Nazi SS guards earned six reichsmarks when Marian Szlachciński walked for an entire day around Sachsenhausen concentration camp, up to 48 kilometers each day, with blisters on his feet.
Mr. Szlachciński was imprisoned for two years at the camp in Oranienburg near Berlin. He belonged to the “shoe-testers commando,” in which prisoners were forced to walk each day along a specially created route covered with various materials: gravel, sand, rocks, asphalt. The German shoe industry paid for the tests because it wanted to find out which materials and types of shoes held up best. Many of the weakened inmates died after a few weeks.
Mr. Szlachciński survived and is now 87. In May, to commemorate the 69th anniversary of the camp’s liberation, he walked once more around Sachsenhausen. A few steps behind him was a woman whose family profited from his forced marches. Doris Münch is a great-niece of Richard Freudenberg, whose Weinheim-based shoe company tested footwear at the concentration camp. Mr. Szlachciński showed her where his barrack was located.
The guards beat the inmates and made them sing songs, Mr. Szlachciński recalled. Most of the time, the shoes were too big. Once he had to march for a day, a night, and then another day. He was given stimulants beforehand – the same drugs that kept soldiers awake at the front.
“I never would have thought that today’s young people would be interested.”
The tests were useful for the shoe industry: Among the advances they produced was a switch to gluing shoes with plastics instead of sewing them.
In 2010, historian Anne Sudrow of the Center for Historical Research in Potsdam published a book, “The Shoe in National Socialism,” in which she confronted German shoe companies with their past.
Most of the companies claim to know nothing of the tests. Among the most important firms are the tannery Freudenberg, the shoe manufacturer Salamander from Kornwestheim near Stuttgart and Fagus, the maker of shoe-lasts from Alfeld an der Leine. Fagus contributed to improving the shape of boots for the Wehrmacht during the war.
The companies are now reacting to the past in quite different ways.
The Freudenberg heiress Ms. Münch was shocked and decided to look for survivors. Today, the company has annual revenues of €6.6 billion ($8.3 billion). The office of the memorial at Sachsenhausen helped her find five former shoe-testers.
One of them was Mr. Szlachciński, who was pleased by her inquiry. “I never would have thought that today’s young people would be interested,” he said, referring to Ms. Münch, who is over 70 herself.
Three Freudenberg heirs met other former inmates in Warsaw, Haifa and Amsterdam. With a spontaneous appeal for donations to Freudenberg shareholders, they collected €120,000 for survivors as well as for memorials at Sachsenhausen and Ravensbrück. With the €5,000 he received, Mr. Szlachciński paid for a dental operation.
This is a purely private initiative: The Freudenberg group of companies has said little up to now. After Ms. Sudrow’s book was published, Joachim Scholtyseck, a professor of history in Bonn, was commissioned to examine the company’s history from the 1920s through 1945. The book is scheduled to be completed next year. Until then, the Freudenberg group is refraining from taking any action.
The Salamander company in Kornwestheim said it had no more information about concentration-camp shoe testing. Company officials noted that its shoe division has changed owners three times since 1945. Today’s Salamander GmbH was reestablished in 2005 and taken over by the manufacturer Ara in 2009.
Still, a Lutheran minister in Kornwestheim invited Ms. Sudrow and a former shoe-tester to make a presentation. The town council is having the local history of the Nazi era documented and the director of the municipal art museum has issued a listing of source material. “A tight lid has always been kept here on the history of (Salamander),” Friedhelm Hoffmann, a town councilor, said.
Ms. Sudrow wrote that at the Fagus factory in Alfeld, the son of the firm’s founder, Karl Benscheidt Jr., personally inspected the wounded feet of shoe-testers.
Ernst Greten, a grandson of the founder, heads the firm today, which is now called Fagus-GreCon. He doesn’t want to meet any former inmates, much less look at their feet. “We have to look to the future,” he said. “We have enough to do keeping the company going.”
The Fagus factory is an early building by architect Walter Gropius and is a Unesco World Heritage site. The Social Democratic politician Thomas Oppermann sat on the board of trustees at the factory and has written a book on the history of Fagus. But he shows little interest in shoe-testing stories.
“If there were an urge to know, things could be found out.”
In 2012, a user on the Internet site, abgeordnetenwatch.de, asked him about the tests. Mr. Oppermann responded that Ernst Greten was conducting an intensive investigation of Nazi history. “The diary entries of the head of the firm at that time show great concern about this practice,” he wrote.
Ms. Sudrow said the diary – if it exists – has not been made available for her research. Sources have presented a different picture: At the most, the company’s founder criticized technical aspects of the test, but not the practice as such. She said that before the second series of experiments with Wehrmacht boots, he even fitted shoes on inmates’ feet himself.
In addition to Freudenberg, Salamander and Fagus, other companies had their products tested in the Nazi shoe experiments and still exist today, according to Ms. Sudrow. Among them are the auto-parts maker Continental, the adhesive-products manufacturer UHU, the flooring manufacturer Armstrong DLW (at that time Deutsche Linoleum-Werke) and the rubber-products manufacturer Westland Gummiwerke. Others include the German drug maker Bayer and the chemical company BASF, as successors to I.G. Farben.
Officials for each of the companies said they had never heard of the tests. A spokesperson with Rieker acknowledged that the shoe manufacturer was familiar with Ms. Sudrow’s book but had no documentary sources. UHU said it commissioned a historian to conduct investigations after questions from reporters.
Günter Morsch, who has been director of the Sachsenhausen memorial for 21 years, recalls having written to the companies regarding the shoe tests. He said he received no answers. Mr. Morsch pointed out that company archives exist. “If there were an urge to know,” he said, “things could be found out.”
According to Ms. Sudrow, companies deliberately concealed their involvement after the war. Salamander managers told allied forces that only the Wehrmacht commissioned the tests. Freudenberg claimed that the company’s extensive research findings were attained by employees testing shoes at its headquarters in Weinheim.
And Ms. Sudrow writes that the Allies were so fascinated by the testing methods and results that they didn’t ask too many questions. The dawn of the Cold War also made it difficult to conduct investigations in Oranienburg, which was part of the Soviet-controlled section of Germany.
The only person ever convicted in connection with the shoe tests was its final director, Ernst Brennscheidt. He did a few years of forced labor in the Soviet Union. Then he came home and opened a shoe store in the Federal Republic of Germany.
The story first appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: email@example.com