download Interview (mp4)
- Stanisław Latacz on the misfortune of experiencing a war
“The first thing I think of is: may nothing like this ever happen again! I would not want to see a second war. War is a huge calamity that can overtake a country - not just individual selected people, but the entire nation. I hope there will never be another war.”
>Download Interview (mp4)
- Sara Frenkel-Bass on the development of the culture of remembrance at Volkswagen
“Volkswagen struggled with honest reappraisal and direct contact with former forced labourers until the 1980s. Today there is the exhibition and I and others are invited by Volkswagen to Wolfsburg. Many, many things have changed. The people here are very interested. And good companions on a difficult walk, such as to the graves.”
>Download Interview (mp4)
- Piet Wit on the significance of his time as a forced labourer in the Volkswagen factory
“Well actually little significance, I pushed that away. One example is that we lived together in Delft with five people who also lived in the room, in the same room in the barracks in the city of the KdF car, and that in the three years I was there I cannot remember that we ever talked about our time in Germany.”
>Download Interview (wmv)
- Sally Perel on how he started to examine his experiences
“I actually started when I retired. I worked for quite a while, I was self-employed afterwards, I also always had to get up early to work and came home tired late at night. There was no time to deal with this past, it had to wait. It lay dormant in the belly. Like a .... but this story that you carry in your gut like that, over time it became, I would say, something explosive that had to come out. And that happened when I retired. I retired early because I had heart surgery in Tel Aviv, and that’s when I retired early. Yes, and suddenly you get up in the morning and you are not going to work! That was a turning point, so – what do you do now? And that’s when the first compulsion came: I’m going to deal with this past.
And so gradually the memories returned more and more, mostly at night, and I wrote like that until the book came into being. It took about a year and a half. And, yes, and I felt really that the book was like therapy for me.”
>Download Interview (mp4)
- Ornan Lev Ary on his inner conflict after his arrival in Israel
“It was not easy, because on the one hand we were very happy to have survived these hard times, this war. But on the other, we had lost so many friends and family, so that was... sweet on the one hand and... how do you say? [Interviewer: Bitter] ...bitter on the other.”
>Download Interview (mp4)
- Jean Baudet on how he started to deal with his time as a forced labourer
Room 6 – Confronting the History of the Volkswagen Factory in the Third Reich
Some four decades after the end of the war, the topic of forced labour is attracting increased attention in the West German public sphere. In addition, the involvement of the then Volkswagenwerk GmbH in the National Socialist system requires the company to deal intensively with its early history. Awareness, engagement, remembrance and humanitarian support become key elements for the company in dealing with its history.
In 1986, on the initiative of the Works Council headed by Walter Hiller, then Chairman of the Central Works Council, the Board of Management of Volkswagen AG commissions a team of scholars under the direction of Prof. Dr. Hans Mommsen to prepare an independent research study on the history of the company. This is published in German in 1996 under the title “The Volkswagen Factory and its Workers in the Third Reich” (“Das Volkswagenwerk und seine Arbeiter im Dritten Reich”).
In addition, Volkswagen AG adds a forward-looking element to the historical research work. Volkswagen promotes international youth encounters in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as in Israel, and is actively involved in the International Youth Meeting Centre (IJBS) in Oświęcim/Auschwitz. In 1987, Volkswagen trainees take part in a seminar at the meeting centre for the first time. From 1992 onwards, Polish trainees and apprentices from all Volkswagen plants come here not only to confront German history and its consequences, but also to contribute to the preservation of the Auschwitz concentration camp memorial during their stays of several weeks. From 2008 onwards, Volkswagen managers and, from 2009 onwards, master craftsmen from the company also participate in the project “Auschwitz - Remembering and Future”.
In 1991, Volkswagen AG provides DM 12 million for social and international activities. On the occasion of the presentation of the interim results of the research project, a memorial stone commemorating forced labour at the Volkswagen factory is unveiled on 9 October 1991 on the factory premises in Wolfsburg, at the Sector 2 entrance. With the establishment of a Humanitarian Fund in 1998, the company provides individual humanitarian aid to those personally affected.
The establishment of the Corporate Archives also marks the opening of the permanent exhibition “Place of Remembrance of Forced Labour in the Volkswagen Factory” at the Wolfsburg plant, which was revised in 1999 and has been accessible to Volkswagen employees and external visitors ever since.
A respectful and appreciative cooperation develops from the trusting dialogue during the course of the research for the historical series of publications of Volkswagen AG, from encounters with contemporary witnesses and their relatives. With the publication of eyewitness accounts and contemporary documents, the history of forced labour at the former Volkswagenwerk GmbH becomes visible to the general public, in the same way as individual life stories. History (volkswagenag.com)
Until well after the turn of the millennium, former forced labourers and also family members come to Wolfsburg to visit the Place of Remembrance and the Volkswagen plant. They are present at the commemorative events and wreath-laying ceremonies that are taking place at the plant, in the city of Wolfsburg and in the surrounding area, to remind and remember and ensure we do not forget. In readings, lectures and at special exhibitions in the Corporate Archives, they repeatedly and relentlessly express their desire for respect and tolerance in society, for humanity and peace.
As a sign of recognition for the lifetime achievements of former forced labourers, the Volkswagen vocational training programmes at the Braunschweig, Emden, Hannover, Kassel, Salzgitter and Wolfsburg sites, together with the respective youth and trainee representatives of the Works Council, regularly award a prize for respect and tolerance.
Volkswagen keeps the memory alive: the company actively and responsibly communicates its founding history and sees itself as responsible for continuing to remember the fate of forced labourers, commemorating the victims and promoting respect, tolerance and diversity.
A catalogue on the exhibition “Place of Remembrance of Forced Labor in the Volkswagen Factory” is available as a book in German or English and can also be downloaded for free.
Place of Remembrance of Forced Labor in the Volkswagen Factory
Visit the Place of Remembrance
The Place of Remembrance is located on the plant premises in Wolfsburg. Visits are by appointment from Monday to Friday. Guided tours are provided in German and English. Entrance is free.
The Archives department and the exhibition are wheelchair accessible. Wheelchair users should inform us when booking the visit. Please access the plant via gate Sandkamp.
Volkswagen AG, Heritage
P.O. Box 1922, 38436 Wolfsburg, Germany
Tel.: +49 (0) 53 61 92 56 67
The permanent exhibition is not suitable for persons under 14 years of age.
Photography is prohibited on the plant premises.
As the Place of Remembrance is located on the factory premises, a visit is only possible by prior appointment.
A guided tour of the exhibition begins in the forum of the Volkswagen AG Corporate. Archives, Südstraße, Entrance 2, first floor.
For inquiries please call +49 (0) 53 61 92 56 67.
Directions via plant access gate 17 (“Tor 17”)
Leave Wolfsburg main station through the main exit and turn right towards the Volkswagen office tower. After about 300 metres you will reach the tunnel entrance to gate 17. Go down the stairs, to the right along the corridor to the next staircase and finally go up again via two escalators. At the corridor’s end you will find gate 17, where you can sign in with plant security. From there, continue west along Südstraße towards the office tower. The Corporate Archives are located at entrance 2 on the first floor. We wish you a good journey.
Directions via plant access gate Sandkamp (“Tor Sandkamp”)
Parking is available to the left of the gate Sandkamp, which is located on Oststraße. To sign in, please contact the plant security staff. After leaving the reception, go down the stairs on the right and cross the park in the direction of the office tower. Once there, go around the building to the right and you will come to Südstraße, which you follow to entrance 2. The Corporate Archives are located at entrance 2 on the first floor. We wish you a good journey.