Photo of forced laborers Mykhailo Temchenko and Ivan Liubka, Sumy Oblast

This photo was bought at an online auction in August 2020. The only clue to identifying the forced laborers in it was the signature on the back. We traced their fates and learned more about their experiences during World War II thanks to documents found in the State Archives of Sumy Region and the Arolsen Archives – The International Center on Nazi Persecution.

Force laborers Mykhailo Temchenko (on the right) and, probably, Ivan Liubka.
From Andrii Dostliev's collection

To Liubka Ivan A. from Temchenko Mykhailo F. to remember the time in Germany. August 20, 1944.

Mykhailo Fedorovych Temchenko, who wrote the inscription, was born on October 18, 1921, in the village of Tomashivka in Smila (now Romny) district, Sumy region, in a family of middle-class peasants.

Before the war, he was a freshman in mechanical college. In 1939 he joined the Komsomol (The All-Union Leninist Young Communist League, usually known as Komsomol, was a political youth organization in the Soviet Union.). During the Nazi occupation, he hid his membership card, but "the Germans found and destroyed it," as he testified later. He worked in a public yard until December 1, 1942, when he was conscripted for forced labor.

Mykhailo Temchenko on the photo from his certificate of exemption from military service and work records, 1941-1944
From the State Archives of Sumy region

Temchenko was sent to the city of Biersdorf (now part of Daaden) in Rhineland-Palatinate (​​Rheinland-Pfalz). On December 14, 1942, he started working at the Füsseberg iron ore mine, which belonged to the Friedrich Krupp industrial corporation. He lived in the Heiterkeit camp (Lager Heiterkeit), established at the mine.

Local historian Volker Rosenkranz describes the difficult conditions in this camp: forced laborers were starving and sought any food outside the camp. The local German population accused them of stealing, for example, picking apples. Starvation also caused escapes. Rosenkranz cites a report that mentions 52 forced laborers who fled the Füsseberg mine camp in July 1943. Twenty-two did not return to the camp after a permitted departure from it, including Temchenko. His registration card has a corresponding note: "July 19, 1943, did not return after departure" (am 19.7.43 vom Ausgang nicht zurück). Six days later, he was arrested. Charged with "violation of the labor contract and escape," he was sentenced to eight weeks of imprisonment in a labor camp. According to Temchenko, he served his sentence in Frankfurt-am-Main and apparently ended up in the Heddernheim labor camp (Arbeitserziehungslager Heddernheim). It was located in a clay quarry on the outskirts of the city district of the same name. Temchenko confirmed that he "worked at different jobs there." After his release, he worked at the iron ore mine in Herdorf, neighboring the city of Biersdorf.

On March 27, 1945, the American army entered Herdorf. Temchenko went through the NKVD filtration camp number 278 in Breslau (now Wroclaw in Poland) on August 12-14, 1945. On October 5, 1945, he returned to Tomashivka. Apparently, he faced challenges upon arrival because a month later, he applied to the Smila district department of the NKVD with a request to register his residency in his native village. He was permitted to do so and was re-inspected the following year. At that time, he worked on a local collective farm. He stayed in Tomashivka, married, raised two sons. Died in his native village.

Ivan Antonovych Liubka, the supposed owner of the photo and the recipient of the inscription on the back, was Temchenko's fellow countryman. He was born on December 3, 1923, in the village of Hrynivka, a few kilometers from Tomashivka, in the same Smila district.

They were likely conscripted to forced labor together: Liubka started working at the same mine on the same day as Temchenko: Füsseberg, December 14, 1942. But Liubka decided to flee earlier. According to his registration card, he "escaped on May 1, 1943" (Am 1.05.1943 entlaufen). It is unknown when he was arrested and what punishment he received. However, he surfaced three months later in the community camp Bergluft (Gemeindschaftslager Bergluft) in Herdorf, where he might have met Temchenko again.

In the State Archives of Sumy region, we discovered the letter that Liubka sent to his family on August 24, 1943. Unfortunately, it never reached them.

Letter sent by forced laborer Ivan Liubka to his family
From the State Archives of Sumy region

The postcard sent on August 24, 1943, from your son Liubka I.A.

Good health to you[,] my dears Daddy[,] Mommy[,] Mania, Petia[.] I want to let you know right from the start of my short letter[,] that I'm still alive and well[,] and I wish you the same in you[r] life[,] and work[.]

Please send my regards to Uncle I.[,] Aunt Ulyta[,] Grandma Vasya, Kolia[,] Aunt Natalka[,] Uncle Stepan and all our neighbors[.] I did send postcards to Aunt Natalka[,] but didn't get a reply. Please send my love to my sister Olena and her children Vanya [and] Nina. Mytia also sends good wishes to his family - he lost his leg above the knee[,] still goes to work[,] but it is not very hard for him[.] Daddy, I received your letter[,] thank you so very much. Every night as I go to bed[,] I dream of home and seeing you again[.] I dream of Petya often[.] How's his health[?] Has he been recruited[?] Who knows whether I get to see you[,] or not. Well, goodbye[,] looking forward to our reply[,] please write what's new and the addresses of the boys taken after me.

Your son І. Liubka

After the war, he underwent filtration in Breslau. On September 20, 1945, he departed home. Liubka returned to Hrynivka but later moved to Dnipropetrovsk Oblast for work. Thus, he managed to avoid a second inspection, and therefore his filtration file in the State Archives of Sumy region is missing.

If you have photos of forced laborers in Nazi Germany and stories related to them – let us know.