Polish forced labourers on the “Reichsautobahn” in the Rhine region. The ordeal faced by Norbert Widok.
The “Reichsautobahn” from Koblenz to Trier
On 13 February 1939, the “Regulation on the safeguarding of the workforce requirements for tasks of particular importance to national policy” came into force. The Chief Construction Manager of the Reichsautobahnen (OBR), Frankfurt/Main Section, was given the financial means necessary to begin construction of a motorway from the Koblenz region (Dernbacher Dreieck) via Trier towards Kaiserslautern, which is known today as the A48/A1/A62. The Nazis ordered a total of 50 labour camps to be constructed. Until the start of 1942, Polish and French prisoners of war, foreign civilian labourers, concentration camp prisoners from Hinzert near Trier and around 3,000 domestic and foreign prisoners were interned alongside German conscripts. They were under the control of the prisons in Koblenz and Wittlich. Polish prisoners were predominantly put to work in the Autobahn construction section around Koblenz and were interned in the prison camps near Bassenheim, Hilgert and Uersfeld.
Polish prisoners on the Autobahn
A letter from the Reich’s Ministry of Justice to the “Administration of the General Government in Kraków” dated 22 November 1940 stated, “since the prisons in the General Government [are] over capacity”, 600 “Polish prisoners who are capable of working outside” with more than six months remaining on their sentence should be sent to the Autobahn. Appropriate requests were also sent to the “Reichsgau Wartheland” [Wartheland administrative area]. In December, the construction authority in Frankfurt am Main appealed for Polish prisoners to be transferred as soon as possible. This had the desired effect. On 10 January 1941, the police radio service announced that 400 Poles would be arriving at the railway station in Bassenheim, a few kilometres from Koblenz, the day after next. These prisoners were mainly from the “Reichsgau Warteland”. One of them was Norbert Widok. On 8 February 1941, another transport train with 300 Polish prisoners arrived at the station in Vallendar from Tarnow, 80 kilometres east of Kraków. They were taken to the “Reichsautobahn” camp in Hilgert in the Westerwald.
As well as these prisoners, who had come directly from the East, these Autobahn camps also housed Poles, who had previously worked as forced labourers in the “moor camps”.
The January transport to Bassenheim
Two reports have been passed down about the transport of Polish prisoners to the “Eiserne Hand” camp near Bassenheim on 12 January 1941. One was from the administrative assistant at the prison in Koblenz. The other was from one of the prisoners involved, Norbert Widok.
First, an excerpt from the report by the Koblenz prison administration: “The prisoners were handed over to me by a captain in the police force. As well as myself, Inspector Dr Linker and the required Oberwachtmeister [staff sergeant] and assistant overseer were also present for the handover. 299 were sent to the Eiserne Hand camp and 101 to the Hilgert camp. […] Whilst I transferred the 101 prisoners to Hilgert myself, Inspector Dr Linker headed up the transfer to the Eiserne Hand camp. The prisoners were taken to Hilgert in cars, whilst the journey to Eiserne Hand was made on foot. As well as the judicial officials and overseers, the train to Eiserne Hand was accompanied by a police squad of 50 men. The Poles were all in a state of complete neglect. This was true in particular of the overwhelming majority of prisoners in civilian clothing; only 79 men wore old and scraggy prisoner clothing but at least it was clean. Most of the civilian clothing was torn and full of lice and their bare toes poked out of the ripped shoes. It was even more imperative that the Poles be given institutional clothing immediately because, not only could the people in their civilian rags and tatters not be put to work, but the whole camp would be contaminated with bugs, and what was even worse, if the Poles became ill and were transferred to the hospital in Koblenz – some of the prisoners were suspected of having scabies – then the hospital would be contaminated too. […]”