Wearing the Letter P: Polish Women as Forced Laborers in Nazi Germany, 1939 – 1945
by Sophie Hodorowicz Knab
Award winning author Sophie Hodorowicz Knab’s recent release, Wearing the Letter P: Polish Women as Forced Laborers in Nazi Germany, 1939 – 1945, skillfully uncovers a tragic but overlooked chapter of Polish history. This nonfiction work tells the real-life story of nearly half a million Polish-Catholic women who were kidnapped and forced into slave labor for the support and advancement of Hitler’s Germany.
Sophie’s own mother, like the others, was caught up in what has been called the largest, most secretive wartime slave-labor campaign carried out by the Nazis. Nearly four decades after WWII, Knab writes a book that answers all the questions her own mother couldn’t or wouldn’t address. “I tried to write the book I could never find,” Knab said.
Her extensive and thorough research includes scholarly footnotes and vignettes from female detainees who tell their personal accounts of being made slaves, some of them as young teenagers. Knab takes the reader from the first kidnappings in 1939 to the displaced persons camps after the war ended in Europe. The book’s purview has the breadth and depth of the Second World War, and Knab explores with fairness and insight every aspect of Nazi slave labor.
Images of women sorted for job suitability once they reached transition camps that are heavily guarded with SS and dogs, coupled with rations worse than meager are both vivid and shocking. According to slave-labor survivor Maria H., “We were driven by armed guards and, with dogs barking furiously at us, we have to leave our homeland.”
Maria H. also recalled her arrival in Germany: “.… hanging around the motor cars were German children, hollering verbal abuse at us …. one of the children of preschool age ran up to the truck and threw a handful of dirt with gravel unexpectedly in my face hollering, “Polen Schweine.”
At the slave market, according to Knab’s findings, “The fee was 3 RM for a Polish worker from the Government General and 8.50 RM for permission to employ her.”
Enduring long work days with starvation diets, the Polish women were subjected to oppression. Knab presents translated memos that were given to those keeping Polish slaves that instruct employers to be proud of their superiority over Polish people in every respect. “You are masters…” Agricultural estates, businesses, and industry used Polish-Catholic slave laborers. Twelve hour days were the norm and many women worked seven days a week. Job assignments and hours worked were entirely at the whim of the “master.”
Survivor Kazimera K., recalled, “.…we were taken to a rubber factory … it produced various items for war.… myself and the other girls were sent to the most difficult section.… we carried these forms from the ovens… each day we had to carry about 300 pounds…”
While Knab set out to write the book she could never find—a book that would answer the questions her mother could not, she goes well beyond that. Knab has revealed to the world new historic findings from documents long forgotten. Wearing the Letter P gives voice to the hundreds of thousands of individuals throughout America, Canada, Australia, England, and Poland whose family members were victims of forced labor under Hitler’s Third Reich.
I know, because I am one of those family members. My cousin Katherine, her brother, and her brother’s girlfriend were kidnapped off the streets of their Polish village as teenagers. I was shocked when I heard Katherine tell her story two decades ago. She had been locked in an attic each night and had worked in forests and agricultural fields by day. Even more shocking was that I’d never before heard about Catholic-Poles who’d been forced into slavery. The Nazi reign of terror became personal that day. I wondered how they had picked her and why. How many others had suffered like her? I searched for answers. Now I know. There were nearly 2 million Poles taken to Germany as slaves—and half of them were women.
Longtime Sarasota resident Victor Bik was among the men conscripted by the Nazi SS and taken to forced labor camps in Germany. His son Christopher and grandson Jonathon welcome Knab’s book. “Finally, our parent’s story is being told,” Christopher Bik said.
Extraordinarily compelling, Knab’s Wearing the Letter P tells it all, revealing the truth about Nazi human trafficking during WWII.