Fall 2011

Forced Labor Camps During the Holocaust:
Was There an Economic Purpose Behind It?

...continued from previous page.

The Radom Transport: Natzweiler #111: "A Case Study of the Experiences of Forced Jewish Labor"

Idit's interest in forced labor camps was sparked.

"One of the claims is that the Jews did not contribute to the German economic base, largely because they were a small percentage of the forced labor gangs, and also because forced labor was considered to be important mainly when it worked for the armaments industry. I claim that this is not necessarily true. For example, in the Radom region (in Poland), a strategically important city for the Germans, it was the Jews who served as a financial labor backbone for the city as the young Poles were sent to work in Germany. Jews also worked for the extensive hidden economy developed by the civil administration, army, SS, and Gestapo in the occupied territories for personal usage. That was true until the end of 1943 when the Jews were transported to concentration camps, and the Germans substituted the work force with Poles."

From Radom the Jews were transported to Vaihingen, near Stuttgart via Auschwitz, and then to a number of other formed labor concentration camps, among them Hessenthal, near Stuttgart, which had exclusively Jewish labor.

Shoes & Medicine

"Another interesting aspect of forced labor camps was that much of the day-to-day decisions were left in the hands of the local commander. Two areas of study that my research deals with are: medical care and shoes."

Why shoes? All inmates were forced (orders from Himmler) to wear wooden shoes, both uncomfortable and short-lasting. This was, essentially, to prevent them from escaping. But, how commanders handled the issue of shoes tells much about their expectations from the slave labor force.

In the Hessenthal and Kochendorf concentration camps, for example, prisoners had to walk three to six kilometers every day to hard, physical labor. The shoes quickly became ruined. In Hessenthal, the commander had a shoe factory workshop built, with inmates repairing shoes throughout the night. In the nearby camp of Kochendorf, the commander, on the other hand, issued a directive that anyone caught without shoes would receive 25 lashes.

Medical care was another area where there was greater 'individual decision making' on the part of the commanders. Jewish inmate doctors were only allowed to treat sick Jewish inmates. In Hessenthal, there were two Jewish doctors, who, at one point, had to treat (without medicines) an outbreak of typhus. Of the 800 inmates, 'only' 182 died (a relatively small percentage as compared to other camps.)

Contrarily, in two other nearby camps -- Bisengen and Dautmergen -- the same Nazi doctor was responsible for the medical care of the inmates. In Bisengen, the death rate was very high. With no Jewish doctors on hand, and no hygiene of any sort, inmates preferred to die rather than 'visit' the Latvian medical practitioner on hand. But, at Dautmergen, with the transport of 20 Jewish doctors which had arrived from Vilna, the Jewish doctors were also occasionally permitted to provide medical care for the Jewish inmates.

Interestingly, the work in Dautmergen and Bisengen was officially done for an oil company. "One day," Idit relates, " the CEO of the company came for a visit, and was shocked by what he saw (his report can be found in the archives). He wrote a scathing report to the head of the camp and copied the head of the Division of the Economy of the SS (a key individual in the SS). The following week this Division Head visited the camps and issued an order to improve the conditions. 'With the prisoners dying we won't have the production that we need.' New medical barracks were built, more straw was added to the older ones, and a few more doctors were brought in. Nevertheless, the death rate continued to escalate."

Telephone Books and Other Documents

Now, as Dr. Idit Gil begins to wrap up her research and prepare for publication, she is overwhelmed by the amount of information that she has amassed, but not just about forced labor camps. While at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. she found a telephone book from a ghetto, listing the Jewish businesses, and by cross-referencing information she can see how Jewish businesses were quickly eliminated by the Nazi regime.

She was also in contact with tens of children of Holocaust survivors, all of whom had something to add to her already accumulating wealth of information.

But, perhaps most moving, was her 'personal' contact with the subject. While studying the Radom ghetto's documents and listening to some 100 video recorded testimonies, she came across several which mentioned her father. "To uncover materials and find new information is exciting. But, to be able to also convey information to others about what happened to their relatives -- and to my father..." Dr. Idit Gil muses... this goes beyond the scope of any research.

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