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OST Arbeiter badge
Woman with OST-Arbeiter badge in Auschwitz
OST-Arbeiter ( , English: Eastern Workers) was a designation for slave workers gathered from Eastern Europe to do forced labor in Nazi Germany during World War II. The Ostarbeiters were mostly from the territory of Reichskommissariat Ukraine (eastern Ukrainemarker). Ukrainians made up the largest portion although many Belarusians, Russians, Poles and Tatars were also present. Estimates put the number of OST Arbeiters between 3 million and 5.5 million. Some estimate place the number as high as 8.5 million.

Most were very young, under the age of 16, as those older than 16 were usually conscripted. 30% were as young as 12–14 years of age when they were taken to Germany. By November 1943 the age limit was dropped to 10. 50% of those taken from Ukraine were girls and women.

OST-Arbeiters from Reichskommissariat Ukraine were forced to wear a dark blue and white badge with "OST", the German word for East.


The official German records for the late summer of 1944 listed 7.6 million foreign civilian workers and prisoners of war in the territory of the "Greater German Reich", who for the most part had been brought there for employment by force. Thus, they represent roughly a quarter of all registered workers in the entire economy of the German Reich at that time.

A class system was created amongst the "Fremdarbeiter" [foreign workers] brought to Germany to work for the Reich. The multi-layered system was based on layers of national hierarchies.

  1. Gastarbeitnehmer
    • guest workers
      • Workers from Germanic, Scandinavian countries and Italy
  2. Zwangsarbeiter
    • forced workers
    1. Militärinternierte
      • military internees
        • Primarily POW's
    2. Zivilarbeiter
      • civilian workers
        • Primarily Polish prisoners from the General Government - They received lower wages and food rations; had to work longer hours than Germans; could not use public conveniences (from public transport to restaurants or churches); possessions of certain items was forbidden; and were required to wear a sign - the "Polish-P" - attached to their clothing.
    3. Ostarbeiter
      • Eastern workers
        • Eastern worker were primarily from "Reichskommissariat Ukraine". They were marked with a sign OST ("East") and were subject to even harsher conditions than the civilian workers. They were forced to live in special camps that were fenced with barbed wire and under guard, and were particularly exposed to the arbitrariness of the Gestapo and the commercial industrial plant guards. At the end of the war 5.5 million Ostarbeiters were returned to the USSR.



Nazi Germany faced a crisis at the end of 1941 because after it had mobilized its massive armies, a shortage of workers developed in Germany to support the war industry. Hermann Göring initially thought "the best thing would be to kill all men in Ukraine over fifteen years of age" but then realized working them to death was more beneficial for the German Reich. To help overcome this shortage of labour Göring decided to bring in people from the recently seized territories of eastern Europe, primarily Ukraine, to work in German war industries. These workers from "Reichskommisariat Ukraine" were called Ostarbeiters (east workers).

Voluntary recruitment

A Russian-language Nazi poster reading "I live in a German family and feel just fine.
Come to Germany to help with household chores."

Initially a recruiting campaign was launched in January 1942 by Fritz Sauckel for workers to go to Germany. "On January 28 the first special train will leave for Germany with hot meals in Kiev, Zdolbunov and Przemyśl" offered an announcement. The first train was full when it departed from Kiev on January 22.

The advertising continued in the following months. "Germany calls you! Go to Beautiful Germany! 100,000 Ukrainians are already working in free Germany What about you?" ran a Kiev newspaper ad on March 3, 1942.

Word got back however, of the sub-human slave conditions that Ukrainians met in Germany and the campaign failed to attract sufficient volunteers. Forced recruitment and forced labor were implemented.

Forced recruitment

With the news about the terrible conditions many Ostarbeiter faced in the Third Reich the pool of volunteers soon dried up. As a result, the Germans were forced to resort to mass round-ups, often using the ploy of targeting large gatherings such as church congregations and crowds at sporting events, with entire groups simply marched off at gunpoint to waiting cattle trucks and deported to Germany.

Reichskommissar Erich Koch was ordered to provide 450,000 workers a year from Ukraine for German industry by "ruthless" means. German documents stated that the Ukrainian Ostarbeiter would be "worked to death." Although 40,000 Ukrainians a month were being sent to Germany as Ostarbeiters, armaments minister Albert Speer complained that his work force was dwindling. (This could be understood to indicate that more than 40,000 were dying every month.)

In one memorandum from Fritz Sauckel to Alfred Rosenberg there was a demand for one million men and women in four months at the rate of 10,000 a day and more than two-thirds were to come from Ukraine. In all the major Ukrainian cities the German army kidnapped young adults off the streets and shipped them to Germany as virtual slave laborers to work in the worst and most dangerous conditions. On the orders of the German administration Ukrainian cities were to be permanently depopulated by starvation and deportation.

