Ostarbeiter, literally, “worker from the east,” was the term used by the German authorities to denote workers brought into Germany from the eastern occupied territories. By the end of 1941, due to the mobilization of massive armies, Germany was experiencing a critical labor shortage in its war industry. To combat this shortage, a recruiting campaign was begun in January 1942 in occupied territories. People who signed up were promised good pay and hot food; however, few volunteers signed up. The German authorities in the occupied territories were therefore ordered to round up people by force.

Erich Koch, governor of Reichkommissariat Ukraine, was ordered to provide 450 000 people per year for work in Germany. Police forces were used to round up people in markets, churches and theaters, who were then shipped to Germany. Often, entire villages were rounded up and sent to Germany. These people were forced to wear a badge, “OST,” which identified them as being from the eastern occupied territories. The conditions in which they worked and lived were little different from slave labor. In the camps in which they were interned, sanitary conditions were terrible; typhus, and diphtheria were rampant.

About 80% of the ostarbeiters forcibly taken from Soviet territories were from Ukraine. It is estimated that between 2.4 and 2.8 million Ukrainians worked as ostarbeiters. The death rate among them was high, due to terrible living conditions, inadequate diet and long hours of often backbreaking labor. Ostarbeiters worked mainly in the production of munitions and V-2 rockets; many were also forced to work in the railroads, mining and agriculture.