Two Years in Berlin

In early March, accompanied by my travel companion I., I spent a few days on a city trip to Berlin. Exactly eighty years earlier, my father, Willem Blok, was there too, but for a much longer period. He wasn’t there for fun and certainly not voluntarily. He was one of the millions of forced laborers brought by the Nazis from occupied territories to keep the wartime economy running in Germany.

Our visit was a good opportunity to visit some places where Willem lived and worked between 1943 and 1945. I made grateful use of his memoirs titled “From Abacus to Calculator,” in which he describes his memories of school and work, so also of the years in Berlin.

Most of his living and working places have changed unrecognizably over those eighty years. Except for the barracks camp where he witnessed the fall of Berlin in 1945.

Instruction to perform services, in other words call for forced labor, from 1943
“Directive for performing services”


On May 17, 1943, a German officer visits the office where Willem works. One of the employees must, as part of the Arbeitseinsatz, go to Germany to work there. The two colleagues, both with families, look at Willem, who is still single. And so, there is little else to do than to prepare for the trip to Berlin. The only alternative is to go into hiding, which, to put it mildly, is not without danger for oneself and one’s family. And of course, one must also have an address to hide in the first place.

A few days later, Willem departs with other recruits in a freight wagon from Maas Station. 22 years old, sitting on his wooden suitcase that has been made by a friend.

Just across the border at Bad Bentheim, the forced laborers receive their first German meal and a speech from a Nazi about the blessings of the Third Reich. Via Osnabrück, already heavily damaged at that time, the journey continues to Hannover. Willem and his comrades are allowed to spend a few hours in the city and even find a bierkeller.

(in red the bank branches, in orange the living quarters; most locations are approximate)


After a nocturnal train ride, Willem arrives at the transit camp Rehbrücke near Potsdam. The food there is downright poor, and the forced laborers have to sleep on wooden benches. Three days later, Willem and another Dutchman are picked up by someone from Commerzbank, one of the largest banks in Germany. And that turns out to be a stroke of luck. Instead of having to work in a factory, he can do more or less the same work as at home. He ends up at the branch office on Alt Moabit, a street near the Reichstag.

Another stroke of luck is that the bank takes pretty good care of its foreign workers. They are housed in an empty office near Jannowitzbrücke, on the corner of Alexanderstrasse and Spreeufer. The bank even made an effort to make it pleasant. The only inconvenience of this building is the noisy S-Bahn passing by a few meters away. The residents have their own kitchen, but they usually eat at the head office of Commerzbank on Behrenstrasse. If I can believe my father’s autobiography, the food there is really good.

View from the south on Jannowitzbrücke and Spreeufer in Berlin
Spreeufer, S-Bahn, Jannowitzbrücke, 2024

Summer 1943

That first summer, life is reasonably bearable. Bombardments are rare because English planes cannot yet reach Berlin. Willem and his comrades go to cafes, cabaret performances, and football matches, and they sunbathe on a terrace by the river Spree. There is even time for sightseeing: a tour with the S-Bahn around the city and a visit to Potsdam.

Work at the office is also quite manageable. Willem records daily mutations on the “Kasse und Ubertragsmemorial,” a colossal typewriter. Some of the colleagues are convinced Nazis, others are not, but understandably don’t show that too much. Despite these differences, the atmosphere in the office is good.

On August 31, my father experiences his first bombardment. He takes shelter under the Jannowitzbrücke and, according to his own account, sees “a beautiful fireworks display.” In the following months, the air raids become increasingly intense. At the end of 1943, the branch office on Alt Moabit is destroyed during a nighttime bombing, after which Willem temporarily works at a branch office on Chausseestrasse.

Behrenstrasse in downtown Berlin
Behrenstrasse, 2024


In early 1944, my father and his housemates have to leave the accommodation on Spreeufer. They are housed a few streets away, across the Spree, in Neue Jacobstrasse. But this accommodation is much less comfortable than the first one. Remarkably, there is not a good relationship between the Dutch and the Belgians who also reside in the building. There is still a kitchen where pancakes are regularly baked and pea soup is prepared. And there is still an opportunity for outings on Sundays: Wannsee, Fürstenwalde, Spandau. All within the limits of Berlin; the forced laborers are not allowed to go further away.

