On August 4th the brothers write to Toutou to say that they have moved to another workers’ camp, housing around 200 men, mostly French. Are they no longer under the wing of the JOFT? Certainly there is no more talk of parading in the streets in uniform. Actually what they particularly want to mention is that the food has improved! And there is a lot of it – sometimes they cannot even finish their servings. Riri says that he has put on 5kg in two months! “We have definitely never gone hungry, and I can assure you that German civilians are better fed than their French counterparts”. On the downside, everything is flavoured with cumin – even the jam – and they don’t get enough bread. Very few French people consider a meal complete without an ample supply of bread.
They have started at the Kosmograph Diktiermaschinen Fabrik, working from 7 am to 4.15 pm with a short morning break and half an hour for lunch.
It is not easy to identify the locations described in their letters – the workshop where they trained, the camps, or the factory where they were employed. When I first knew Dresden in the 1980’s the beautiful city that Riri and Fonfon describe had been all but obliterated, first by the Allied bombing raids of February 1945 and then by decades of neglect and politically driven reconstruction under the GDR Socialist regime. The Cathedral had been left as a towering, dangerous pile of fallen masonry – I have rarely seen a more chilling memorial to the violent material destruction brought by war.
The less ruined Schloss, on the other hand was, disconcertingly, simply not marked on city maps, in order to emphasise the undesirable nature of royal palaces in the eyes of the State! Large areas had been given over to those soulless prefabricated apartment blocks which blighted so many towns throughout Socialist Central Europe, and some places – even the old market square – were still empty derelict wastelands: unloved, unused and shorn of their history.
It is possible to discern what could be the footprint of the camp they have moved to in Bärensteinerstrasse, which is just over 3km from the factory in Blasewitzenstrasse. Riri and Fonfon take the tram to work, paying 4 Frs for the ticket. Today the number 25 tram, which runs every five minutes, probably follows the same route. As the brothers rode to work on those chilly early mornings they would have followed the banks of the River Elbe and passed the Blue Wonder bridge – one of the sights of Dresden then as now. Completed in 1893 and considered a technological marvel for its time, it survived the bombing and was saved from deliberate destruction in the last months of the war when two courageous Dresdners cut the detonator wires of the explosive charges set by an SS unit.
But if the journey was a novelty at first that soon wore off: “Taking public transport to and from work reminds us of the daily grind Papa used to suffer when he worked in Jonage” (an outer suburb of Lyon) they write.
Number 60 Blasewitzerstrasse now houses a haulage company and there is no recognisable trace of the factory where Riri and Fonfon worked. In their letters they are noticeably vague about exactly what type of work they have been trained to do. The Kosmograph Diktiermaschine Firma was certainly turning out recording dictaphones in 1930 – I found one for sale on a specialist site – but I suspect that by 1943 the production lines had been modified and adapted to the manufacture of armaments, as was the case in most German industry when the tide of war turned against the Reich. The brothers are clearly employed in some kind of precision machine engineering work. They have around 50 co-workers, all of them German: Riri and Fonfon say that they are the only foreigners there, which is very unusual.
Although none of the other men speak French, the brothers find their colleagues interesting and congenial and as their German improves, enjoy chatting to them in breaks, especially on the night shifts when there is less supervision. There are only eight or nine workers on these shifts and they listen to music on the radio and clearly do a good deal of skiving. Their German colleagues slip them a cigarette, a slice of bread and butter, an apple or a pear as they work and they sometimes invite the brothers to eat with them at one of the several restaurants within walking distance of the factory, donating their own ration coupons.
This is how Blasewitzerstrasse looked then. The Fürstenkrone restaurant was in the building on the right with the ornate corner tower, or they could have popped into the Niederwald at number 40, the Lämmchen at number 58 or the Waldpark across the street.
“Frankly, they are great” says Fonfon of his German colleagues. They are just young men working together. The situation is what it is and the brothers are pragmatic enough to take people as they come and make friends where they can.
But the hours are long and the work is exacting: “pénible” as they say, and since they are on piece work, rather than an hourly rate, their wages vary. Every other week they must work night shifts, which last 11 hours, with just two breaks. In the past week they have worked 55 hours and earned 53 Marks (1,060 Frs). Out of this they have to pay 70 Frs for lodging, 150 Frs for food, 150 Frs tax and insurance and 40 Frs for the tram. What is left over goes on extra food and entertainment.
It is pretty much impossible to make a meaningful financial comparison with present day values. The French franc was tied to the Reichsmark throughout the war, with 1 RM equalling 20 FF, and in their letters the brothers always talk in terms of Francs so that the family will be able to get a sense of their financial situation. Perhaps surprisingly, foreign workers from Western Europe were paid the same salary, with the same deductions and benefits, as their German counterparts, a fact which will soon prove to be important for both Riri and Fonfon.
By 1943 Germany was obliged to dedicate more and more of the country’s industrial resources to fighting a losing war and within a few months almost the entire German economy would be geared to military production. Desperately short of labour, the Nazis used every means possible to increase production and bring in foreign workers to toil for the Reich. This included the barbaric exploitation of slave labourers, held in inhuman conditions in the concentration camps and worked to death.
Other workers were classified in different categories. Ostarbeiter were forced labourers, rounded up primarily in Ukraine and Poland. Housed in fenced camps under military guard they were treated scarcely better than the concentration camp prisoners.
Ethnic Poles from the General Government occupied area were classed as Zivilarbeiter. Their lives were strictly regulated by a series of decrees and they received much lower pay and food rations and fewer benefits than workers from Western Europe. They were required to wear a Polish P patch on their clothing and were not allowed to use public transport or visit public spaces such as restaurants and churches nor to own such items as a camera, a bicycle or even a lighter!
Riri and Fonfon fell into the category of Gastarbeitnehmer, so-called guest workers, and then there were the “released” POWs, who were mostly French. The brothers mention meeting these “free workers” several times and are always happy to chat with a fellow Frenchman. They seem to take their status at face value, but in reality, the situation of these men was curious.
After 1940 French POWs were held in German camps because, although hostilities had ceased between the two nations, they had signed an armistice not a peace treaty, meaning that Germany was under no obligation to return the men to France. Under the terms of the 1929 Geneva convention, a neutral state (the USA) was designated to oversee the prisoners’ treatment and rights, but in November Georges Scapini, the minister in charge of prisoner affairs, signed a protocol with Berlin, transferring this responsibility to the Vichy government. In effect, French POWs were no longer protected by the Geneva convention, but governed by a direct agreement between the two states. In practice this made little difference to the conditions of their imprisonment, but it opened the way for Germany, desperate for manpower in 1943 to offer the POWs the choice to become “free civilian workers”, and around 200 000 of them took up the offer. Although by so doing they lost their international status as prisoners of war, with protection from the time of their capture to their final repatriation, most of them probably did not appreciate the fundamental difference in their position: in either case, whether they liked it or not, they were working for Germany.
So many thousands of ordinary men and women, uprooted from their ordinary lives and thrown into the insatiable maw of the Reich! Although some existed in more desperate circumstances than others, they were all being used simply as cogs in a diabolical machine.
Note: This site gives a very informative description how German industry evolved between from 1937 to 1945, from the perspective of the volkswagen motor company.
Header image source: volkswagenag.com. Unless otherwise stated, all images from Wikipedia commons. Wherever possible I have traced and credited the image authors. Any omissions are unintentional.