is what hell must be like.
The words of French survivor Jean Mialet express,
better than any others, the horrors of the underground concentration
camp at Mittelbau Dora in which slave labourers were worked to death
making Nazi Germany's V2 wonder weapon rockets.
From late 1943, thousands of prisoners from dozens
of countries toiled in appalling conditions to produce the rockets that
rained destruction on London and other cities. Mittelbau Dora, on the
outskirts of Nordhausen in east Germany, was established as a top-secret
satellite camp of Buchenwald in 1943 after British bombers destroyed
the main missile research base at Peenemuende on the Baltic coast. Adolf
Hitler hoped the supersonic V2sthe V stood for
Vergeltung, meaning retaliationwould turn the tide of war back
in Germany's favour. An estimated 20,000 prisoners died making them.
Franz Rosenbach is still astonished that he survived.
Arrested in Austria because he was a gypsy and therefore deemed racially
inferior, he was sent first to Auschwitz, then Buchenwald and
finally, in early 1944, to Mittelbau Dora. He was 15 years old.
I am still amazed today that anyone survived,
he recalls. We got almost nothing to eat, a piece of bread, perhaps
two or three potatoes. But you know, when you are young, you can take
an awful lot. And if you are careful not to attract attention...I always
thought this was not the end for me. Mialet and Rosenbach will
be among around 800 survivors at ceremonies at Mittelbau Dora on April
11 marking the 50th anniversary of its liberation by U.S. soldiers.
The tunnels and caves, the entrances to which were
blown up by Russian troops in 1948, will be partly reopened to serve
as a memorial to the victims.
The V2 was developed by Wernher von Braun, who after
World War Two directed the U.S. space programme. In all, around 5,000
V2s were fired from sites along the English Channel, killing thousands
of British civilians.
The first 107 prisoners from Buchenwald were shipped
to Mittelbau Dora in August 1943 and put to work carving out new tunnels
to enlarge an existing storage depot. Within six months, 12,000 prisoners
were toiling in dark, unventilated caverns.
Enduring back-breaking labour, malnutrition and disease
as well as the random brutality of their guards, they were also exposed
to the gas, noise and dust of explosions. By the spring of 1945, the
number of prisoners had reached 40,000.
The death toll was horrendous, with nearly 3,000 prisoners
dying between October 1943 and March 1944 alone. Most were Russian,
French or Polish.
Thousands of others deemed no longer fit to work were
sent to other death camps.
Until the spring of 1994 the prisoners lived
underground, says Angela Fiedermann, a member of staff at the
memorial site. The sanitation was totally inhuman. There were
no toilets and there was no water. The temperature was eight or nine
degrees Celsius (46-48 Fahrenheit) and humidity was 90 percent. They
died like flies.
Rosenbach, who arrived as accommodation blocks were
being built above ground, worked gruelling eight-hour shifts drilling
holes in the rock to prepare for blasting.
When the explosives were set off, prisoners
had to start clearing up immediately. There were lots of accidents,
people buried alive under rocks and rubble, he says.
Rene Steenbeke, a retired Belgian army officer, says
his worst memories are of the executions on the camp parade ground.
I saw 51 prisoners being hanged, their hands behind their backs,
a piece of wood in their mouths, hanged in groups of about 12. They
could see their comrades being killed before them and they had to watch.
By early 1945, Mittelbau Dora was producing around
690 V2s a month. The monthly death toll among prisoners in the first
three months of that year averaged 2,000.
Production ground to a halt in March as Allied troops
pushed deep into Germany from both east and west. In April, a partial
evacuation began, with already weakened prisoners sent on brutal forced
marches to other camps which few survived.
Rosenbach managed to escape from a party of around
500 which set off for Oranienburg concentration camp. Only half a dozen
of his group arrived. The others died or were murdered by their guards
on the way.
Liberation for the survivors came on April 11, when
Aurio Pierro, an acting platoon leader from the U.S. 33rd Armoured Regiment,
drove his tank up to the gates. They were opened by surprised prisoners,
the guards having apparently fled.
Before his unit moved on, Pierro obtained a glimpse
of what lurked within when he entered a building on the periphery.
There were dead bodies there, naked, emaciated,
tied hand and foot, the retired lawyer told Reuters from his home
The rocket equipment was spirited away by U.S. troops
in June 1945, filling more than 300 railway wagons, and shipped to the
United States to help with its space programme.
Today, the grim subterranean passages where the V2s
were made are still littered with footwear, tools and eating utensils.
Visitors will gain some sense of the cold, damp and sheer awfulness
of the place.
Rene Steenbeke hopes they may also reflect on the
part Mittelbau Dora played in launching modern space travel.
Everything that is now in space had its origins
here, not in America or Russia, he says. This is where a
new science started, but it is also where science and death met.