Mirek Gosney: Czechs were in “weird middle ground” in Nazi forced labour system

Mirek Gosney

Hundreds of thousands of Czechs were among the many millions of people, many from Eastern Europe, used by the Nazis as forced labour during World War II. Among them was trained mechanic Miroslav Jeřábek. Many decades later, his UK-born great-grandson Mirek Gosney has just made a documentary exploring Germany’s forced labour programme, Building Hitler’s Empire, which gets its first screening at the Czech Embassy Cinema in London this coming Friday. I spoke to Gosney ahead of the premiere.

What was it that first made you want to make this film about forced labour?

“Growing up I knew bits and pieces from my great-grandmother about her experiences in the war in what was Czechoslovakia. And my great-grandfather’s experiences. But I never paid it as much mind as I probably would have, in hindsight.

“I vaguely knew that he had been sent to Germany in some capacity – I never really thought what capacity.

“Going by a box of musty old photographs in my grandmother’s cellar I started to piece things together.”

“But literally just going by a box of musty old photographs in my grandmother’s cellar I started to sort of piece things together. And that led to this massive journey – I just became fascinated.”

What exactly did your own great-grandfather, Miroslav Jeřábek, go through?

Mirek Jeřábek | Photo: Mirek Gosney

“I explore that in the documentary. It’s very interesting looking at the Nazis and how they define their racial hierarchy. Because there were certain groups, like Western Europeans, who they had more respect for perhaps and treated a bit better.

“Then you have the other end of the spectrum, so people from the East and former Eastern Bloc, who they treated appallingly.

“But Czechs were in a weird middle ground. Because people like Heydrich and Hitler hated the Czechs, but they did treat them better than people further east.

“[Miroslav] was a skilled worker and I understand he spoke German fluently, because they learned in school at the time. He was quite a clever bloke and he managed to land in his own trade – he went to work as a mechanic in Germany, which is what he did anyway, so he was quite fortunate. Not everyone got to do that.

“From the evidence I can see he largely kept his head down. He was quite fortunate and I think he didn’t have the worst experience.

“But honestly it’s a spectrum, because then you talk to other people whose relatives were cleaning up air raid damage in Berlin and obviously they had a completely different experience.

“That’s something that was quite important to show, and I particularly do it towards the end of my documentary: It was overall a negative experience, no-one wanted to be there and their lives were constantly at risk. But these were young people, so when they could they would try to have some fun. They were trying to make the best of a horrible scenario.

“So there are old pictures I found in his collection of him and presumably Czechs, but not necessarily – they’re just people he was working with – and they’re just mucking about with a camera, posing in front of vehicles. Why wouldn’t you, if you’re 21?

“So I think that was important. Then there were reunions in subsequent years – I thought that was very interesting as well. Because you would presume it was a deep-set trauma that no-one would want to talk about and move on.

“But I understand that on at least five occasions he did meet up with people he went to Saalfeld with, well into the 1980s.”

Saalfeld,  2022. Taken on the same AGFA camera Mirek bought in Germany,  probably Dresden,  more than 80 years ago. Ironically,  AGFA used forced labour | Photo: Mirek Gosney

When you speak about the different classes of forced labourers, I gather that also had a knock-on effect in terms of what they got paid, or even how much they go to eat?

“Certainly. There’s a German historian, Mark Spoerer, who has studied this a lot, and I noticed this in Mirek’s case as well, and a Czech’s sort of ranking on the racial-ethnic hierarchy did kind of correspond with their socio-economic status.

“Because he was paid not very well, less than the average German worker, but he was certainly paid a lot better than, say, a worker from Russia.”

You also say in the film that initially the Germans were hoping to encourage people to voluntarily come from the states they had taken over to work in Germany, but that didn’t work and they therefore started using forced labour?

“Yes, that’s correct. Certainly after their failed campaign on the Eastern Front – so we’re talking late 1941 – too many Germans were going off to war so they ran out of people to work, basically. So that’s actually when they turned it into forced labour.

“There was a black mark on these people who had volunteered initially.”

“And interviewing people whose grandads or grandmas were forced labourers, there was certainly a black mark on these people who had volunteered initially. They were shamed and called collaborators and Nazi lovers.

“But the way the Nazis had made these conditions in the occupied territories created a recession and such unemployment that all these young people just couldn’t do anything.

“They kind of engineered it to tempt them to go to Germany, but then it did catch up with these people. The Communists in particular, once they took over in Czechoslovakia and other Eastern Bloc countries, went really hard on them as well. They just saw them as collaborators.

“I really wanted to address that because I thought it makes no sense. It’s a horrific way to treat people who lost their best years in this war. A lot of them died as well.

“That’s largely what I wanted to show: In a conflict of this scale, and a human rights abuse of this scale, no-one comes off completely untarnished.”

What was the difference between forced labour and slave labour?

“It does get very complex to be honest. Because you have three groups: the concentration camp inmates, civilian forced labour – which was my great-grandfather – and POWs, and there are differences between them.

“I think probably the core differences are that forced labourers, even ones from the East, got paid, whereas slaves didn’t. Slaves tended to be from concentration camps, but not necessarily. Certainly Eastern workers after paying taxes and deductions were left with no income, so they technically weren’t being paid – even though they were on paper.

“In theory forced labourers supposedly had a right to complain and had employment rights. I very much doubt that happened in practice: If a Czech worker went complaining to his boss, I don’t think that would have ended particularly well.

