BenThere.com Germany
Tuesday 29 June 1999 and the road has quickly taken me into a strange place. i am now in the former East Germany, aka the GDR (German Democratic Republic). In a winding roundabout way, I've come to this place that I have been both dreading and looking forward to for several months. Ever since I have learned of the role grandfather played in the liberation of the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp, and the surrounding sub-camps, I have known that this is a place that I have to go to to fully understand my life. I have been there now, to this terrible place where thousands of slaves labored inside the Khonstein mountain making the vengeance weapons to rain down upon London - the V1 and V2 rockets.

As I write this entry four days later, my mind is still lost trying to find the words to make sense, or even contemplate all of this, all of the things about this horrible hell set in the rolling foothills of the Harz mountains. I buy some english language publications about the camp at the museum there. Currently I am reading what is like a collective narrative about the life and death in the Mittelbau-Dora camps.

I spend almost the entire day at the camp. I didn't have breakfast, and I skipped lunch. But I am not hungry. There is something gnawing me inside that says it is proper to come to this place hungry. That to come on a full stomach, happy in the sunshine, may be wrong and disrespectful to the tens of thousands who were hungry every day they were here - not just hungry one day like me.

After I am done at the camp, I drive up into the Harz mountains. I don't really know where I am going or what I am doing there. I really don't care. Maybe in a sense I am running away. After a while it starts getting on in the day, and I decided to find a place to stay. I wind up following some signs to the Hotel Rust in a little village called Hohegeiss. The service was great, the room again adequate with a private bath and a phone. After I get settled in I go downstairs for some dinner. More venison, and it is good and filling after this day. As I wait for my meal, I begin to write about some thoughts from the camp, the KZ (Konzentrationlager).

Dora is a place of miserable history, the minds that made it are still alive today. They are still alive in places like Rwanda and Serbia, and in places like Germany and Idaho.

Look at these pictures. Look at all of them. Click them and see the big versions. See the crumbled buildings and rusting crematoria. And see, in your mind, the buildings fully built and the oven burning hot. See it projected onto these pictures of history. Know that there are people who have these visions, and they have a smile on their face when they see them. Know that those smiling demons once lived here, and they still live today.
The main gate to Dora
A boxcar like that many prisoners arrived in at Nordhausen

March 10, 1942 - Men with names like von Braum and Dornberger watch with smiling faces as the first A4 rocket lights into the sky. The first long range missile in the world hurtles towards the heavens, and soon towards London. The weapon the world would know as the "V2" is rushed into serial production alongside the research facility at Peenemunde. In August, RAF bombing partially damages the facility, and the Nazi's decide to move production underground.

The perfect facility was waiting for them here. Begun early in the war, the tunnels hollowed into the Khonstein were the repository of the petroleum reserves of the Wermacht. Millions of gallons of fuel would be removed, and the tunnel system expanded on a scale previously unknown. (click here for a map of the tunnels)

Ten days after the RAF raid on Peenemunde, the first transport arrived at Dora from Buchenwald. By December 10,000 slaves had arrived at the tunnels. They would live in the same cold, damp, dusty, dark belly of the earth that they labored in.

"We were held in worse conditions than animals. We were sleeping without any bedding. Even bowls from which we should have drunk our soup were not available so we had to resort to using rusty tins. These were the most precious and valuable thing we possessed - our own survival depended on them." - Sergej Bogdanov, Estonian prisoner.

Work was carried out around the clock. Prisoners on one shift could barely sleep or even breath from the constant blasts of demolition. The tunnels were a beehive of emaciated figures carrying out rubble and carrying in pipes, wires, track, and machinery.

"The construction of the highly secretive underground plant was proceeding frantically... We were taken to the concrete entrance of this underground cave and from this moment on we didn't get to see the daylight anymore for months to come, not till the end of December." - Wassily Iwanow, Russian prisoner.

"Prisoners carrying tracks in groups of four kept traipsing past. Their faces were marked by fatigue. Every meter stood a man who was shoveling, moving mechanically, starting around with a face bearing the traits of a dead man. The overseers were shouting and beating us. A concrete mixer was droning while gravel and cement were being mixed in its steely entrails. The level of noise was unbearable. In a corner men were drilling holes, the noise of their pneumatic drill resounding in the air. The brigade was made to stop. An explosive charge was being prepared. A few minutes later a loud detonation deafened the men's ears. Everyone was quiet. The air became worse." - Jean Mialet, French prisoner.

