War Slaves Compensated by Germany

Like so many people, Roman Ziegler, 72, witnessed terrible crimes committed by German forces during the Second World War. While he says he can forgive them for the torture and mental anguish he suffered, he vows never to "forgive them for shattering my faith in God." Ziegler somehow survived the six years of slave labour, 2 ½ of them in German concentration camps, that he was subjected to. And with his wife, Miriam, 65, also a Jewish concentration camp survivor whom he met in Canada following the war, he managed to build a comfortable life as a building contractor in Toronto - an existence neither could have imagined during those terror-filled years.

Roman, who was born in Dabrowa, Poland, is a soft-spoken but impassioned man. He spent the war in four different concentration and slave-labour camps, including Sport Schule in Dzierzanow, Poland. Miriam, who is from Radom, Poland, was imprisoned at Auschwitz when she was only 8; she still has a photograph, taken by Russian troops when they liberated the camp on Jan. 27, 1945, of her peering from behind barbed wire. "I lost my family because of the war," said Miriam in the sun-filled kitchen of her sprawling North Toronto home. "I lost everything."

Life in Canada has helped fill the void: Miriam and Roman have three children and four grandchildren. But no amount of compensation, says Roman, can replace the family and friends they lost at the hands of the Germans. By accepting a payout, however, they believe they are forcing Germany, and the corporations that used hundreds of thousands of slave labourers, to unequivocally admit their guilt.

Although Miriam was a child, she was forced to work long and physically gruelling hours as if she were an adult, cleaning bricks and loading trains. One of her more horrifying memories is of the day she witnessed a guard shooting and killing her infant cousin as the baby slept in Miriam's mother's arms. Roman, meanwhile, helped fix highways and build dams for the German government, as well as the slave-labour camp, the Sport Schule, where he later lived. He also bore witness to atrocity, digging graves for fellow Jews in an era of almost casual brutality. At the first camp he was sent to, the Nazi commandant would line workers up each Sunday. If dust fell from their clothing when he tapped them with his whip, he would beat them. On another occasion, "he hit me over the head so hard it cracked my skull," he says. Roman Ziegler still bears the scar.

Adela Uchanski had just attended the evening service at the Roman Catholic Church in Zawiercie, a tiny Polish farming town, when German police grabbed her off the street on that horrible night in 1941. They dragged the frightened teenager into the basement of a home that once housed a Polish dignitary, where she was imprisoned for two days with other girls. They were then packed onto a train along with hundreds of other prisoners and sent to eastern Germany, where she would spend the next four years working 12-hour days in a military clothing factory.

Uchanski, now 76, had studied German in school, and was quickly promoted from sewing to counting merchandise. "It was such long hours," recalls Uchanski, who immigrated to Canada from Germany in 1950 with her husband, Stanislaw, who, as a prisoner of war, had been forced to work on the farm of an SS officer. The couple settled in London, Ont., where Uchanski worked in a box factory and her husband on the railways, and they raised two children.

Along with hunger, fear was constant during the war. Labourers who worked beside Uchanski often disappeared and Uchanski dreaded that she would face the same fate. She also toiled in the same factories with many older Germans, who were forced to work because the young were serving in the army. "They wanted to have sex with you," Uchanski says, "and when the girls didn't, they would be raped."

Because of the time she spent working for the German state, Uchanski receives a German pension that averages out to about $70 a month. The new compensation package will not change what she endured. "It's not much for what we worked," she says. "Probably we could get more, but we have no choice. We must take what we are given."

Joseph Kolomijchuk was a slight, dark-haired 17-year-old in 1943 when the Germans came to the technical school he attended in the Ukrainian town of Berezne. At gunpoint, they marched the male students to a train and forced them into a boxcar. "Some tried to escape," recalls Kolomijchuk, 74, a retired Calgary janitor who lives with his wife, Helen, in the three-bedroom bungalow where they raised four children. "Some were successful. Others were shot making the attempt." Kolomijchuk was taken to Germany and put to work on a farm, where he stayed for two years.

Helen Kolomijchuk was 15 when the Germans coerced her into leaving her village, Illintsi, in Ukraine in 1942. They promised her that if she worked for three months on a German farm as a forced labourer, they would not take her older brother, Hryhoriy, who was married and starting a family. Helen agreed and was shipped to a farm near the town of Ulm in southern Germany. The work was hard - she took care of cattle, harvested the fields and cooked. And the Germans reneged on their promise, forcing her to remain on the farm until the end of the war.

She never again saw her parents, who died during the war. Hryhoriy, whom she thought she was saving, was forced into the German army in 1943 and disappeared without a trace. She is currently receiving a state pension from the German government of about $29 a month. "Those who were in concentration camps, who worked in harsh conditions for the Germans, these people need to be compensated," she says. But no amount of money will ever be enough.

Maclean's July 31, 2000