The Return of Former Forced Labourers to Postwar Netherlands and Belarus
Public and Individual Memories
This paper concerns the homecoming of former forced labourers from the territories of the German Reich to the Netherlands and Belarus after World War II. It seeks to give a greater analytical, thematic and historical depth to the concept of “the postwar” by revealing the hidden traces of WWII on the societies and analyzing the active and conscious efforts of managing the memory of the war in the studied countries.
Furthermore, it asks how former forced labourers experienced repatriation and return home and what expectations they had after the liberation. By looking at the individual stories I have been investigating how the war experiences affected those who lived through this, how lives were reshaped and families reconstituted in a postwar setting.
While the Netherlands and Belarus faced unique challenges after the war, the paper aims to de-construct the East/West dichotomy and revise the overall picture of postwar Europe by pointing to much-neglected similarities as well as the much-discussed considerable differences. I argue that the isolated position of forced labourers did not truly fit in the official memory narrative in either country. The postwar Netherlands provided an example of “consensual commemoration” (Lagrou). In the Soviet Union the Stalin government also took the position that society should return to “normality” as soon as possible, and no distinction should be made between different victim groups. The lack of voice and/or total absence of forced labourers’ organizations and associations until late 1980s confirm that these people’s fate was dissociated from public memory and their story was silenced for many years.
Tatsiana Vaitulevich is a project coordinator of the International Youth Centre at the Nazi Forced Labour Documentation Centre in Berlin-.Schöneweide. She studied simultaneous interpreting (English, German, Dutch) in Minsk and Bremen and is currently a PhD candidate in History at Georg-August-University, Göttingen.