By January 1944 production of the V2 had begun at Dora under the auspices of the Mittelwerk GmbH company. Construction of the tunnels would go on, though, as Berlin began to move more and more of it's secret projects underground. Construction would also begin above the earth. Barracks were a poor use of tunnel space, and a regular concentration camp was built a short march up the road. In May 1944 prisoners were moved above ground, and their subterranean quarters converted to production of the "V1" flying bomb, also known as the buzz bomb because of the noise made by it's pulse-jet engine.

"Everyone is gasping and crying for air... In all passages, halls, tunnels dead and dying humans. Everything at running pace. The SS ruthlessly hit us to make us work faster. They use clubs, rifle butts, iron bars, and wooden sticks. Whether they hit us indiscriminately on the head, the shoulders, or the back is not relevant. Everything has only one purpose - the production of V-weapons." - Erich Neumann, German prisoner.

The new quarters above ground barely made an impact on the lives of the prisoners. Death could not be escaped in this hell, only avoided for another day, another night, another shift. Early on, the dead and disabled were sent back to other camps, mainly Buchenwald. With the new camp came a hospital, in reality a brief intermediary step between the living hell and death. By march Dora would have it's own crematorium. The dead could often be put in the oven three at a time, not by the size of the oven by the degree that they had wasted away towards death. And even then there was no respect for them, their ashes tossed out the door into the forest below.

"After four days spent "to recoup strength" I go to the camp hospital with three fellow inmates who are suffering from dysentery. None of them will come back... We are forced to go into the same rom where we already find Polish, Russians, gypsies, Germans, French, and a couple of Belgians - altogether about 60 naked, emaciated, feverish people cramped together on bunks... Here they don't treat human beings, but only numbers...

"No nursing, no food or drinks are provided. When the sick are taken into a room they are naked; then, still naked, they are put into a bed which is already occupied by another ailing prisoner. There are merely relevant for the statistics; the medical file being more important that the people themselves! This file is the only reason for being kept in the ward, the only reason why the sickbay was established in the first place... This file is all that remains once the seriously ill have died." - Leon Halkin, Belgian prisoner.

The hospital, though, became not only the last refuge of the near dead, but also of the underground resistance. The diseases and stench proffered by the lack of sanitation kept the SS and kapos at bay for the most part. From the very start of production, the prisoners knew what they were making, and found a purpose in life to destroy Hitler's wonder weapons.

"Every single missile we saw was to us a constant reminder of the people we were working for and made us think of possible ways to damage or destroy this wretched discovery." - Jiri Benes, Czech prisoner.

"Amongst the V1 projectiles [and the V2 as well, .ed] there were many that failed to function. Moreover, the enemy was well informed about the missile production. The SS and above all the security service [Gestapo] presumed that an intentional sabotage network was active. [most failures, though, were likely due to the complex nature of the nascent rocket technology, and the unskilled labor that was producing them, .ed]

The prisoners themselves, aware of the fact that they had to work in a secret armaments factory from where no one would emerge alive, had devised their own safety measures and secret code so that discussing something would not lead to denunciations." - Karl Feuerer, German prisoner.

Denunciations often meant execution. Often it was done on the roll call square and with much ceremony on the part of the SS officers. Other times, it would take place in the factory itself.

"They had used a block and tackle from which a long and heavy iron bar was hanging. The executes were lined up one next to the other with a wire noose around their necks. The nooses were tied to the 15 meter long iron bar. The moment the bar was hoisted by means of this pulley system all the people met their death simultaneously. Truly the devil was at work here!" - Friedrich Kochheim, German prisoner.

The executed would hang from this iron gallows for many days. Below the executed, the work went on. It went on relentlessly, driven on by beatings and intimidation. Beyond these, the key to Nazi control of the prisoner's life was the social structures of the camps.

"Our days were organized as follows - waking-up time, getting ready for work, lining up for roll call, marching off to the tunnels where a 12 hour shift awaited us, lining up to leave the tunnels, marching to the camp, collecting our meal, and then being harassed by the senior member of a barrack with such inane activities as roll call for lice, singing, making the beds. The day would invariably end with the struggle for a place to sleep.

"I myself was racially discriminated. The living and working conditions in the concentration camp were appalling enough, yet they were even worse for the Jews. Jewish people were housed in separate barracks and were made to carry out the heaviest duties." - Wolfgang Gross, Polish prisoner.

"As a matter of fact the system at work is quite easy - create intrigues amongst the single groups, play people of different nationalities, races, religions and professions angainst one another. At first let them waste away in the most squalid and abysmal conditions of filth, hunger, and violence. Pick out the meanest, toughest and most brutal - they spread like worms in a moulded piece of cheese here - and give them power over the others; then let everything take its own course." - Stephane Hessel, French prisoner.

