Reuben Woolley reviews ‘OST: Letters, Memoirs and Stories from Ostarbeiter in Nazi Germany’ by Memorial

21 February 2022

by Reuben Woolley

Reuben Woolley reviews OST: Letters, Memoirs and Stories from Ostarbeiter in Nazi Germany, edited by Alena Kozlova, Nikolai Mikhailov, Irina Ostrovskaya and Irina Scherbakova, translated by Georgia Thomson, Granta Books, 2021 (Russian edition published 2016 by Memorial). pp496. ISBN 9781783785278.

In April 1990, an article appeared in the leading Russian weekly Nedelya. It contained a short historical account of the ‘Ostarbeiter’ — Soviet citizens taken to work in Nazi Germany during the Second World War — and called for anyone with stories from either their own lives or the lives of family members to contact the organisation Memorial, only three years old itself at the time. Memorial eventually received over 400,000 letters, hundreds of hours of interviews, and a large collection of memoirs, contemporary letters and physical items. OST, published in Russian in 2016 and now translated into English by Georgia Thomson, is the first major account of the experiences of the Ostarbeiter available in English, and by far the most sustained and impressive result of the last thirty-two years of work on Memorial’s archive. The book is a living example of Memorial’s commitment to documenting and preserving the victims of those repressed in the Soviet Union, both under Stalin and afterwards, and arrives at a time when the organisation’s ability to continue this work is in considerable jeopardy.

The sheer breadth of experiences among the Ostarbeiter is breath-taking. Those taken to work in Germany between 1941 and 1945 differed in age, gender, occupation, nationality, class, and any number of other life experiences. As just one example, a great number of people were taken from Ukraine, meaning that a large number of Ostarbeiter had memories of the Ukrainian ‘Holodomor’ famine of 1932-3. Discussing the severe lack of provisions in a letter home from Germany, one young man notes, “Dear friends, you write that 1933 is coming closer, but 1933 is already almost with us here.” Experiences after their arrival in Germany were by no means uniform either: some worked in factories, others on farms; some were taken straight to concentration camps, where they experienced some of the war’s most brutal excesses; while some (almost exclusively women) were taken to do domestic work in German households, occasionally living in similar levels of comfort to the family that they worked for (this is not to underestimate the hardships of this domestic work, and it wasn’t uncommon to move — or be moved — from one environment to another).

At the war’s close, almost all Ostarbeiter were forced through ‘filtration camps’, where they were interviewed by NKVD agents to assess their fidelity to the Soviet Union. This left many in a painful double-bind: if they didn’t work hard enough for the Germans, they would face severe punishment, often death; if they worked too hard, they risked not being allowed home once the war was over. This cloud of uncertainty and distrust from the Soviet government and population lasted well into the late Soviet period. Even during their interviews in the 1990s, some former Ostarbeiter avoided revealing too much about their experiences, scared of social ostracism or political consequences. The picture the book paints as a whole is one common to a great deal of war narratives: people left entirely powerless before a landscape of chaos and destruction that they could never possibly have prepared for. There are several stories of dangerous escape attempts and rescue missions: jumping from moving trains ferrying Soviet citizens into Germany, or escaping from a bombed-out German munitions factory in the dying months of the war. These attempts failed not because the escapees were caught, but because they had nowhere to run. those who jumped from the train then followed it, begrudgingly, to the next station to re-board; those who ran from the factory gates then found no stores of food or heat within walking distance, and trudged their way back to their now-abandoned factory building for whatever shelter they could find.

OST describes itself not as a collection of archival materials or a conventional history book, but a ‘mosaic’ of interviews and letters. The focus is undoubtedly on representing the Ostarbeiter in their own words, but doing so in a manner that weaves a large number of individual stories into a cohesive narrative. This is an ingenious way of engaging a reader in archival materials that may otherwise have remained unseen by all but a handful of historians. It is also no simple task, however, and the work that must have gone into the project is somewhat mind-boggling. The end result puts an impressive array of primary material in the hands of the public. The content is far from ‘nice’ to read, but the book is nonetheless a page-turner. The close focus on individual experiences does have potential pitfalls, but the editorial team have done well to mitigate them. Where interviewees have misremembered, lied, or deliberately evaded answering questions, the text provides the reader with a general reminder of the historical context or probable solutions to contradictory testimony. Where the pool of available testimonies leaves the project with a blind spot — such as the near-complete lack of Jewish Ostarbeiter to talk to, given the horrific Nazi persecution and mass murder of any Jewish population they encountered —time and attention are spent examining the information that is available, to try and achieve a fuller picture of events. Without a broader examination of the political, historical and military factors that led to these individual experiences, it would be impossible to create an entirely comprehensive picture of the Ostarbeiter and their role within German and Soviet economies, militaries, and social histories. But OST never claims to be an entirely comprehensive picture, and what it does offer will be invaluable for furthering engagement with the topic of Soviet Ostarbeiter in years to come. 

On the 28th December, 2021, the Russian Supreme Court moved to liquidate International Memorial. The organisation has appealed the decision, and the efforts to protect Memorial’s right to exist, its archives, and its physical and media presence in Russia are ongoing. Whether this will prove successful is unclear, but books like OST are evidence of the brilliant and genuinely important work that Memorial do, and both Granta and translator Georgia Thomson should be commended for spreading this work beyond Russia’s borders. OST deserves as wide a readership as it can muster, both to preserve the memory of the Ostarbeiter who were so nearly erased from the historical narrative, and to encourage and uphold the fight for historical verity that Memorial has pushed for throughout its thirty-five-year existence.

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