Posted in Alumni Travel, on August 28, 2014

Blogs from Berlin: A Different Kind of Company, A Different Kind of Car

(I know that’s Saturn’s slogan, and I’m writing about Volkswagen, but somehow “Fahrvergnügen” didn’t really work as a title.)

One of the places that OU Alumni’s Germany Close Up trip visited was the Volkswagen factory in Wolfsburg. Actually, we were the first GCU group to do so and VW rolled out the red carpet for us.

The VW factory in Wolfsburg, Germany

The VW factory in Wolfsburg, Germany

You may recall that Volkswagen was founded by Hitler, the company’s name meaning “the people’s car.” In fact, the cornerstone that was famously laid by that infamous murderer was recently unearthed. It is currently sitting in a corner with no fanfare – not even a plaque – though it will presumably be incorporated in the factory’s educational exhibit. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Remember the forced labor in Schindler’s List? That was a thing. Volkswagen, as a Nazi-run shop, was one of many companies on the forced-labor bandwagon. During the war, prisoners were forced to build munitions for the Nazis. The conditions may have been better than those of a concentration camp, but that’s not saying much. Nevertheless, many people’s lives were saved because they were “lucky” enough to draw slavery rather than more horrific options that existed.

Decades ago, in the 1980s, Volkswagen established a humanitarian fund to compensate the company’s victims. They have published several books with the laborers’ stories and have created the aforementioned educational exhibit. (The exhibit is currently in German only but one of VW’s many books on this subject includes English translations of the displays.) While many German companies have taken steps to address this ugly chapter in their histories, Volkswagen is the only one to create an exhibit in their own factory. (Sorry, no photos of the exhibit itself! Camera phones are not allowed in factories for security reasons.)

The exhibit is in a bomb shelter, where the slave laborers were forced to stay. It’s rather claustrophobic just spending half an hour there with the option to leave. One can only imagine being stuck there for hours in crowded conditions.

Surprisingly, Volkswagen has forged positive relationships with surviving laborers and their families. After all, the current administration are not the ones who enslaved them. Volkswagen recognizes the misdeeds of their corporate forebears and is doing all that it can to correct them, as much as such things can be corrected.

There are those who would never drive a German car. I won’t tell others what to do but our visit to this frank and forthcoming exhibit tells me that the VW of today has a sincere desire to do what they can to right the wrongs of their company’s history.


Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of five books, including The Tzniyus Book. His latest work, The Taryag Companion, is available from OU Press as well as on Amazon.