75 Years Later: The Liberation of Magdeburg: American Troops Discover Polish Slave Laborers in German Camps
By Catherine A. Hamilton
Previously published in the Polish American Journal, May / June 2020
By Catherine A. Hamilton
To this day, most Americans don’t know that at least 1.7 million Polish Catholics were captured, kidnapped, or otherwise conscripted into the largest, most secretive wartime slave labor operation in modern history.
In early April of 1945, the Thirtieth Infantry Division of the US Army National Guard advanced toward the city of Magdeburg, Germany. Under the command of Major General Leland S. Hobbs, their orders were to liberate the citizens of Magdeburg from the tyranny of Nazism that held sway there under Adolf Hitler, who had commanded his generals to continue to fight a war that was already lost. On their way to Magdeburg, the Thirtieth Infantry Division sacked enemy pockets and took the nearby towns of Hamelin on April 7 and Braunschwieg on April 12.
On April 13, 1945, the Thirtieth Infantry Division rolled into the city of Magdeburg; there began the little-known, albeit important, battle at the war’s end, called the Battle of Magdeburg. Did the American soldiers know that some twenty thousand Polish slave laborers were prisoners of Nazism in Magdeburg and the surrounding areas; an estimated total of at least 1.7 million ethnic Poles were held forcibly as slave laborers (Zwangsarbeiter) across German-occupied Europe?
“Unknown to us at the time of the beginning of the Battle of Magdeburg, was the fact that there was a substantially sized slave labor camp housed in the outskirts of the city,” reported First Lieutenant Frank W. Towers of the Thirtieth Infantry Division.
From April 13 to April 18, the Thirtieth fought German forces in fierce scrimmages until they reached the Elbe River, where they met Russian troops headed for Berlin. The Americans took control of the city west of the Elbe, and on April 26, German General Kurt Dietmar surrendered Magdeburg to Major General Hobbs.
According to First Lieutenant Towers, the American liberators “ordered” local Germans “to take some of the slave labors into their homes, and to care for them.”
Confirming the lieutenant’s report, Katherine (Ponczocha) Graczyk, an ethnic Pole who was liberated from an agricultural labor camp near Magdeburg, said in an interview, “I was rescued from the German farm camp on April 18, 1945 by the Americans. But before we rode off in those Army jeeps, the officer in charge ordered the farmer and his wife to fix us all a big supper. It was the first time I’d had meat or cheese in five years! Five long years and all I was given to eat was potato soup!”
Polish forced labor survivor Michael Adamski, born in Wozniki-Sieradz, Poland, was arrested at the age of thirteen by German soldiers who busted into his family’s house before dawn. Michael, his parents, and his two sisters were taken to a transition camp, an empty factory commandeered by the Nazis, where they were locked up for a week before being transported by train to yet another camp near Magdeburg. The family was separated and assigned to different slave labor work sites. Michael spent the war in forced labor at a small machine factory “Rudolf Machine Werke,” where Polish slave laborers were kept in barracks, “…. until the liberation by American forces in April 1945. Freed from our German masters we were advised by the Polish Liaison officer representing the polish Government in Exile to move to a newly set up camp.”
Hundreds upon hundreds of the children of Polish WWII-eraemigrants living in the United States and Canada today have the name of Wildflecken on their birth certificates. As German sergeant major Heinz Leitsch, a non-commissioned officer in in the Bundeswehr, and friend of US-Army troops arrangements of return reunions to Magdeburg in 2020 writes, “Many of these, who are today in their fifties [now seventies], may have asked themselves for many years where this mysterious place, Wildflecken, might be? Is it a village, a city, or simply only the name of a camp? Yes, they knew they had been born in a camp in Germany, but often their parents were silent regarding more details of the circumstances.”
According to Leitsch, when US Army units advanced toward Magdeburg in April 1945, they first overran a German troop camp named Wildflecken. The military camp was thought to be defended by SS troops, but only a few shots were fired. The Americans found a few buildings that housed wounded German soldiers who quickly surrendered. The size of the camp quickly drew the attention of the United Nations Relief Rehabilitation Administration, a refugee organization working to find suitable accommodations for the eleven million forced laborers who had been displaced from their formerly occupied homelands. By May 1945, about twenty thousand Polish displaced persons were gathered in Wildflecken.
The situation in Magdeburg changed quickly when the liberation authorities realized the danger many Poles would face if they returned to Soviet-occupied Poland. Additionally, Magdeburg was overrun by the Soviets. For their safety, twenty thousand displaced Polish slave workers, including Michael, were moved by cattle train to the Wildflecken displaced persons camp.
Secret Nazi Slave Labor Operation
By August 1945, an estimated total of 2.8 million Poles, including those from the Eastern territories occupied by the Russians in September 1939, had been forced into slave labor by Nazi Germany (excluding prisoners of war), nearly half of them women. All were at the compulsory service of the totalitarian Nazi state. Many did not survive, dying of malnutrition, disease, mistreatment, and torture. Estimates of the number of people abducted by the Nazis from twenty different European countries are set at twelve million to fifteen million, two-thirds of them from Eastern Europe. By April 1945, one-third of Germany’s agricultural workforce consisted of forced laborers, mainly from Poland and other Eastern territories.
