IamA 90 year old Dutch man that was coerced into the german workforce during WW2 in 1943-1945. AMAA
Hello, I am a 24 year old Dutch student that ever so often visits his grandfather. My grandfather is a person who likes to talk about history, his past and is very open to debate and exploring the past in general. I think an AMA could not only enlighten some readers, but also engage him with interesting topics. PROOF =]
He is 90 years old and still in good mental and physical health. He was the ceo of a chemical company and started as a chemist. He is an avid reader and history enthusiast. He has been writing his autobiography for years and usually spends a couple hours a day on it on the computer.
Recently he focused more on the time he spent as a German involuntary worker during the second world war from 1943 to 1945. Born on the countryside in the North-East of the Netherlands on the 10th of April in 1924, my grandfather had a fairly typical and uneventful upbringing in the small village of Kolham. When the Germans invaded in May 1940, they started to impose their rules on the country. My grandfather had just started his studies at the University of Groningen. To be able to carry on with your studies at the University you had to sign a pledge of allegiance to the German occupiying force. (Later during the war the germans would close universitys and send students to work for them in Germany regardless) His father, anxious for German reprisal, sent his son to sign the pledge but my grandfather wouldn't do it. He has always had a streak of stubbornness, like the time he refused to step aside for an SS officer in a hallway so they bumped into eachother and was subsequently dragged into the office of my grandfathers boss (who was an fervent anti-nazi and generally good man) by the officer. Or the time he was explicitely told not to engage with prisoners of war, and despite of this he struck up a conversation with a female prisoner of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp who were assembling the gasmasks in an underground facility. The prisoner told him they had to march many miles to the factory everyday, but she was grateful because at least they got food in the factory, which they did not get in the camp. A female guard came up to my grandfather and gave him an earfull for disobeying the orders concerning prisoners. For this my grandfather was called to the Gestapo official of the factory and scolded but not punished.
Without the pledge, he could not carry on his studies of Chemistry. He got a job at a auctionhouse where his boss was later shot by the Germans as a random act of reprisal for an assasination in the area. At 19 years of age he and 9 other Dutch students from his university received the 'invitation' to work for the Germans as 'arbeidseinsatz', a forced labourer for the German war-effort. Almost 12 million people were abducted for this puprose during the war. My grandfather was first sent to transport camp where a lot of Dutch men where held, waiting shipment to Germany. There he and some others where rounded and selected by some distinguished looking men and interviewed for their knowledge. These men would later be revealed as high ranking officials from the company that he would be working for and may have done him a great service by selecting him, compared to the other places he could have been sent to. He was then shipped to the city of Orianeburg, near the German capital of Berlin. The company was called Auergesellschaft and had a factory that produced and tested gas masks. He was generally treated quite well, getting paid a small amount and having relatively much freedom.
Recently it was discovered that the factory was also used for the quest for the German Nuclear Weapon Project. My grandfather was unaware of this while he worked there and this greatly peaked his interest and motivation to revisit his thoughts on the period. He was present during the bombing of the factory on 15th of march 1945, an order from General Leslie Groves to deny any material or knowledge to fall in Russian hands. My grandfather endured this bombing which destroyed the factory and killed 700 people of which the greatest amount where workers like him from all over Europe. This left a great impression on him and he wrote down a detailed account of the event. After the factory was destroyed, the country in disarray and the war almost over, my grandfather and friends took the trains West to get back home to the Netherlands where he returned on 4th of May 1945.
After the war he went on to live in the United States for some years but returned to the Netherlands where he worked in a chemical company called Purac (now Corbion) and worked his way up to CEO.
My grandfather has written extensively about his life and wishes for his accounts to be spread to anyone who finds it interesting.
All of his writing is in Dutch, although his English is also very good. If anyone wants to read his account of the bombing of Auerwerke Oranienburg I will upload it.
My grandfather has kept an enormous amount of papers, documents, letters and newspaperclippings from the war. I have added some of these to the album.
UPDATE: My grandfather is going to sleep now, I will try to get the questions to him tomorrow. For people that can read Dutch, here is his account on the story (not translated yet). Arbeitseinsatz door Harm Benninga
Also fixed some errors, it was not a prisoner from Ravensbruck but from Sachsenhausen.
After the war he tried to find his former boss, herr Prauss. He always looked up to him and was grateful for the help and protection he gave my grandfather. It seems that herr Prauss was locked up by the Russians and either died or faded into obscurity as my grandfather could never find him.