Ukrainian OST-Arbeiters boarding "comfortable" German trains at Kiev Central Railway Station

On September 3, 1942 Hitler demanded that half a million Ukrainian women be brought to Germany to free German women from housekeeping. Hitler thought there was a Germanic strain in Ukraine because the Ostro-Goths and Visi-Goths had lived in southern Ukraine 1,800 years earlier and the "chaste peasant virtues of Ukrainian women" appealed to him. Only about 15,000 girls were taken to Germany to work as domestics.


In Germany OST-Arbeiters lived in both private camps owned and managed by the large companies, and special camps guarded by privately paid police services known as the Werkschutz.

They worked an average of 12 hours a day, six days a week.

The pay was approximately 30% of a German worker however, most of the money went toward food, clothing and board. The labor authorities complained that many firms viewed these former Soviet civilian workers as "civilian prisoners", treated them accordingly, and paid no wages at all to them.

Those that were paid were paid with specially printed paper money and savings stamps, which could only be used toward the purchase of limited number of items in special camp stores.

By law, they were given worse food rations than other forced labor groups. Starvation rations and primitive accommodation were given to these unfortunates in Germany.

OST Arbeiter savings stamps.
Like cash but you couldn't buy much with them; redeemable for goods in Reichskomisariat Ukraine (maybe)

OST Arbeiters were forced to wear a badge OST (East) on their clothes at all times.

The Ostarbeiters were restricted to their place of residence (in some cases labor camps) and forbidden to fraternize with Germans. They were regarded as subhuman, and were ordered to be kept separated from the German population. The Germans considered the Eastern Ukrainians Untermensch (sub-humans) "inferior humans" who could be kicked, beaten, terrorized and killed at their least transgression. Those who tried to escape were hanged where other workers could see their bodies. Leave without authorization or escape was punished by death.

Many died when the factories that they were employed were bombed during Allied bombing raids. Many also perished because the German authorities ordered that "they should be worked to death".

Few were able to get released and return to Ukraine to tell their story. Cases are known where girls had chopped off their fingers in a machine in order to get back home. Girls were often sent home if they became pregnant.


During the German occupation of Eastern Europe in World War II (1941-44) over 3 million people were taken to Germany as OST Arbeiters. Some estimates put the number up to 5.5 million.

Between two-thirds and three-quarters of the over 3,000,000 Ostarbeiter were Ukrainians. Prof. Kondufor's statistic is that 2,244,000 Ukrainians were forced into slave labor in Germany during World War II. Another statistic puts the total at 2,196,166 for Ukrainian Ostarbeiter slaves in Germany (Dallin, p. 452).

Both of these statistics probably do not include the several hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians from Halychyna, so a final total could be about 2.5 million.

Work and employment

There were slightly more women than men Ostarbeiters. They were employed in agriculture, mining, manufacturing armaments, metal production and railroads.

OST-Arbeiters were initially sent to intermediate camps, where laborers were picked out for their assignments directly by representatives of labor-starved companies. Ford-Werke in Cologne and Opel in Russelsheimmarker and Brandenburgmarker each employed thousands of such "Ostarbeiter" at their plants.

Some OST-Arbeiters worked for private firms although many were employed in the factories making armaments. These factories were prime targets for Allied bombing. The OST-Arbeiters were considered to be quite productive and efficient. Males were thought to be the equivalent of 60-80 % of a German worker, and women — 90-100%.

Two million Ukrainians worked mostly in the armaments factories including the V-2 rocket factory at Peenemündemarker.


Women who became pregnant were less effective workers. As a consequence, contrary to the usual Nazi law against abortions, they could be aborted against their will.

However, if the woman and the baby's father were "of good blood", the child might likewise prove "racially valuable." Consequently, the parentage was investigated, and both parents tested. If they passed, the woman would be permitted to give birth, and the child removed for Germanization. If the woman was found particularly suitable, she might be removed to a Lebensborn institution.

OST Arbeiters and medical experiments

On September 6, 1944 the Reichsminister of the Interior ordered the establishment of special units for "Ostarbeiter" in several psychiatric hospitals in the Reich. The reason given was that: "With the considerable number of "Ostarbeiter" who have been brought to the German Reich as a labour force, their admission into German psychiatric hospitals as mentally ill patients has become more frequent ...With the shortage of space in German hospitals, it is irresponsible to treat these ill people, who in the foreseeable future will not be fit for work, for a prolonged period in German institutions."

