Berlin exhibition remembers dark past of Nazi forced labour

Werner Jung at the Philibert-Charrin exhibition, Berlin, 17 December, 2018
Werner Jung at the Philibert-Charrin exhibition, Berlin, 17 December, 2018 Emmanuelle Chaze

A series of works on display in Berlin commemorates German forced labour during World War II. The cartoons by the late French artist, Paul Philibert-Charrin, recall his 30 months spent shovelling earth in modern-day Austria. Another forced labourer, Robert Liberge, returned to Berlin for the exhibition.


In Germany, dozens of memorials recall the country's responsibility in crimes committed during the Second World War. One of those is the forced enlistment of hundreds of thousands of French workers through the STO (Service du Travail Obligatoire), sent to keep industry afloat, as the German youth fought on the frontline.

Two of those workers returned to Berlin more than 70 years after the end of war. One of them, the late artist Paul Philibert-Charrin (1920-2007), is commemorated today in an exhibition of his wartime cartoons at the Nazi Forced Labour Documentation Centre.

The other is Robert Liberge, who at age 94 wanted to see the place he was sent to work, aged 18.

650,000 French forced workers

During World War Two, Germany-bound trains not only carried thousands of Jews to the Nazi death camps, but also more than 650,000 French workers who were sent in successive waves between June 1942 and July 1944.

Half an hour from Berlin's city centre, the documentation centre is tucked away on a suburban street. Its unassuming entrance stands out against the surrounding residential art nouveau buildings. It’s one of the many centres that house archives detailing what went on in Nazi work camps.

This evening the building is lit up for an exhibition opening – the cartoons of Charrin. From March 1943 to the end of the war, the artist spent 30 months shovelling earth near the city of Graz, in modern-day Austria.

During his time, he recorded valuable insight into the everyday life of the camp by sketching the world around him.

Fond memories

Robert Liberge, one of the last living witnesses of the forced labour era, attended the opening night. Along with his wife and four children, he travelled from Nantes, western France, to visit his former workplace.

In 1942, Liberge was enlisted in Berlin, where he worked in one of the capital’s railway warehouses for a year. Despite being a victim of the STO, Liberge fondly remembers his years in Berlin, thanks to German colleagues who didn’t make him feel like an outsider.

He visits the railway warehouse – still in operation today – where the employees welcome him with a warm embrace. An eager Liberge, followed by his family, local historians and employees of the warehouse, hurries through the halls, happy to see that very little had changed since last he worked there.

A few hours later, the Liberge family and warehouse staff exchange memories, anecdotes, pictures.

Seventy years on, Germany maintains a consistent culture of remembrance of its past as it continues to atone for the crimes of World War II.

The wartime works of Paul Philibert-Charrin are shown at the Nazi Forced Labour Documentation Center Berlin-Schöneweide, through the exhibition "Philibert und Fifi" ( , until 28 April, 2019.

“Un camp sous la lune”, written by George Brassens in November 1943 as he was working in Basdorf during the STO, was interpreted at the exhibition opening night by French artist Corinne Douarre.


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