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The forgotten children of Hamburg's forced labor camps

Sven Töniges
September 28, 2020

Hundreds of women and children were sent to forced labor camps in Hamburg during the Nazi era. A psychologist has launched a campaign to remember their lives with "stumbling stones."

Gold rectangular blocks bearing names, set into concrete in a checkerboard fashion
The names featured on the new stumbling stones unveiled in Hamburg belong to persons whose lives were cut too shortImage: Margot Löhr

Recently 49 new Stolpersteine (stumbling stones) were laid into the concrete sidewalk in the Hamburg suburb of Langenhorn. They carry the names of 49 children who died there during World War II. 

The names on the little memorial stones are mostly Eastern European-sounding, names of small children whose mothers had been sent to forced labor camps for the Nazi regime.

Read more: Germany: 75,000th 'Stolperstein' for Holocaust victims laid

Chance encounter unearths hundreds of stories

It was only about 10 years ago that Hamburg-based psychologist Margot Löhr discovered these children's fates — entirely by chance. Taking a close look at Hamburg death registers, she found numerous files containing the names of children and infants. Their official place of residence was listed as a former forced labor camp in Hamburg. 

"I wanted to follow up on the fate of these children," said Löhr.

She compiled 418 names of children, most between the ages of 10 and 14, but many of them babies. They and their mothers had been forced by the Nazis to work in various factories.

They included, for example, a young woman named Nadeshda who had entered the Hohenzollernring camp in Hamburg as a 4-year-old. In her later memoirs, she recalled that her parents and 14-year-old brother had to work hard in the factory and that her brother had been beaten by guards — for accidentally dropping a barrel that had been too heavy for him to carry.

Margot Löhr kneels next to a memorial
Margot Löhr spent 10 years investigating the short lives of the children murdered by the Nazis in HamburgImage: Margot Löhr

Murdered newborns

Margot Löhr was especially jarred by the fate of two young Jewish women at the Hamburg concentration camp, Rozena and Alice. Having already witnessed the genocide against Jews first-hand at Auschwitz, both had to hide their pregnancies for fear of their lives.

“Pregnancies were not allowed,” Margot Löhr explained.

Rozena went into labor in December 1944 and gave birth to a healthy boy. A short time later, a female security guard showed her the dead child. A supervisor had placed the baby in a cardboard box, and the camp commander, Walter Kümmel, had drowned it.

Having survived the war, the two women testified as witnesses before the Hamburg Regional Court — but not until in the early 1970s. The verdict for Kümmel was only "accessory to murder." In the court's opinion, "no base motives" that could be held against him.

Read more: New Berlin Stolpersteine honor victims of Nazi Germany

Remembering the forgotten

Many women had been forced abort their pregnancies, but in postwar Germany those brutal Nazi-era practices were met with silence. Even back in their home countries, the mothers of the dead children who had been sent to forced labor camps in Germany hardly ever dared to speak about that dark chapter of their lives.

The children the forced laborers had given birth to were usually written off as "children of traitors."

In the past decade, Löhr has researched more than 400 such cases in Hamburg and has written a book about their fates. Thanks to her initiative, much light has been cast on the history of female forced laborers in Hamburg during World War II. 

During the war, 246 of these women's babies were buried at Hamburg's Ohlsdorf cemetery. But in 1959, most of the graves were leveled, leaving nothing to remember them by, making it all the more important today to remember their fates another way. 

Additional stumbling blocks are scheduled to be laid in memory of these forgotten children of Hamburg Iater this year.

Read more: First 'Stolperstein' Holocaust memorial laid outside Europe

Looking after Stolpersteine

Adapted by Sertan Sanderson

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