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Diaries, letters, and photos access times past and enable researchers to ferret out their dark secrets. Publication of such materials makes present and up-close experiences of the human family from which we benefit, if we have the courage.

Wearing the Letter P: Polish Women as Forced Laborers in Nazi Germany, 1939-1945 (2016) is one such narrative. Its Polish American author Sophie Hodorowicz Knab undertook this challenge to honor her mother Jozefa, enslaved in 1943 within the munitions factory in Ulmstead, not far from Hanover, until the end of the war. She was thirty-two years old when taken from her Krakow home in her house slippers. Upon the right breast of her clothing was the hated purple P upon a yellow patch, stitched there following the 1939 occupation of Poland; its people were considered racially subhuman and expendable.

Her mother’s reticence to speak of her experiences later prodded Knab to comb the Archives in the United States, Poland, Germany, and England for evidence of the plight of forced civilian women in Nazi Germany: such only appeared in the 1980s. Her research uncovered records of their conscription, their divided families, filthy transit camps and cattle cars, abject poverty, extreme weather conditions, multiple diseases, malnutrition, starvation, forced abortions, crippling humiliations, 12-hour work days in agricultural and industrial settings, and newborns left to starve.

What fueled Knab’s research was the discovery of diaries, letters, and photos taken by these women. Interweaving them with the bitter facts of their enslavement added an indescribable poignancy to this scholarly work.

Indeed, the words and faces of these 105 women still tell their story.

 

 

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