This website is part of The New York Public Library's Online Exhibition Archive. For current classes, programs, and exhibitions, please visit
Letters to Sala

Letters to Sala

Nazi Slave Labor Camps

Sala’s story takes place against the backdrop of the Nazi occupation of Poland, the ghettoization of Jews, and their deportation to slave labor camps. In contrast to concentration or death camps, labor camps, which numbered in the thousands, were established to support and supply the Nazi regime. The labor camps Sala worked in were part of Organization Schmelt, named for SS-Oberführer Albrecht Schmelt, handpicked by Heinrich Himmler to be Special Representative for the Deployment of Foreign Labor in East Upper Silesia. Schmelt’s empire eventually grew to 177 camps and about 50,000 Jews, working mostly in construction of the Autobahn, munitions, and textile-processing plants. Schmelt’s camps were along the borders of Germany and Czechoslovakia, but some, known as “shops,” were in Polish cities.

Schmelt negotiated contracts to supply German-managed businesses with Jewish labor, and obtained his workers through an agreement with the Judenrat, the Nazi-sponsored Jewish Council. The head of the Sosnowitz Judenrat, Moshe Merin, was an able administrator whose constituency eventually included 37 communities in Upper Silesia, managed by 1,200 employees.

Schmelt and Merin grew rich from the Jewish slave trade, and German businesses prospered from government contracts carrying virtually no labor costs. Schmelt “leased” Jews to factories for a daily payment of a few Reichsmark (RM), keeping most of the proceeds for himself and the SS. Merin sporadically gave money to the workers’ families, but the rest went to the Judenrat or his personal accounts.

Schmelt was a pragmatic businessman who focused on deriving maximum profit from his laborers. Until July 1943, he allowed the flow of mail as a good propaganda tool that boosted productivity and controlled the anxiety of those left at home. Still, his workers were given only starvation rations and lived in overcrowded barracks without heat or sanitation. Disease was rampant. Selections of unproductive workers were frequent, and those who were too sick to work were sent to Auschwitz. Organization Schmelt epitomized the inherent contradiction in Nazi ideology: achieving “racial purity” necessitated at least removal, if not killing, of all Jews, but Jewish labor was desperately needed to build the Nazi State.