An Arbeitskommando at work
Many thousands of prisoners were held in the prison camp, but an even larger number of them were held in areas outside of the camp, and assigned to Arbeitskommandos (work details). The prisoners in these Arbeitskommandos were used for almost any kind of labor -- farming, forestry, factory work, local businesses, building and repairing roads, even working in the vinyards.
Because the German military had drafted most of the able-bodied men, there were few civilian men left to do the jobs that needed to be done. The German military prisoner of war camps would provide the men to do those civilian jobs.
According to the Geneva Conventions of 1929, prisoners from countries that signed the agreement could not be forced to work. Although the Germans also signed the Geneva Conventions, they got around this restriction by declaring that all prisoners belonging to German-occupied countries automatically became "voluntary workers", so they put many of their European prisoners in Arbeitskommandos to work outside the camp. Because the Soviet Union did not sign the Geneva Conventions, most Russian prisoners were forced to work.
Arbeitskommandos were well-guarded, and any misbehavior or attempts to escape were dealt with swiftly and harshly. Prisoners could be put in solitary confinement back in the prison camp, beaten, sent to the infamous Mauthausen concentration/extermination camp, or shot.
Here is a list of Arbeitskommando units located around Stalag XVII B:
1133 GW Ernstbrunn
C 71 Ampflwang
L 1076/B 229 Waidhoffen an der Ybbs
GW 619/462 St. Veit a.d. Golsen
GW 2016/B-245 Linz
733/B599 Spite am Donau ll
Some prisoners in Arbeitskommandos worked very hard for many hours at a time. Some workers told of working 12-hour shifts in a coal mine without breaks; others said they only received one rest day in twenty; some were mistreated. But in general, they were typically treated better and had better food, clothing, housing and care. Some prisoners were allowed to live with Austrian families who had farms or local businesses. Fraternization between local people and prisoners was strictly forbidden, but this rule was almost impossible to enforce later in the war. And as the war went on, many of the civilians and their prisoner laborers became used to this arrangement; some became friends and even lovers. After the war, some of the prisoners assigned to the Arbeitskommandos had become settled in their new homes and decided to stay in Austria.
A Belgian prisoner (right) works at a machine shop.