Chelyabmetallurgstroy of the NKVD of the USSR -- The Largest Forced Labor Camp for German-Russians

Tscheljabmetallurgstroj des NKVD der UdSSR -- das Groesste Zwangsarbeitslager Fuer Russlanddeutsche Untertitel

Genesis, Purpose and Assignments, Structure

Entstehung, Aufgabe, Struktur

Krieger, Dr. Viktor. "Chelyabmetallurgstroy of the NKVD of the USSR -- The Largest Forced Labor Camp for German-Russians." Volk auf dem Weg, June 2006, 20-22.

Translation from the original German-language text to American English by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado

The rich iron ore fields at Bakal in today's Chelyabinsk/South Ural area had served for centuries for harvesting iron. Not until August of 1940, did the Soviet government and the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party decide to build the Bakal iron and steel works. Still, construction activity remained at a low level until the beginning of the war.

Entry gate to the camp following the fencing in of its main zone Pershino, 1942

Hitler-Germany's attack on the Soviet Union led to decisive losses in metal production in the European part of the country, but countered by a rise in demand for quality steel. The People's Commissariat (The Ministry) for Black Metallurgy was ordered to design an iron and steel production complex, that would encompass various production phases and would thereby be equipped to function on a largely self-sufficient basis. The new project included construction of blast furnaces and "Martin-ovens," a coke/chemical operation, electro-steel and rolling mills, as well as its own heating and power facility. Given the lack of sufficient mechanization, this project called for a highly productive construction organization with access to large numbers of laborers for the heavy work.

Only the People's Commissariat for Interior Matters (NKVD), with the GUlag system under its control, had the relevant experience in organizing such a massive effort. Thus it was a natural consequence to entrust the NKVD with this construction project. A decree dated January 25, 1942, signed by Beriya, documented detailed measures toward the construction of the camp and the support of the construction activities. The overall project was given the code name "Bakalstroy" in August of 1942 was renamed "Chelyabmetallurgstroy (Construction Project for the Erection of the Chelyabinsk Iron and Steel Works) of the NKVD of the USSR."

The large land area called Pershino, measuring 4,400 hectares [over 13 million acres], linked to the railroad depot, Shagol, and located immediately next to the provincial metropolis of Chelyabinsk, was designated as the main site for the project. In addition to the administrative center and headquarters, the penal and work camp included numerous branches and camp sites that supplied the construction site and, later on, the iron and steel works; further, several tree felling sites scattered throughout, two lime production sites, a large tile manufacturing site, a pit for producing fireproof aluminum oxide, a cement factory, and various other operations. Under the control of the camps were several coal mines in the cities of Kopeysk and Korkino as well.

The Camp Population

Contemporary photo of the chief (1942 - 1944) of the Chelyabimetallurgstroy camp, Major General Alexander Komarovski

From various directives it is apparent that only GUlag prisoners and independent workers were used for the construction at first. However, the massive call-ups to the war front, which affected those prisoners as well, and the plethora of construction projects resulted in a huge demand for workers. This explains in part the decision made at that time to make use of the German "contingent." Officially the ordering of Germans into the work camp was called "Worker Mobilization," and the police officers at the various sites and, later, various other authorities, gave the work camp the deceptive name of trudamiya or Work-Army, and the workers themselves were dubbed "Trudarmyists." However, their forcible recruitment would, as the chief of the camp administration GUlag, Lieutenant General Viktor Nasedkin readily admitted, also facilitate, in a not so minor measure, their repression and punishment.

By February 1, 1942, the construction site already housed 4,237 forced laborers. Barely warmed up, German-Russians began to take their places: as early as by the end of March of 1942 Their number, 13,125 men, comprised by far the largest number of the work force. During that year alone, further mobilizations doubled this number.

The card index of the Chelyabmetallurgstroy camp provides information on more than 38,000 forced laborers, the by far largest number being German-Russians. As of 1943, there were among them 3,500 Finns, Italians, Bulgarians, and other Soviet "citizens of nationalities whose home countries are at war with the Soviet Union," as described by NKVD jargon.

Arriving workers were distributed into so-called Construction Troops (stroyotryady), which consisted of columns of up to a thousand men, broken down into brigades of various sizes -- usually between 15 to 25 members. The "Troops," numbering 16 in all, were assigned to the construction projects as well as other areas: for example, Construction Troop 1 was mainly used for construction of quarters, Number 3 in the building of the heating and power station, etc. Inside the completely blocked-off site of Pershino (the main zone), there were as many as nine Construction Troops. Each had its fenced-in living zone, the only area where the workers were allowed to move about freely. In the actual main zone, they were allowed to be without a guard only with special permission or if they had been issued a personal pass.

