Meaningful Work: Cultural Frameworks of Forced Labour in Accounts of Nazi Concentration Camp Inmates

Ella Falldorf, Kobi Kabalek

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Studies of forced labour in Nazi camps tend to stress the exceptionality of inmates' experiences and their profound difference from common views of work. Yet examination of the wartime and postwar accounts of inmates and survivors reveals that they often combine features of the camp reality itself with phenomena from other times, places and situations. In this way, written, oral and visual depictions articulate a reality in which concepts and ideologies of work familiar from various cultural settings mix with those of the Nazi camp system, as well as with later experiences and current debates. This article traces three cultural frameworks that inmates and survivors utilized to make sense of forced labour in Nazi camps: war and the military, industrial concepts of productive destruction and destructive production, and Jewish religious culture. In exploring the relationship between the continuity and discontinuity of meaning between these cultural frameworks and the Nazi camps, we analyse a wide range of interviews, artworks, songs, memoirs and written reports from the 1930s to the early 2000s. We argue that in order not to make their suffering and work appear senseless, inmates and survivors understood forced labour within well-established frameworks of meaning. Their accounts, we suggest, use symbolic elements as creative acts that address inmates' experiences by expanding the camp reality or going beyond it, thereby making them more comprehensible and communicable.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)41-66
Number of pages26
JournalGerman History
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 1 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • History


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