Postcards (front and reverse).

Animation 2010

Motif used for the postcard series.

These postcards are available in cafés and bars of Berlin in the context of the exhibition about Forced Labor in the National Socialist era on view at the Jewish Museum Berlin.

Photo: Anke Heelemann, 2010


Since 24 September 2010, in a number of cafés and bars of Berlin, a series of postcards has been available, already conspicuous through the visual effect of their black-and-whiteness alone. The faces looking out of the scenes are friendly. These must be old private photos; the clothing is clearly 1940s style. Upon closer inspection, however, one notices disconcerting details, details pointing to the fact that there’s something odd about these photos. In the background of one there’s a camp fence, in another a woman has a “P” sewn onto her clothing, in a third the sign of the local Nazi party chapter can be discerned.

The majority of the eight motifs used for the postcard series are from the collection of the Foundation “Polish-German Reconciliation”. A partner of the Foundation “Remembrance, Responsibility and Future”, this organization was in charge of making financial support payments to former forced laborers in Poland. The private photographs (or copies thereof) in its holdings were submitted by former forced laborers as proof of their forced labor assignments.

Along with written reports of those assignments and experiences, the historical private photographs constitute a unique collection providing remarkable insights into the everyday practice of forced labor in the German Reich. In the postcards, the forced laborers encounter the beholder as self-confident people. Their reports, on the other hand, document the circumstances under which the photos were taken.

Private Photos of Forced Laborers

At first sight, the motifs of these photos are somehow confusing. They show forced laborers in what look like private everyday situations. At the same time, important aspects of these persons’ daily lives – work, violence, resistance, escape – are not recorded here.

The deported children, adolescents, women and men wanted to distil a bit of normality for themselves as a means of escaping from the role of the disenfranchised assigned them by the Nazis. For the most part, the pictures therefore show the experiences the forced laborers wanted to remember. What is more, with these photos they often attempted to paint a positive picture of forced labor deployment and the related living conditions to allay the fears and worries of their loved ones back home.

According to the racist regulations enforced by the Germans, Polish workers – like their Soviet colleagues – were strictly prohibited from owning cameras. Often it was the Western European or Czech forced laborers – persons permitted to keep cameras – who therefore photographed the Poles and Russians. In other cases, German photographers earned money with photos of Eastern European workers. Former forced laborers in Berlin, for example, remember that in many public places German photographers offered to take pictures of foreign workers for a fee. Many of the photos were also taken in German photo studios and printed as postcards to be sent home by the forced laborers to their families as a reassuring sign of life. Finally, there were also many cases in which Polish or Soviet nationals owned cameras secretly.