The exact number of "Ostarbeiter" killed in these psychiatric institutions is as yet not known.189 "Ostarbeiter" were admitted to the "Ostarbeiter" unit of the Heil- und Pflegeanstalt Kaufbeuren; 49 died as a result of the starvation diet, or from deadly injections.


Female forced laborers wearing "OST" [Ostarbeiter] badges are liberated from a camp near Lodz.

After the War many of the Ost Arbeiters were initially placed in DP (displaced person) camps where they were then moved to Kemptenmarker for processing and returned to their country of origin, primarily to the USSR. The Soviets also used special Agit brigades to convince many OST-Arbeiters to return.

Many OST-Arbeiters were still children or young teenagers when they were taken away and wanted to return home to their parents. Others who became aware or understood the political realities of the 1930s declined to return. Those in the Soviet occupational zones were returned automatically. Those in the French and English zones of occupation were forced to return, and after the signing of the Yalta Agreementmarker which stated that "Citizens of the Soviet Union and of Yugoslavia were to be handed over to their respective countries, regardless of their consent".

In October 1945 General Eisenhower banned the use of force in repatriation in the American Zone. As a result many began to escape to the American Zone. Some, when faced with return to Soviet reality chose to commit suicide.

On return to the Soviet Union OST-Arbeiters were often treated as traitors. Many were transported to far off locations in the Soviet Union and were denied basic rights and the chance to get further education. Nearly 80 per cent of [Russian workers and prisoners of war returning from Germany] were sent to forced labour, some given fifteen to twenty-five years of 'corrective labour', others sent off to hard labour; all were categorized as 'socially dangerous'.

Those who returned home were also physically and spiritually broken; moreover, they were considered by the authorities as having "questionable loyalty", and were therefore discriminated against and deprived of many of their citizenship rights.

OST Arbeiters suffered from state-sanctioned stigmatisation, with special references in their passports (and the passports of children and relatives) mentioning their time in Germany during the war. As a result many jobs were off-limits to anyone unlucky enough to carry such a status, and during periods of repression former slave labourers would often be ostracised by the wider Soviet community. Many victims have testified that since the war they have suffered a lifetime of abuse and suspicion from their fellow countrymen, many of whom have accused them of being traitors who helped the Germans and lived comfortably in the Third Reich while Ukraine burned.

Every person, applying for a job had to fill the infamous "anketa" (questionnaire). People with the "wrong" nationality or "past" were severely restricted in their rights to travel, work, study etc.

In extreme cases, some workers, when returned to the Soviet Union after the war, were incarcerated in Gulags and some were executed as collaborators.

Pensions and retribution

In 1994 a special fund of 10 billion Deutsch Marks has been set aside to pay compensation to the OST Arbeiters. Of the over 2 million Ost-arbeiters in Ukraine at the time only 700,000 qualified, with each being assigned a one time payment of 4,300 marks. Much of this money however did not make it to its proper destination and the OST-Arbeiters were once again cheated.

Ukrainian OST Arbeiters received payments 5 times less than their Polish counterparts. In 2006 these payments stopped.


Eyewitness accounts of the Ukrainian Ostarbeiter experience are virtually non-existent although there were 2,244,000 of them from Ukraine according to historian Yuri Kondufor. A total of 3,000,000 Ostarbeiters were taken to Germany and it is estimated that Ukrainians constituted about 75% of the total. Ukraine, according to some sources, lost about 10 million people in World War II which was one of the greatest losses of any country in the war.

It is known that some Ostarbeiters survived the war and emigrated to the West, primarily to the United States, although a handful also made it to Australia, Canada and Brazil. Ostarbiters who found themselves in the British or French zones were automatically repatriated. Only those who were in the American zone were not forced to return back to their countries of origin. In comparison Ukrainians from Western Ukraine and the Baltic region were not forced to return to the Soviet Union because the UK did not recognize those territories as part of the USSR.

In 1998 only two Ostarbeiters had been located in Canada for interviews for the audio and video archives of the Ukrainian Canadian Research & Documentation Center in Toronto.

Recently a film was made by Ukrainian television focusing on the plight of the Ukrainian Ostarbeiters who returned to the Soviet Union demonstrating the harsh and inhumane treatment that they continued to receive on their return home.


Ukrainian-Canadian poet Yar Slavutych wrote a poem about Kemptenmarker, the camp from which Ukrainian OST-Arbeiters were processed for repatriated to the Soviet Union. The poem was set to music by Hryhory Kytasty for soloist, male chorus and symphony orchestra accompaniment. It was first performed in Washington in 1959.

See also





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