Forced Labor Payments: Too Late?

Wednesday, June 14th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WESTFIELD, Mass. (AP) — Stalin stole her parents, who died in Siberian work camps. The Nazis took away her homeland and her adolescence was spent in forced labor.

Finally, someone wants to give something back to Mary Phillips. Austria has agreed to pay settlements to an estimated 150,000 people forced to work there during the Nazi occupation.

The strange thing — maybe the closest thing to revenge — is this: Still full of rage at age 70 but at ease financially in her adopted U.S. homeland, Phillips does not need or want the money.

``Can you imagine how many pounds of clothing I can give to the poor if I can get that money? I'm going to give away every cent of it,'' she says. ``I don't need their dirty money.''

As parents remind children, life isn't always fair. Sometimes, though, it weighs on someone with an unaccountable burden. Since age 5, Phillips has been without parents to remind her of anything.

They were rousted from their homes in the Ukraine and sent to Siberia in 1934, when Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin was seizing property, sending owners into slave labor and turning their land into collectives. Phillips' father, a blacksmith and land owner, refused to join a collective. He tried to hide in a big oven, but he was rounded up with Phillips' mother, two grandparents and seven aunts. Only two aunts survived.

With their closest family gone, Phillips and her younger sister were sent to an orphanage on a collective farm near their hometown of Berezan, about 70 miles south of Kiev. Phillips still remembers the daily hunger, dulled by meager meals of soup.

``I always had so much hate. We were so hungry,'' she says. ``My wish was to stay alive.''

Seven years later, even that semblance of a childhood collapsed. As Hitler's troops swept across the Ukraine, the orphanage fell apart. The two sisters found temporary shelter with a kindhearted local woman.

But the Nazis were desperate for workers to advance the war effort in the factories and fields of occupied Austria. Orphans went first. At age 12, Phillips begged a local couple to take in her younger sister, but they could house just one. Phillips, who was brought up and remains Russian Orthodox, left on a railroad with other unlucky Ukrainians, bound for Austria under Nazi guard.

``It's not only the Jews that suffered. Gentiles suffered too,'' she says.

She was taken first to a transit camp in Poland, where her head was shaved for lice. She was then shipped to an Austrian paper mill. She still remembers the sardonic smile of a plant manager when she begged in newly learned German for potatoes. One day, his grin was too much for her and she sprayed him with a water hose. She was whipped and sent away to an Austrian work farm.

For more than two years, until the liberation by American soldiers, she farmed grain and vegetables with several other unpaid workers from France and Poland, more than 12 hours a day, seven days a week. ``We worked so hard. We were like slaves,'' she says.

The diet was mainly potatoes and cabbage. She was sometimes hit. She remembers one whipping there, too.

She expects to be angry always, not just at the Austrians and Germans, but the Russians too. ``I never had any schooling. I don't remember my parents, my grandparents hugging me. I never had a doll. My whole life was destroyed. It's not only me. It's everybody,'' she says of the war's exploited, abused and killed.

Fifty-five years later, her tears flow fresh.

After the war, she worked in the kitchen of an American-run refugee camp, leading to her later career as a caterer. She eventually emigrated to Montreal, met a Polish-American from Westfield, married, moved to this western Massachusetts city, became a U.S. citizen and raised three children.

Now divorced, she spends her free time collecting clothing and food from dozens of friends and collaborators for several orphanages she has located in the Ukraine through a nephew there. Last year alone, she shipped about $5,000 worth. She also has raised money to build a Russian Orthodox church in her Ukrainian hometown.

``I think maybe she deals with her pain and hurt by trying to help other people,'' says her niece, Eva Filip, whose father reverted to the Polish version of the family name.

About 10 years ago, Phillips heard something about compensation to survivors of the Holocaust, which killed about 6 million Jews. A friend made inquiries in Austria and learned there was nothing for people like Phillips.

But the end of the Cold War and lawsuits by forced laborers started to focus attention on the question. Finally, in May, at an international conference, Austria agreed to compensate forced laborers in factories and farms and slave workers in concentration camps.

With approval expected from its parliament, Austria would give one-time payments $6,884 for concentration-camp labor, $2,295 for factory work, and $1,311 for farm work. The $393 million fund would be set up by the end of this year by the government and companies that used forced labor. The government has begun to gather information on who might be eligible for payments.

Martin Weiss, a spokesman for the Austrian Embassy in Washington, calls it ``a moral gesture.''

``Not everyone can be made whole after such a long time,'' he adds.

Phillips intends to apply for the settlement. She feels there is still time to make life better, if not whole, for her orphans. For herself, she has everything she wants, except memories to lull her to sleep.