My grandfather says that he enjoyed the work itself, as he was a laboratorium assistent in the factory conducting tests for the gasmasks and this was interesting work that was in his field of studies. They were perhaps an exception to the brass of forced labourers as they were treated quite well in the factory. Also, the Auergesellschaft had a lot of wealth and could afford to pay and equip their workers accordingly, but paying them less than the german workers, ofcourse.
By the way: what do you mean with more questions to read up on? Thanks.
I was the first one to ask a question, and didn't have more comments to read up on :)
I wish all the strength in the world for your grandfather. My best wishes to you and your family.
Thank you for your kind words.
This is a great AMA, thank you and your grandfather for this. He sounds like an extraordinary person. I'd love to read translations of his accounts.
Where did he live? In the factory or in the town?
Was he allowed to keep in touch with his family, e.g. via letters?
"We lived in barracks for foreigners, 15 minutes from the factory. The size of the factory compound was about 15 hectare (28 football fields). The barracks were originally built for French Prisoners of War. Barracks in Germany were pretty uniformly built. We had two-person rooms, similar to what German soldiers in barracks for soldiers had.
Everyone was allowed to sent letters home but there was censorship. Around one in ten of my letters was opened and read by the censors. They would then write on the front of the envelope: Opened by the Censor. "
I don't hear this much about this perspective. Thank you so much for doing this AMA.
How did news about the Normandy Landings circulate?
Also, what is one thing we don't know in general that we should know for the future?
How did news about the Normandy Landings circulate?
"I don't remeimber exactly. I think we heard about it three or for days later. We heard about it from the German Communique."
"For the second question, I don't know how to answer that. I am not a philosopher."
What sort of hours did he work? Was he allowed out on the town for entertainment in Germany? How was the food situation in NL and in Germany during the war?
"The official working hours were 48 hours a week. We had saturday afternoon and sundays off. Also we had rights for.. I think 7 days of vacation time and on christian holidays we had off also. We were only allowed to travel in the province were we lived/worked so I was allowed to travel in the province of Mark Brandenburg.. which was pretty big.
The situation regarding food was far better than that in the Netherlands.. in the last warwinter (1944) there were some shortages.. we filed a complaint with the factory leaders. The highest boss of the factory came with a skilled worker (who was called Ombudsman!) to discuss the complaint personally with us, after which we were given decent meals again (two hot meals in a day)
As you can see, we as 10 Dutch students at Auer had lucked out immensly, almost all other deported workers had it far, far worse."
Hi there. My grandfather also lived through the war, albeit in the resistance (http://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Overval_op_het_Huis_van_Bewaring_%28Leeuwarden%29). Was your grandfather up to date with what was happening in the different countries and how the war was progressing? Did he know of any resistance activities going on whilst working in Germany?
Hello , interesting, was your grandfather present at that raid?
"I think we were just as aware of the progress as the people back in the Netherlands. The communiques of the German Oberkommando were generally pretty reliable and were published in all newspapers and even in small regional newspapers that were distributed until the end of April 1945"
Did he consider to go in hiding when he was called up?
"Ofcourse I thought about it. But I didn't have any place to go, didn't know anyone to turn to for that kind of thing. After the war I heard a lot of stories about boys my age that went in hiding and got out of all it that way."
Hi! Thanks for the AmA!
1 - Can you tell us how it was in the final moments of the war for him as a forced laborer? I mean, like the moment they said "you're free to go!"
2 - During the dutch resistance in 1940 (which I read it was very poor in weaponry and strategy) how did his friends and neighbors reacted when they were informed about the invasion?
Thank you in advance.
1- "The times were so unsure after the bombing, the war was almost over... We wanted to wait out the war... On the 21st of April we left and on the 23rd the city was taken by the Russians. We didn't want any part of them. Also, the factory was not guarded by a lot of soldiers, we had a lot of freedom. 20 minutes from our barracks there was an SS base. But we almost never encountered them and certainly not the at end of the war."
2- "The people in my village reacted very indifferently. They didn't really seem all that impressed. We lived in a small town and most people didn't think much of what happened in the world. I saw one German motorbike cross our village that day, but there was no fighting or large troop movements. We were not close to the border so that might be the reason."
Fascinating AMA. I wish there were more questions I could read up on. Does he still keep in touch with any survivors that he came across in his journey? I always wondered how people kept their spirits up. How did he manage to keep your spirit up working in such conditions?
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