Contemporary Witnesses Report

Rudolf Romberg remembers the completely unsatisfactory preparation in the camp before the arrival of tens of thousands of workers, and the miserable living and working conditions:

The first German forced laborers arriving at the construction site, spring 1942

On March 18, 1942 I was taken from the Marinovka settlement in the Kustanay region and assigned to Construction Troop Number 10 in the Chelyabmetallurgstroy of the NKVD. During early morning, we found ourselves in front of the entry gate of the camp, which was enclosed with barbed wire and secured by guard towers and dogs. Ordered into 4-men rows, we were counted like sheep and crammed into camp for a full four years lasting until May 1, 1946. The grounds of our group held 14 barracks holding 180 men each. These barracks in reality were construction pits covered with a gabled roof. Inside, in the center, there were two-tiered wooden-plank bedsteads, and simple rows next to the walls, under which the snow was visible. This "shelter" was heated by two ovens, which were not capable of heating the entire, huge room. There was no bedding and, for about two months, no bathing facility. Water for drinking and for the kitchen came in kegs. Lice wandered around on us in large numbers. Out Troop Number 10 was constructing a rolling mill. Using spades, crowbars, picks, chisels, and mallets, we dug out of the frozen ground huge pits intended for the foundation of the millworks. We slaved twelve hours a day. Our [daily] provisions were as follows: if one fulfilled one's norm ["quota"], one received 600 grams dark bread, watery soup (sup-balanda) three times, and an additional 100 to 150 grams of oat or millet porridge for the noon meal. Those who did not fill their work quota received only 400 grams of dark bread and the watery soup. There was practically no meat or fat. The spring of 1942 lasted long and was frosty, and digging out the pits for the foundation demanded all the strength of the mobilized workforce. As early as September, most were barely able to move due to loss of weight and illnesses from lack of vitamins. The great wave of dying was beginning.

A Massive Wave of Deaths

In 1942 alone, camp statistics indicated the deaths of 2,727 trud-armyists, and at 840, the month of December provided the year's highest number of outright dead and those dying of the cold. During 1943, of the 27,430 forced laborers, 8,013 (or 29.2%) were in barracks for the sick, and 1,512 (5.5%) had become invalids. The camp administrators were forced to "de-mobilize" several thousands of famished and nearly dying (dochodyagi) workers. It is not known how many of these actually were able to return to their families alive.

In view of alarming statistics - the plan for the first quarter of 1943 was not filled even by half - central party and government officials, as well as the local authorities, began to realize that the given speed of wear and tear on the workers would make the high goals impossible to attain. Parallel with its increasing acts of terrorizing the workers, the administration began to take other measures toward minimizing the collapse of production quotas. More attention was paid to the physical condition of the mobilized "contingent." For example, an increase in provisions and a higher differences between food rations were introduced as greater incentives toward overfilling of work quotas. Furthermore, some especially tough "German-hating" overseers were issued warnings by the camp administration - as stated in flowery wording - for "grave misuse of the directives issued by the administration of the Chelyabmetallurgstoy."

This particular work camp would go down in the history of the Trudarmiya, as the site with the numerically largest use of mobilized Germans. Only as of the second half of 1943 would there be an increase in other nationalities from the corps of GUlag prisoners and oriental workers (Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Tadzhiks, etc.); they were intended to compensate for the strong numerical reductions in the workforce. By January 1, 1944, besides the free personnel, the Chelyabmetallurgstroy camp numbered 35,462 forced laborers, of whom 20,648 came from the "mobilized German contingent," plus 12,482 prisoners and some 3,332 workers recruited from central Asia.

By February, 1946, the worker columns were dissolved, and Geman forced laborers were transformed into the natural workforce of the operations and construction organizations. However, they were not given the rights of normal Soviet citizens, but instead were assigned the status of Special Resettlers. They were placed under the supervision of a so-called "Commandature," a reporting [military] command structure created especially for them by the Ministry of the Interior, and they were not allowed to leave their places of residence without express permission of the Commandature. They thereby comprised by far the majority of the residents of the metallurgical rayon of the city of Chelyabinsk. Only with the agreement of the factory administration and its commandant were these German-Russians allowed to go back to their originally and forcibly assigned resettlement locations, or as far as the local dwelling situation permitted, to their families. The actual process of reunification of families that had been torn apart would last until the mid-Fifites.

A few thousand Trudarmyists, however, were transferred to the city of Kyshtym (construction project 859) and continued to be used until 1948 in the construction of various parts of the atomic industry.

The Camp Leadership

Between January of 1942 and April of 1944, brigade-engineer and (later) general, Alexander Komarovski was at the helm of the camp administration. Born in Odessa May of 1906, he concluded studies at the Moscow Institute for Transport Engineering in 1928. Early on, he gathered "experience" in dealing with forced laborers during the building of the Moscow-Volga Canal. This is where he held various positions beginning in November, 1931. The bloodletting during the "Great Terror" actually created the conditions for and the rapid rise of a new technical intelligentsia of cadres dedicated to Stalin -- at the age of 32. Komarovski was named vice-commissar for the navy with responsibility for constructing harbor installations. Following the outbreak of the German-Russian war, he directed the construction of defensive lines in Ukraine and in the region of Stalingrad. With complete disregard for any losses, he then laid the basis at Chelyabmettalurgstroy for one of the largest iron and steel complexes in the entire USSR.