Willem often has Luftschutzwache (air raid duties) in the office at Spittelmarkt in the center or in Tauentzienstrasse, near the Gedächtniskirche. In such an office, it is more comfortable than in the camp; you can sit there, and there is a radio, according to my father in his memoirs.

Meanwhile, Willem is working again at his old workplace, or rather in the vicinity. The bank has opened an emergency branch in the vacant café Kriminalgericht, opposite the destroyed office. Every day, the necessary documents have to be collected from the safe that survived the bombing; in the evenings, these papers must, of course, be returned to the safe. In that safe, Willem is also allowed to keep books and photos; they are sent to him after the war.

Vintage postcard from the 1930's or 1940's showing the cafe Kriminalgericht in Berlin
Emergency branch in the café

Back to Berlin

My father returned to Berlin in 1991 to visit the places where he lived and worked. But he must have found little recognizable. On the location of his first accommodation on Spreeufer is now a largely empty site with only an ugly little office building. Perhaps Jannowitzbrücke was not the best place to take shelter because it was eventually destroyed and rebuilt in the 1950s. And on Neue Jacobstrasse, there are post-war residential buildings in DDR style.

Street name sign of Neue Jacobstrasse in Berlin
Neue Jacobstrasse

At Alt Moabit, a few pre-war buildings are still standing. But I could not determine where the bank branch, and the emergency branch in the café were located.

Pavement and facades along Alt Moabit in Berlin
Alt Moabit, 2024


After the Allied invasion in Normandy on June 6, 1944, the atmosphere in the city becomes increasingly grim. The Allied bombings increase in number and intensity. On a certain Sunday, it is said that 1500 planes are involved. New slogans are posted, Goebbels speaks a few times, and propaganda films are shown in cinemas.

The food situation also becomes less favorable. On Sundays, Willem sometimes tries to get some food without coupons in a shop on Kurfürstendamm.

In August 1944, the Dutch have to move again, from Neue Jacobsstrasse to a barracks camp in Schöneweide, a suburb 15 kilometers southwest of the center. Now a very bad time begins, according to my father’s account. In the barracks, designed by Albert Speer himself, hundreds of forced laborers from about fifteen nationalities live closely together. Fleas, lice, and other vermin have a field day there. The food is terrible. And when the cold Berlin winter sets in, the barracks are only sparsely heated.

Map of the network of the Berlin S-Bahn and underground from the years of the second world war
The network of the S- and U-Bahn

Documentation Center

There were hundreds of such barrack camps in Berlin. Most of them have understandably disappeared. But coincidentally, there are still about ten barracks in Schöneweide, and since 2006, the Documentation Center NS-Zwangsarbeit has been located there. NS, of course, does not stand for Nederlandse Spoorwegen but for National Socialism.

In one of the barracks, there is an exhibition about the forced laborers during the war years. Free admission, very well done, with many photos and stories of forced laborers from many different countries. The Germans don’t try to conceal the dark pages of their past.

Exhibition at the Documentation Center Forced Labor in Schöneweide in Berlin
Exhibition in the Documentation Center NS-Zwangsarbeit


It is also made clear that there were gradations in misery, depending on the origin of the forced laborers. Western Europeans like Willem were treated relatively well. Eastern European forced laborers received much less pay, were not allowed to go into the city independently, and had no access to the air-raid shelter during bombings.

It cannot be said for certain whether my father really lived in this camp because there were about five of them in Schöneweide. But it is impressive to walk around here. Although on a beautiful spring day in peacetime, with a full stomach, it is difficult to imagine the conditions of eighty years ago.

Camp of barracks for the housing of forced laborers during the second world war in Berlin
The barracks in Schöneweide

The burning city

In October 1944, during office hours, there is such a heavy bombardment that it is dark in the afternoon because of the smoke. The S-Bahn no longer runs; to get “home” to Schöneweide, Willem spends three hours traveling through the burning city, partly on foot, partly hitchhiking on a truck.

During the same period, he accidentally drops a typewriter down the stairs during a Luftschutzwache, and it ends up in a thousand pieces below. The next day, of course, this is discovered, and Willem is accused of sabotage. It is thanks to a few German colleagues who put in a good word for him that the matter ends without consequences. Otherwise, I might not even have been born.