“And certainly in the voluntary part of the staff, which was only for civilian foreign workers, they did have some say – they could revoke their contracts and they did have leave. But that did change a lot during the war.

“In particular Fritz Sauckel [with Albert Speer one of the architects of the system] did clamp down on that, because I think a lot of workers who went home when the bombing started did not come back.

“So I think everyone’s rights, including Czechs, did get worse during the war.”

Mirek and his compatriots at the garage they worked in Saalfeld | Photo: Mirek Gosney

It’s also interesting that they were often based in places that were being bombed by the Allies. But one thing I also wanted to ask you about was, What happened to female forced workers if they got pregnant?

“To be honest, that was one of the most disturbing things I came across. I think it was [Fritz] Sauckel [architect with Albert Speer of the system] who in late 1942 set up special maternity facilities, basically to stop pregnant women being sent home.

“But a lot of these women were subject to abortions. If their offspring were genetically inferior they were killed, or they were rehomed with German families to aryanise them.

“It affected men and women. Certainly with the East the Nazis didn’t discriminate by age or gender – they took everybody. From as far East as you can go, like Russia, they had girls of 13, some a lot younger – there wasn’t any regulation with this.

“A lot women were kidnapped and deported to the Reich as prostitutes for German officers. Even for forced labourers’ brothels.”

“Supposedly there was meant to be, but it never happened in practice. But certainly with the East, again, a lot women were kidnapped and deported to the Reich as prostitutes for German officers. And even for forced labourers’ brothels as well.

“It is interesting. In a weird way, they didn’t discriminate in this regard. No-one got away unscathed.”

One thing I found eye-popping in your film is that at the end of the war some of these forced labourers were forced back to the Soviet Union against their will.

“Yes, that was a little bit of a departure from the topic I was exploring, but once I sort of got onto it I thought I have to address this.

“It was called Operation Keelhaul. It was something that was under discussion for a very long time, since the very early days of the war. There was a discussion about what to do with the people from Russia and the Eastern Bloc who were refugees.

“I think it was largely formalized at the Yalta Conference. Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt basically agreed that they would send these people back to Stalin. And it often did happen by force.

“I certainly didn’t know about this straight away and it was actually interviewing Radim Pavlík, who is the grandson of one of the forced labourer in my documentary – his wife’s grandmother was affected by this, so he started talking about that as well.

“That’s when I was, like, Oh wow, there’s another dimension to this I didn’t realise. Because I had heard of reports of this – after the war in these small villages Russians were rounding up Ukrainians; why was that the case?”

Foreign workers from Stadelheim prison working at a factory owned by AGFA in May 1943 | Photo: Mirek Gosney

After the war, a long time after the war [at the turn of the millennium], there was eventually some compensation, for at least some of these forced labourers?

“Yes, it’s quite fascinating how the whole reparation or compensation process started and evolved. It involved pretty much the whole world at that point – whoever had survived had emigrated all over the world. So there were a lot of ex-labourers living in America and Britain.

“It’s a difficult one. I try to show different points of view, because a lot of German companies working in the ‘90s, 2000s and now have had this hanging over their heads, that their predecessors had actively used forced labour in the war.

“That was causing them problems with doing business in Germany and certainly the States.

“But at the same time, obviously there were all these victims – the ones who were still alive – who had never achieved any recognition or any money.

“To be honest, for a lot of them I think… I mean who wouldn’t want a few thousand euros, but by that point many didn’t care, didn’t even look to apply.

Photo: Archive of Mirek Gosney

“I think there was a Polish worker who said something like, Oh, so you’re going to give me EUR 3,000 for four years of lost income?

“But certainly I think that money would have been very useful for more deprived areas of Eastern Europe – and they never got it.

“It was a very complex process and I think to this day there would be very fierce views on what it actually accomplished. But I think it’d be fair to say for most labourers that they were just appreciative of the fact that had finally got some recognition after 40, 50 years.

“The money was great but I think it was more that they just wanted to be acknowledged and for people to know what they went through.”

You say this is a largely forgotten war crime. Why do you think it has been forgotten?

“I think a lot of it was to do with the Communists. The way they treated people, certainly in Czechoslovakia after the Communist coup in 1948… they saw a lot of these people as, like I said, collaborators or even cowards; they weren’t war heroes, they weren’t resistance fighters, they were seen as the cowards who went off to work for the enemy – so they kind of came back with their tails between their legs.

“People were more stoic. People got back to normal life, tried to pick up where they left off and moved on.”

“I think as well it was the character of that era. People were more stoic. I think people got back to normal life, tried to pick up where they left off and moved on.

“It wasn’t discussed in films, society or academia for the best part of 40 years. I think people moved on.

“I think that only changed once the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union collapsed. I think people finally started looking back and actually asking these difficult questions.

“Radim Pavlík, who I interview in my documentary, comes out with something interesting. He says the Czech lands was a very small country with a tiny population, so most people had people working there – so there was no need to discuss it after the war, because it was something so many people had gone through together. It wasn’t particularly unique.

“So I’m sure if I spoke to my great-grandfather now, if he was alive, he’d probably look back and go, Oh yeah, it was just a couple of years I had to work in Germany.

“I don’t think they would see it as such a big deal.”

Mirek Gosney plans to post his documentary in three parts, each week from November 13, at his website: https://www.mirek-gosney.com/