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Forced Labor by Jews under National Socialism

With Adolf Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor of the Reich and the takeover of power by the National Socialists, the open, legal persecution of Jews began in the German Reich, in accordance with the Nazis’ worldview and ideology of race. This came about in several phases: After the passage of the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service on April 7, 1933, public officials of Jewish origin were dismissed from office, and in the following months all those whom the Nazis defined as Jews were relieved of their positions as civil servants, administrators, and judges. A short time later, the exclusion of Jews was extended to the private economy as well. In a further step, the so-called Nuremberg Laws of 1935 deprived the Jews not only of access to the few public offices still open to them but also of their civil rights. Jewish private businesses were boycotted, and as of summer 1938 Jews were legally prohibited from engaging in independent economic activity. Unemployment and poverty soared among the Jewish population. The purpose of the political measures was “to discriminate against and isolate [the Jews] in various ways, in order to expel them from Germany.”[1]


The use of German Jews for forced labor must be understood against this backdrop: Starting in 1936, the use of now unemployed Jews for unpaid compulsory work—a requirement for welfare recipients in certain cases—prepared the way for the next step. Passage of the law calling for work deployment in segregated groups (Geschlossener Arbeitseinsatz) in 1938 meant that Jewish men in Germany and later in the occupied territories as well were subject to use as forced labor. After 1939, they were conscripted in Germany primarily for construction and repair work. At the same time, they were to a great extent without rights, owing to the so-called “unique employment category” (Beschäftigungsverhältnis eigener Art) to which they were assigned.


The forced labor of the Jewish men and women deported from Germany and the occupied countries was organized by the SS and performed primarily in ghettos and concentration camps, where mostly dreadful conditions prevailed: Crowding, lack of food, deplorable hygienic conditions, and brutality on the part of the male and female overseers led to a high mortality rate. As of 1941, most of the Jews in ghettos were deported to concentration and extermination camps, where many had to do grueling work in inhumane conditions, as dictated by the principle of “extermination through labor.” For this purpose, they were often “rented out” by the SS to industrial firms, as in the case of I.G. Auschwitz, before they were murdered.


Generally, immediately after the Wehrmacht’s invasion of a country all the Jews were persecuted, registered, compelled to work, imprisoned, and in most cases deported. A great part of them died in the labor and extermination camps located in Eastern Europe.



Right after the German Wehrmacht invaded Poland in September 1939, the German authorities began persecution of the Jewish population. In the first few days of the war, Jewish men and women were rounded up and shot. On September 21, Reinhard Heydrich issued the “ghettoization order,” allegedly because of the Jews’ participation in assaults and looting, the health risks the Jews represented, and the housing shortage. That paved the way for “extermination through labor”: Starting in December 1939, the German occupying power deported about 600,000 Jews from the “incorporated regions” of Poland to the territory of the Generalgouvernement, where they were jammed into ghettos and required to do forced labor. The  1.4 million Jews already living in the Generalgouvernement were also deported to ghettos. After the end of 1940, at least 700,000 Jews in ghettos and forced labor camps were required to work for German firms or for the Wehrmacht. In the largest single operation (Aktion), the Wehrmacht sent 67,000 men, women, and children to German concentration camps in September 1944, after the Warsaw Uprising. Most Polish Jews were deported to the extermination camps and murdered there.



The approximately 140,000 Jews residing in the Netherlands were forced step by step into poverty following the country’s invasion by the Wehrmacht on May 10, 1940. After extensive “Aryanizations” of their assets, they were organized in segregated work gangs by the German occupation authorities and exploited as a labor force in the industrial sector or for construction work. Ghettos for the Jewish population were established in early 1941. The deportation of a total of 105,000 Dutch Jews began in spring 1941 with transports to the Mauthausen concentration camp for forced labor in the quarry there. The majority, about 60,000, were taken to Auschwitz, where some were selected for forced labor. A large number (34,300) were deported to the Sobibór extermination camp. Only around 5,000 survived.



There were about 90,000 Jews living in Belgium, 38,000 of whom fled to France after the Wehrmacht invaded the country on May 10, 1940. Thousands of those who remained (mostly refugees from neighboring countries) were required to do forced labor for the Organisation Todt after June 1942. By the time the Allies liberated Belgium in September 1944, the German authorities had deported 25,000 Jews from this country to Auschwitz.