In October 1944 Dora became independent of Buchenwald, a reflection of both the size of the complex and the Nazi fantasy of victory through wonder weapons. More than 30 sub-camps fed bodies into the tunnels. Grand plans were made for the expansion of the tunnel system and more and more projects were crammed into the underground bunkers. Work would continue until the very end of the way.

In the spring on 1945, the Nazis evacuated camps in Eastern Europe ahead of the advancing Russians. Many of them would wind up at Dora and the surrounding camps. And the prisoner population boomed, the food supply broke down. With allied forces just over the horizon, more people than ever died of hunger, exhaustion, and disease. The crematorium at Dora was overwhelmed and bodies were stacked and burned in open pyres.

In April, the SS cleared Dora and the surrounding camps. By rail and march, the prisoners were moved towards Bergen-Belsen, Ravensbruck, Sachsenhausen, and other camps away from the advancing Allies. The weak, ill, and fleeing were shot along the way.

On 11 April 1945 elements of the US 3rd Armored and 104th Infantry liberated the few hundred prisoners left behind to die at Dora. But even the liberation had its own tragedy.

In January the SS had established a new sub-camp on the outskirts of Nordhausen. These barracks for the heavy work brigades quickly turned into a camp for the sick and dying. Mistaking the barracks for a factory, the Allies launched an air raid April 3-4. On their arrival a week later, the US troops found hundreds of bodies left unburied at the Boelke Barracks. Some of the stacked, others laying where they fell. The SS had abandoned them to their fate weeks earlier.

The Americans ordered the male citizens of Nordhausen to bury the dead in mass graves. Despite the prompt medical attention by the Americans, hundreds more of the liberated would die before May.

60,000 human beings from more than 40 countries were sent into the hell of Dora. 20,000 would die there. The sick irony of the Nazi missile program is more people died making the weapons than died from the weapons themselves.

The legacy of Dora lives with us today. And it is a history that has been buried. Because it is a history that taints our greatest achievements in the postwar world.

The tunnels of the Khonstein became the first power play of the cold war. The agreements amongst the Allied troika put Dora into Russian hands. But the US Army very quickly realized the sophistication of the weapons produced here. A month after the liberation, Wernher von Braum gave himself up to the Americans, along with 110 close collaborators. About two weeks later on 22 May the US Supreme Command ordered the army to remove 100 completed V2 missiles and the most important machinery used in their production. The loot was transported by rail and sea to White Sands, New Mexico. By September 1945 von Braum and his associates were in the midst of Operation Paperclip, to jump start the American rocket program. Ten years later 41 German scientists and engineers became naturalized citizens of the United States. Many of them, including von Braum, had been to Dora and seen firsthand the terrors of the prison labor system there. US law, then and now, expressly forbids former Nazis from becoming citizens.

These men, who tacitly witnessed what had gone at Dora, would go on to put a man on the moon and create the basic technologies for todays nuclear missiles. Von Braum would ride in a parade alongside President Kennedy.

The Russians would find what the American would leave behind. At Peenemunde, the Red Army would discover 10 faulty V2 missiles. Machinery, plans and parts would be discovered at Dora and other smaller production centers. By October 1946 the Soviet Union had reconstructed the plans for the A4, and production would begin again at some of the same plants the Nazis had run with slave labor a year and a half before. On October 18, 1947 the first Russian ballistic missile was launched, based primarily on the V2 plans and parts recovered from the Nazis.

The space race and the cold war, both built on the beaten backs of starved slaves. The unknown legacy of the last 50 years of American success. The moral defeat for America isn't in the appropriation of Nazi technology, but to let the purveyors of that science off the hook. It was their complacency, and that of millions others large and small, that made it possible.

The camp stood here, the Khonstein behind
New entrance to Tunnel B; The original access was demolished by the Russians to seal off the manmade caves
Our guide with a model of the tunnel system
the new access tunnel meets "B" Like its twin "A", the main tunnels could accommodate two side by side freight trains
the tracks today rusted into the concrete floor
The shapeless dark world broken by small lights and loud noises
Kammer 46, the original barracks at Dora, later V1 production
assembly table for V2 rocket engines
crumbling into the forest, little of Dora remains but rubble and terror
East German memorial to the tortured souls of Dora. The crematorium in the background
hung by hooks on the wall, prisoners would get a final beating before being sent to the oven in the next room
behind the crematorium
Coming Soon: historical photos and documents from KZ Mittelbau-Dora