German teens make amends for sins of Nazis

Pavel Kotlyarov will never forget the hunger.

Forced to work in a German carpentry shop by day, locked in a barrack at night, the Ukrainian was one of millions forced into slave labor by the Nazis. "They fed us so badly, the only thing we were thinking about was a piece of bread," Mr. Kotlyarov recalls.

Now, half a century later, some German schoolchildren in the town where Kotlyarov was once held captive are trying to heal the wounds of the past. Inspired by a history teacher, students from Gersthofen, a wealthy industrial town in Bavaria, recently sent Kotlyarov and other former slaves of the Nazis a letter of apology and money that they had collected as a gesture of compensation.

This youthful initiative comes on top of official German efforts to compensate Ukraine's 600,000 surviving former slaves, who first received payments of DM 600 ($300) each in the mid-1990s.

An additional payment of almost $700 is currently being distributed in two installments.

But some Germans, like the high school students in Gersthofen, feel the need to do more. Community organizations in various cities have begun sponsoring trips to Germany and aid packages for the former laborers Â- including a visit to Munich this month by 14 of at least 716 Ukrainians held in Munich during the war.

Not all Germans are happy to dredge up the past, however. Gersthofen's mayor denied the class access to city archives and refused to support the project. Teacher Bernard Lehmann successfully sued to open the records, and the class then documented the link between the town and the Ukrainian laborers, producing a documentary booklet and an exhibition. They later collected 1,000 Euros (almost $900 at the current exchange rate) for each of the 14 surviving laborers, and enough money to provide free trips to Germany last October for the five survivors healthy enough to travel. The students both contributed their own money and sought corporate and other donations.

"It is important to help them personally and to show them that people are still thinking about them and their situations," student Rene Treffer says.

Kotlyarov says he feels "boundless gratitude" toward the class and toward their teacher.

"The human aspect is more important than the material one," says Raisa Budko, who has worked with similar cases at the Ukrainian National Fund for Reconciliation and Understanding in Kiev. "When they [the former laborers] saw people were sorry for everything that happened, they felt a cleansing of their souls."

For Treffer, the amount of money his class collected for the laborers Â- compared to what the Ukrainians endured Â- was "a bit of a joke." But for Olga Yemelina, a widow living in the southeastern Ukrainian city of Zaporozhye who receives a pension equivalent to $7.50 a month, the gift Â- and an initial $450 from the German government Â- was no trifle. She says she has bought a television set and plans to save some of the money to pay for her funeral.

For a little over three years, Mrs. Yemelina labored 15 hours a day for a farmer. Orphaned at 10, she came to consider the farmer as a father. For her, the most difficult trials came after returning to the Ukraine, which was then part of the USSR.

The Soviet Union regarded returning slave laborers with suspicion. "When we first got back, we were called awful things," Yemelina says. The KGB repeatedly questioned her, and she was denied jobs. The humiliation has stayed with Yemelina and the others through the decades. She says that, though the letter of apology was decades late in coming, it has erased some of that shame. "It makes me feel better about my time there," she says. "Now at least, we won't be on the blacklist for having worked there."

Vladimir Dumansky, who was forced to help build a railroad on the outskirts of Gersthofen, says he, too, values above all the apology, which reiterates the fact that slave laborers had no choice but to work in Germany.

Like Yemelina, Mr. Dumansky talked not only of past sorrows, but also of acts of kindness.

Dumansky, just 15 when he was taken by the Nazis from his family in the city of Kherson, recalls a German woman who defied rules to give him a sandwich.

Dumansky is among the ex-laborers who have traveled to Germany as part of the compensation program. "I didn't know, and still don't know how to thank the children," he says.

Several students described meeting the former workers as a powerful experience.

"What our parents did affects us as well, and we can't get away from it," says Stephan Hagner, adding, "I saw that it was really important for them [the former laborers]."

In February, Mr. Lehmann, with the help of the Ukrainian National Fund for Reconciliation and Understanding, traveled to Ukraine to meet with Yemelina and others who hadn't been able to travel to Gersthofen.

Lehmann says he feels partly responsible for what the Ukrainians suffered. "It's important to do what we are doing," he says. "Not only are we helping the former slave laborers, but we are also making an important contribution to uncovering our town's and our nation's history." The class project was a way to begin a process he feels the German government has been slow to undertake.

Alban Strobel, the director of Munich's compensation program, says efforts there were begun in January 2000 partially as a response to the slow-moving national program, "Memory, Responsibility, and Future."

"When the nationwide program was started," says Strobel, "there was great hesitation on the part of German industry to give to the program. It was unclear when, if ever, the program would begin. Now that it has begun, payments have been slow and the system of checking who qualifies for awards is extremely slow."

In addition to bringing former laborers to Germany for visits, Munich has paid them compensation, and also opened a medical clinic in Kiev for them.

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