Magdeburg was a key city in the Nazi war machine, serving as both a train cargo junction and a hub of military defense industry. Krupp’s Grusonwerk in Magdeburg made tungsten steel and Tiger tanks. Krupp exploited an estimated 100,000 POWs, concentration camp detainees, and Polish, Russian, and Jewish slaves. The Krupp Corporation fully embraced the Nazi ideology; they considered Slavic and Jewish slave laborers to be subhuman, and their treatment of slave laborers was particularly brutal.
The Junkers Jumo 211A was also built in Magdeburg and used slave laborers. It is important to note, however, that Hugo Junkers, an aviation pioneer, did not cooperate with the Nazis’ order to make warplanes; instead, he insisted on working on his passenger plane project. When Hitler came to power, he seized Junkers’s patents and factories and put Hugo on house arrest, where he later died.
Thousands of POWs and forced laborers were made to work in the armament factories in and around the vicinity of Magdeburg.
How Did This Happen So Quickly after the Invasion of Poland?
The Nazi regime had planned for the use of forced labor before the start of the war. Hermann Goering, chief of the Four-Year Plan; Fritz Sauckel, plenipotentiary general for slave labor recruitment; Fritz Todt, director of the Todt Organization; Albert Speer, replacement director of the Todt Organization; and Hans Frank, who would be assigned governor of the General Government, were responsible for executing Hitler’s slave labor campaign. Each man implemented a unique component of the brutal forced labor system—a network that allocated enslaved workers to swathes of German companies: chemical and munitions factories, government and military facilities, private farms, and privately owned businesses, including bakeries and family-run workshops. According to Ulrich Herbert, author of “Hitler’s Foreign Workers: Enforced Foreign Labor in Germany under the Third Reich,” (1997), by late 1939, just months after Hitler invaded Poland, 300,000 ethnic Poles had already been conscripted into forced labor.
In a meeting on May 23, 1939, with German General Goering and two other Nazi commanders, Hitler said, “The possession of extensive areas in the East will be advantageous.…The population of non-German areas will perform no military service, and will be available as a source of labor.”
In a letter to the Third Reich employment offices dated November 25, 1942, Sauckel wrote, “In agreement with the Chief of the Security Police and the SD, Jews who are still in employment are, from now on, to be evacuated from the territory of the Reich and are to be replaced by Poles, who are being deported from the General-Government.”
These ethnic Poles were taken off the streets in occupied cities, towns, and villages. Some estimates report four hundred to one thousand were detained per day. They were then taken to transition camps to be sorted for suitability. At one such transition camp in the General Government near the city of Czestochowa, 147 Poles were sent into forced labor in Germany during the month of February 1940, and 4,922 more in March that same year. Sophie Hodorowicz Knab, in Wearing the Letter “P”: Polish Women as Forced Laborers in Nazi Germany, writes, “The Germans ordered that workers undergo a delousing procedure in transit camp.…The head and pubic area was shaved.” This process could last several day or more, before “sanitized workers” were sent by train to “auction style” trading events across Germany,” where they were sold for what amounted to pocket change.
Governor Frank of the General Government of the Third Reich wrote in his diary for May 10, 1940 regarding Field Marshal Goering’s order to deport a million workers: “The arrest of young Poles when leaving church service or the cinema would bring about an increasing nervousness of the Poles. Generally speaking, he (Goering) had no objections at all if the rubbish, capable of work yet often loitering about, would be snatched from the streets. The best method for this, however, would be the organization of a raid, and it would be absolutely justifiable to stop a Pole in the street and to question him what he was doing, where he was working etc,” documents the Yale Law School, The Avalon Project.
Sadly, in addition to the work camps, brothels were set up by the Third Reich. By 1942, as many as five hundred brothels for the use of Wehrmacht and SS officers were in operation, often in confiscated hotels. As early as 1941, the office of Władysław Sikorski, the prime minister of the Polish government-in-exile in London, issued a statement describing the kidnapping of Polish women for sexual slavery in brothels. Other young girls were reportedly being sexually exploited at the work sites in Germany as well. Magdeburg was no exception.
In The End
In 1945 to 1946, Fritz Sauckel, Albert Speer (the replacement director of the Todt Organization), Hermann Goering, Hans Frank, and others were tried at the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg. Sauckel, Goering, and Frank were sentenced to death by hanging on October 1, 1946. On October 16, 1946, Sauckel and Frank were hanged. Goering committed suicide the night before the sentence was to be carried out. Speer served his twenty-year sentence and died in 1981.
Despite the fact that two million Poles were slaves under the German Third Reich, most of them were not paid more than a stamp. New York Times journalist Roger Cohen, in his article “German Companies Adopt Fund for Slave Labors,” reported that “since the end of World War II, the German Government has paid out about $80 billion in war reparations and aid, most of it to Jews who survived concentration camps or fled. But forced laborers—people, generally non-Jews, deported to Germany mainly from Eastern European countries, including Poland and Russia—have not often been compensated.”
For the Poles liberated in the vicinity of Magdeburg, the journey from liberation to repatriation or emigration was a long one, taking up to five years or longer. The war was over, but life in the DP camps was bitter sweet. “The victory parades began,” said slave labor survivor Katherine Graczyk, “but I still was not free. I had no country to go home to. The Communists had occupied Poland.” Couples were married, children were born, and loved ones were buried in DP camps.
Now, 75 years later, we honor the memory of those Poles liberated by US troops.
Janina Micchelli (Suszynski), lays down a bouquet at the grave of the 428 Polish children, among them, her sister, Kazimiera. Left in the picture her sister, Sofia Kasperek, (Suszynki) who was born in Camp Wildflecken (2001).