At the end of 1939, there were 270,000 Jews living in France, most of them (200,000) in Paris. After the Wehrmacht invasion, 40,000 of them successfully escaped to the unoccupied part of France. Those who remained, a large number of whom were stateless, were hit with full force by the Nazis’ measures of persecution: their assets were appropriated, and they were imprisoned and used for forced labor (Groupements des Travailleurs Etrangers) before being deported to Auschwitz from March 1942 onward. There, most of the 69,000 deportees were either selected for forced labor or sent to the gas chambers. A small number, 5,000, were sent to Majdanek, Sobibór, Kaunas (Kowno), and Bergen-Belsen. Only 3,000 survived.


Soviet Union:

In the Soviet Union, following the German invasion in June 1941, more than 500,000 Jews were shot right away by separately formed special units of the SS, so-called “task forces” (Einsatzgruppen). Those Jews still alive were, as in Poland, herded into ghettos and required to do forced labor, mostly producing textiles for the Wehrmacht and also working as craftsmen in other fields. Many firms built production facilities near the ghettos in the occupied territories of the Soviet Union to take advantage of the cheap workforce. Jews had to do heavy labor for infrastructure projects, such as the through road from Lemberg to Dnepropetrovsk. The forced labor camps, located primarily in the Baltic countries, were under the authority of the Economic and Administrative Main Office (WVHA, Wirtschafts- und Verwaltungshauptamt). Of the 50,000 prisoners confined here, only 2,500 survived until liberation.



In 1942, 100,000 of the 825,000 Jews living in Hungary already were conscripted for work; half were doing forced labor in Hungary, the other half, in the German Reich. Of this group, only around 7,000 survived the war. Immediately after the invasion by the German Wehrmacht in March 1944, the occupying power forced Hungary’s Jewish population, too, into ghettos. By the end of July 1944, 440,000 Hungarian Jews had been deported to Auschwitz. There, SS doctors selected about 100,000 of them for forced labor in the worst possible conditions; most of them they sent to the gas chamber. Around 116,500 Hungarian Jews survived the camps.



Italy’s 50,000 Jews were subject to new, anti-Semitic legal provisions after 1938. Starting in late summer 1942, they were required to do forced labor for projects such as cleaning the reinforcements of the Tiber’s banks in Rome. After Italy joined the Allies against the Axis in July 1943, the deportation of the Jewish population began, under German guidance. A total of 7,500 Jews were deported to Auschwitz, where the SS selected them upon arrival either for forced labor or for death in the gas chambers. Fewer than 800 returned home.



More than 55,000 Jews lived in the part of Greece that was occupied by the German Wehrmacht from 1941 on, and of that number, about 50,000 lived in Saloniki (Thessaloniki) alone. The Jewish population of Saloniki was forced into “work deployment” as of July 1942; many were sent into the malaria-infested swamps and the chromium mines, where they perished. Starting in 1943, Jews were also deployed by the Organisation Todt to build roads. Moreover, the Jewish population was required to move into ghettos by February 1943. By August of the same year, 46,000 Jews of Saloniki had been deported to Auschwitz, where they were either murdered immediately or sent to do forced labor.


Other Countries:

Of Norway’s 2,000 Jews, 770 were deported to Auschwitz in two transports in late 1942 and early 1943, and the fittest were selected there for use as forced laborers. Only 26 survived and returned home.

From Denmark, where around 8,000 Jews made their home, only just under 500 were deported to Theresienstadt, where they became forced laborers. Most of the country’s Jews succeeded in escaping to Sweden, largely with the assistance of Danish fishermen.

(BG/SP; transl. KL)


[pdf] Arbeitseinsatzbefehl Belgien 



Benz, Wolfgang, ed.: Lexikon des Holocaust. München: Beck, 2002.

Gruner, Wolf: Der Geschlossene Arbeitseinsatz deutscher Juden. Zur Zwangsarbeit als Element der Verfolgung 1938–1943. Berlin: Metropol, 1997.

Gruner, Wolf: Jewish Forced Labor under the Nazis: Economic Needs and Racial Aims, 19381944. New York: Cambridge UP / United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2006.

Herbert, Ulrich: Hitler’s Foreign Workers: Enforced Foreign Labor in Germany under the Third Reich. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge UP, 1997.

Hilberg, Raul: The Destruction of the European Jews [1961]. New Haven/London: Yale UP, 2003.

Spoerer, Mark: Zwangsarbeit unter dem Hakenkreuz. Stuttgart/Munich: DVA, 2001.

[1] Wolf Gruner: Der Geschlossene Arbeitseinsatz deutscher Juden. Zur Zwangsarbeit als Element der Verfolgung 1938–1943 (Berlin: Metropol, 1997), p. 19. (Translated by KL)