The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

Shofar FTP Archive File: camps/buchenwald//press/reuters.040395

Archive/File: holocaust/germany/dora reuter.040395
Last-Modified: 1995/04/10

 Survivors of V2 Nazi slave camp mark liberation
    By Richard Murphy
    MITTELBAU DORA, Germany, April 3 (Reuter) - ``This 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 V2s -- the ``V'' stood for
 Vergeltung, meaning retaliation -- would 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
    ``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 in
    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.''

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