“I would be seized by a feeling of rage and the desire to kill, but I felt powerless.”
The Nazi war machine was powered by slaves. An estimated 20 per cent of Hitler’s wartime workforce was made up of forced labourers shipped in from other countries. In fact, 12 million men, women and children from 20 occupied nations toiled at gun point in the fields, mines, factories and foundries of the Third Reich. Elie Poulard was just one of the more than 600,000 French civilians who were rounded up by Vichy collaborators and sent to work in Nazi Germany. Now, more than 70 years after the end of the Second World War, Poulard is sharing his story. His recently published memoir, A French Slave in Nazi Germany, recounts the largely forgotten horrors and deprivations conscripted workers suffered at the hands of their captors, as well as the dangers they faced as Allied bombs rained down around them. In this excerpt, which was generously provided by the publishers at University of Notre Dame Press, Poulard and his fellow workers watch from their guarded encampment as their nearby factory in Dortmund is bombarded by the Allies on Oct. 6, 1944.
By Elie Poulard
BEFORE THE SIRENS began to wail, we heard the noise of formations of Flying Fortresses passing above our camp at Boeler Heide. We learned later that there was a total of 850 planes.
Hearing the infernal humming produced by all these planes together, we came out of the barrack, and we got ready to enter the trench that served as our bomb shelter. We then heard the sirens howl, and, at the same time, the ground shook under our feet. Bombs were falling on Dortmund. From where we were we could see the flashes of the explosions and of the incendiary sticks. Then, after a moment, all we could see was just smoke. The explosions of the bombs, the raging shots of the flak, the sky illuminated by hundreds of spotlights, all that had the feel of apocalypse.
The streets had for all practical purposes disappeared. They were covered with pieces of walls, bricks, burning furniture, shreds of curtains, and again that odour of burned flesh and fresh blood. It was unbearable.
The next morning, since my work site was in Dortmund, we were thrust into horror: a city of 600,000 inhabitants in ruins, fires everywhere, hundreds of dead bodies in the streets, and the odor of fresh blood mixed with that of burned flesh. The next day, Sunday, my workmates and I were sent to the main railroad station of Dortmund—the Hauptbahnhof. To get to it, we had to walk through the rubble of destroyed apartment buildings that lay all around. In fact, the streets had for all practical purposes disappeared. They were covered with pieces of walls, bricks, burning furniture, shreds of curtains, and again that odour of burned flesh and fresh blood. It was unbearable.
Here and there, a sign indicated an unexploded bomb, a Blindgänger. On our way to the Hauptbahnhof, there was a church whose four walls remained standing. The roof was gone, and the windows were all destroyed. Through the large gaping holes on all sides, a large crucifix could be seen still suspended in the middle of the nave. Thus, we could see Christ every time we passed by this church on our way to or from the main station of Dortmund.
The first time we arrived at the Hauptbahnhof, we faced a horrible spectacle. The roof of the main hall had caved in, and only parts of the rafters remained. The floor was covered with rubble. At the entrance of the station, there was a human foot, cut at mid-calf. Strangely, this foot remained there for several weeks! After the initial shock and a few days later, we started to kick this foot from one side to another every time we passed by.
On the evening of October 6, the Dortmund station was full of passenger trains, and there were many people in these trains or on the platforms—certainly several hundred. Because the bombs fell before the air raid sirens went off, it was carnage. In an underground passage, several corpses were piled up one on top of another. In what had been a waiting room, the floor was covered with a layer of ashes on top of which lay about fifty helmets and gas masks. It was all that was left of the soldiers who were there when incendiary and phosphorous bombs surprised them.
In the ripped-open railway cars, there were hundreds of corpses, some of which were atrociously mutilated. I remember having seen the body of a soldier sitting with his hand on his dagger in a passenger car of which only the metal frame was left. He must have been completely charred.
In the ripped-open railway cars, there were hundreds of corpses, some of which were atrociously mutilated. I remember having seen the body of a soldier sitting with his hand on his dagger in a passenger car of which only the metal frame was left. He must have been completely charred. Right in the middle of the station, in a locomotive cut in half, was the body of the engineer lying on the window ledge of the cab.
As usual in such circumstances, I wandered here and there, shovel and pick on my shoulder, pretending to be doing something. With my friend André Geerts, I decided to pretend more realistically to be working. We were told that a platform, damaged by a bomb, needed to be cleaned up. We thus went there and started to use our picks and shovels, rather slowly I must say, when suddenly I felt myself lifted up by some strong hands. On that platform, I found myself nose to nose with an SS man who was with two other men in striped clothing.
I was made to understand that I was using my pick right on top of an unexploded bomb that these men had come to defuse, which they did a few minutes later. Unbelievably, an SS man had just saved my life.
Strangely, as is usual in such a case, I did not feel any fear afterwards. Perhaps it was because, in such an atmosphere, I was no longer my normal self. That same day, my team was used to take down a 30-meter rail that, all bent, had found itself stuck in the roof of a platform. We were overseen by Herr Schwartz, the firm manager to whom I had earlier said “merde.” He recognized me, and, because I did not exert myself very much with this work, he kicked me in the butt. I think he probably took that as a sort of revenge. That was the last time that I saw Schwartz. He was replaced by a man named Schirah.
We worked for a long time in the station. With us, there were some Russians and some Italians, prisoners from the Badoglio army. As I mentioned earlier, they had the letters IMI painted on the back of their jackets. It was rather funny because, at that time, IMI was the trademark of a laundry detergent that was well known in Germany. There were also men in striped clothing from a concentration camp. SS men would bring them every morning and would drive them by beating them with their belts. Looking at that, I would be seized by a feeling of rage and the desire to kill, but I felt powerless.
One day when I was not working in the station, my friends related to me that they had witnessed a scene that horrified them. An employee of the Reichsbahn told one of the SS that one of his charges was warming himself at a fire lit between the tracks. This SS coldly killed the poor man with a shot from his rifle. My friends were really upset and revolted by that act, but were unable to intervene since what happened was so fast and unexpected.
Elie Poulard is the author of A French Slave in Nazi Germany. He lives in France. Jean V. Poulard, his brother and translator, is professor of political science at Indiana University Northwest.