In May, he began to lead the "Central Administartion of Camps for Industrial Construction" of the NKVD of the USSR. Under his direction, forced laborers and prisoners would continue to be employed after the war in the construction of specific parts of the atomic industry, the building of Moscow University, and construction of other military and civilian projects. He was able to survive without problems Chrushchev's "Reestablishment of the Socialist System of Laws." In fact, in 1963 he was promoted to Deputy Defense Minister responsible for construction and for maintaining quarters for army units. In 1972 he was given the rank of Army General. Loaded with State honors and Orders of Merit, he died in Moscow in 1973 and was buried in the cemetery "Novodevich" reserved for honorifics. To commemorate his achievements, a street was named in his honor in the city of Chelyabinsk, that is, in the part of the city containing the original site of the work camp.

His successor [as camp commander], Major General of the Engineering-Technical Service, Jakob Rapoport (1898 - 1962), possessed no less "experience" in handling GUlag prisoners and forced laborers. He commanded Chelyabmetallurgstroy from May, 1944 until its removal from the system controlled by the Ministry of the Interior. During the subsequent year and half, particularly as chief of the forced-labor and penal camp in the city of Nishny Tagil (Tagillag), he was responsible for thousands of innocent victims. Just like Komarovski, he was never held accountable for his "activities."

Terror, Persecution, Discrimination

A memorial for the starved and deceased forced laborers, erected in the early 1990's of the former cemetery grounds of the camp, meanwhile having fallen victim to vandlism and neglect
Naturally, catastrophic living and working conditions did evoke protests and refusals from those effected, but these were met with ruthless countermeasures by the members of State security at the construction sites. A massive wave of repression began to be directed at the forced laborers. In 1942 alone, 1,403 Germans were arrested and sentenced for attempts to flee, for self-mutilation and deliberate loss of weight (!). Large posters containing the names of those who had been shot or had been sentenced to multiple years of prison, also public announcements by the camp commander Komarovski, put fear and panic into the mobilized workers, a feeling that remains palpable to this day in contemporary witnesses.

The number of State security people at the Chelyabmetatllurgstroy camp by the end of May, 1944, had doubled from its beginning, reaching as many as 55 persons. The names of the director of State security, Konstantin Pupas, and of "expertly knowledgeable" secret police members such as Vikenyi Lobanov, Meir Ufland and Fedor Glaskov, aroused fear and horror in the inmates of the camp. Terrorization of the workers served several purposes. On the one hand, it was an important tool for intimidation and submissiveness. On the other hand, the sharpened application of penal policies against intellectuals, specialists, former functionaries and business leaders was served to remove the entire elite of the Germans and to debase them to a mere mass of applicable resources. Not the least reason might be that the sheer numbers of those sentenced or the "discovery" of counterrevolutionary organizations was used in justifying the existence of each Tcheckist and the reasons for allowing his absence from the war front.

All camp personnel and Russian employees were forbidden any contact with the Germans beyond the absolute required minimum. This is apparent from many orders that critically publicized all-too-close contacts with the forced laborers and from the tough punishments of the violators. For example, in an order issued by the camp command structure, a Russian female doctor of Construction Troop 11, was accused of having had several meetings with a worker in her own quarters, to wit, "counter to strict regulations for administrative personnel, which forbid personnel exempt from contractual status to form any contact of any kind with mobilized Germans." The doctor received a first warning for this violation of discipline.

Other cases, however, did not end up in such a mild manner. A one-night stay by F. Haffner and E. Teolani with friendly Russian physician's assistants cost the latter their jobs. For the two Trudarmyists, who had been surprised by the guards at 6 o'clock in the morning, it resulted in a three-month stint of the heaviest work in a penal brigade.

Concluding Observations

The first steel smelting procedure following the beginning of operations of the first phase of the electro-steel works took place on April 19, 1943. It is considered the birth of the metallurgical operation. Overall, during the years 1943 and 1944, the Chelyabmetallurgstroy complex produced only a fraction of overall Soviet production: 2.3% of raw iron, 0.7% of steel, and 0.8 of rolled metal. It is extremely doubtful whether the untold number of human victims, particularly those of the years 1942-1943, during the building of the complex, were justified by such a modest level of production. A significantly higher usefulness would have been achieved in using these experienced German farmers and other forced laborers in the very needy Soviet agriculture. However, for the Stalin regime, the interests and welfare of its own population were always of the least concern.

Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.

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