ASEEES News

Tuesday, July 09, 2024

Alex Averbuch’s exhibit, Our Life Behind Barbed Wire: Photography from Ukrainian Ostarbeiters in Nazi Germany displayed at Harvard University

Alex Averbuch has been curating a unique collection of photographs and letters sent home by Ostarbeiters, or “Eastern workers.” In this exhibit, which he compiled from archival and previously unrevealed sources, he explores the ingenious methods these conscripts used to circumvent totalitarian restrictions and “smuggle” messages to loved ones.

By Navid Haghighi

During World War II, nearly three million Soviet citizens, mostly Ukrainians, were forcibly taken to Nazi Germany as Ostarbeiters. The Nazis permitted these laborers to correspond with relatives back home in the occupied territories and to send photographs, but they imposed strict controls on the content. These letters and images were used as propaganda to create the illusion of the Ostarbeiters’ “wellbeing” in Germany and to facilitate the recruitment of more slave laborers.

By Navid Haghighi

This exhibit presents these artifacts as poignant testimonials of everyday life, exile, and rupture. While the Nazis intended these letters and photographs to serve as propaganda, Ostarbeiters often used them to convey the harsh realities of their situation and contradict Nazi messaging.

Nazi propaganda was particularly effective during the first year of the Ostarbeiter program. Initially, it managed to create a powerful, almost hypnotic atmosphere through the sheer volume of its messages. However, as Ostarbeiters increasingly encoded real information about their lives in their letters and photographs, the propagandistic impact diminished. Propaganda relies not on rational thinking, but on pressuring and manipulating people, especially those on the brink of emotional and physical collapse, starvation, and more. Beyond just an attempt to persuade, this was a matter of “informational poisoning”—creating a deceptive sense of a stable, reliable future, while also fostering disaffiliation from the Soviet Union and its army, in which many of the Ostarbeiters’ relatives might have been serving at the same time.

Many of the photographs show Ostarbeiters well-dressed and smiling, which the Nazis likely hoped these captives’ families would find reassuring. However, these images often inadvertently reveal the grim truth: poor living conditions, confinement behind barbed wire, and badges marking lower status. Some photographs, moreover, record acts of subtle resistance, such as wearing traditional Ukrainian attire, celebrating cultural holidays, and documenting secret marriages or engagements.

By Navid Haghighi

People living under oppression, such as during an occupation, often develop the ability to see through propaganda and get to the reality beneath it. This is particularly relevant today, as many Ukrainians remain under occupation, with no choice but to stay. After the war, returning Ostarbeiters faced severe repercussions in the Soviet Union, where they were stigmatized as traitors and collaborators. Many were sent to the Gulag, and those who avoided imprisonment often struggled to access education, build careers, or start families.

The Ostarbeiters’ legacy is deeply embedded in Ukraine’s history, with countless families having a parent or grandparent subjected to forced labor in Germany. This experience is one of the nation’s most profound traumas, yet few projects address it. For many Ukrainians, the history of captivity is all too familiar.

As Averbuch describes, one outcome of this project is the monograph he is currently working on, which examines letters written by Ostarbeiters as literature, historical sources, visual and textual propaganda, and transmitters of news and secret messages. He also plans to bring this photography exhibit to other universities and institutions.

By Navid Haghighi

The photographs in this exhibit were sourced from individuals and state archives across Ukraine, including the State Archives of the Kyiv Region, Sumy Region, Vinnytsia Region, and Dnipropetrovsk Region. The exhibition was cosponsored by the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, as well as the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute.

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