Monday, 7 May 1945

Famine: "Don't let them kill you, the Germans are vicious"

In the days shortly before and immediately after the capitulation of the Reich capital on 2 May 1945, there were repeated burglaries in cellars, apartments or food depots by liberated forced labourers. As was to be expected, violent acts of revenge against Germans were not absent. The former Polish forced labourer Aleksandra Reniszweska recalls:

"A friend and I drove to the boys in the camp. We couldn't return because the Soviet troops were advancing very quickly. On the roll call square the boys hanged the camp commander, who was allegedly very mean. When the Germans began firing from the other side of the Spree in the direction of Soviet scouting troops, we feared they might retake this shore. If they had seen the hanged camp leader, they would surely have shot us all."

Often the former forced labourers reacted with such actions to the massive repression to which they were exposed throughout the war. Particularly in the last weeks of the war, random excesses of violence against forced labourers and targeted executions by SS units had also increased in Berlin. As usually, the liberated persons did not proceed indiscriminately, but sought out superiors, foremen or camp leaders.

The catastrophic supply situation also prompted many liberated men to break into storage depots or apartments. The former Polish forced laborer Kazimiera Czarnecka reports:

"A strange thing happened. The uniformed camp commander Zielke no longer exists, there are no guards... The kitchen remains closed and no food is handed out. We are hungry. Someone comes with the news that the men are breaking the locks to the food storage and that there is something to eat. In the storage there were bags of semolina and sugar. They were delicacies. During our entire stay in the camp we had never received an ounce of sugar."

Liberated Italian forced laborer Ugo Brilli also remembers the days immediately after the war:

"There was chaos... the Germans ran away. We went to the cellar to find food... The Russians gave us three days' green light - you can do whatever you want, but be careful, don't get killed, because the Germans are vicious."

The perception of the "plundering and marauding foreigners" plays a major role in the German perception of the first days of May, which is still significantly influenced by Nazi propaganda. Later on, it also often shapes the memory of the spring of 1945. Such reports do not, it seems, come as a surprise to the German public. After all, they covered up the guilty conscience about the brutal treatment of many forced labourers - especially those from the Soviet Union.
This often repeated narrative, however, ignores the fact that, on the whole, the crime rate of the post-war days was not much higher among displaced persons than among Germans. For the latter increased significantly after the war.

(Sources: Letter of 17 November 1997 from the former forced labourer Aleksandra Jelinek, née Reniszewska, to the Berlin History Workshop and interview with Ugo Brilli on 22 April 2012 © Nazi Forced Labour Documentation Centre; Volker Ulrich, "Eight Days in May," Munich: C.H. Beck, 2020)