The clothing situation has meanwhile become critical. After much begging, the bank arranges a new pair of trousers for Willem. A colleague gives him a good pair of shoes. A request for leave to go to the Netherlands to get clothes is rejected. They are probably afraid, not entirely unjustifiably, that he will not return.

Barack for the housing of forced laborers during the war in Berlin
Barrack with stairs to the air-raid shelter

Christmas 1944

Christmas is “celebrated” in the camp. First, an improvised six-man choir sings a few Christmas carols. The rest of the evening, jazz is played. Apparently, there are still musical instruments or playback equipment available, and apparently, the camp management tolerates that “degenerate” music, but my father’s account gives no further details.

There is hope that 1945 will bring an end to the war, but the new year starts badly. Willem is sick and lies on bed without care, accompanied by fleas and lice. Moreover, news about the hunger winter in the Netherlands reaches Berlin. And also in the camp itself, there is little to eat. Furthermore, the Germans are imposing increasingly restrictive measures; for example, a special Ausweis is now needed to travel with the S-Bahn.

Permit from the second world war for the use of the S-Bahn in Berlin
Ausweis for the S-Bahn

The Russians

In March 1945, Russian cannons can be heard for the first time. At that moment the Red Army is near Frankfurt an der Oder, about 65 kilometers east of Berlin. The rumble gets louder every day.

Work at the bank has already stopped by then. To get food and cigarettes, Willem carries suitcases for refugees coming from the east to Berlin, out of fear of the Russians.

Around April 20, the Russians approach the eastern part of Berlin. The camp management flees, and a real battle ensues among the remaining residents to get some of the remaining food supplies. Many residents leave the camp for the city center. Willem and others decide to stay, and in hindsight, that turns out to be the best choice.

For two days, the camp residents sit in a trench between the barracks while the shells, intended for Berlin, whizz over them. On April 23, the camp is liberated by the Russians.

However, the battle is far from over in the city center. The Germans defend every street and every house. In Schöneweide, Willem and the other camp residents hunt for chickens and rabbits to finally have some meat to eat.

After a week, the camp residents are moved by the Russians to a camp in Friedrichsfelde. There they have to drive stakes and stretch barbed wire; later, SS members will be imprisoned in that camp. The Russians provide good food: mostly soup with lots of meat and bread. And a few times, vodka has to be drunk to seal the friendship, one morning even on an empty stomach.

On May 2, Willem and the others learn that Berlin has surrendered to the armies of General Zhukov; on May 7, the unconditional surrender of all German forces follows, and the war in Europe is over.

War damage on a wall in downtown Berlin
Bullet holes in the center of Berlin

Going home

Of course, the former forced laborers want to return home as soon as possible, but the Russians are in no hurry; they have other priorities in those first weeks. Only after a month and a half, Willem and his comrades, after being deloused, are driven by truck to Magdeburg. They drive through Berlin one last time: it’s one big mess.

In Magdeburg, they are handed over to the Americans. Two days later, they travel with a crowded and slow-moving freight train to Maastricht. There, a repatriation center has been set up where Willem ultimately has to stay for another ten days. So close to Rotterdam and still not home. But the Dutch government wants to separate the forced laborers from those who traveled east voluntarily.

On July 6, 1945, Willem rings the doorbell at his parents’ house on Goereeschestraat in Charlois, more than two years after leaving from Maas Station.

Registration card of a Dutch forced laborer in Germany during the second world war
Berufsgruppe 25

If you’d like to read more about forced labor in Germany during the Second World War, these articles are in Dutch but that shouldn’t be a problem with contemporary translate options:

Forced labor – part of German and Dutch history
Forced labor during World War II – a visit to a labor camp
Forced laborers in the German war economy between 1939 and 1945: An overview

Meanwhile, it remains remarkable that the capital of the Third Reich, where my father had such a tough time, has become such a nice, relaxed city eighty years later. Fortunately, history also turns for the better, sometimes.

Relaxed mood on the bank of Landwehrkanal in Kreuzberg, Berlin, on a sunny day in spring
A nice and relaxed city…

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