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My trip to the Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp Memorial
in Nordhausen, Germany

By Marina Dutzmann Kirsch

Author, Flight of Remembrance

My pilgrimage to the Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp Memorial came about as a result of the fact that my grandfather, Ernst Dutzmann, was assigned to work at Mittelwerk as chief inspector of V-2 rockets from February, 1944 through the end of the war. (Click here to read more about Ernst Dutzmann and his role in Flight of Remembrance.)

The Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp Memorial is located in the Harz Mountain region of Germany on the site of the former top-secret, underground V-1 and V-2 rocket installation established by the Nazi regime during World War II. It was established to commemorate the Mittelbau-Dora Camp—one of the largest concentration camps that existed in Germany proper, which was established outside the entrance to the installation in August of 1943. Between the late summer of 1943 through the spring of 1945, more than 60,000 people were transported to this camp from all over Europe and the Soviet Union in order to supply a vast labor force that was employed not only for the Nazi “secret weapons”—a technology that would later be used to further the U.S. and Soviet space programs—but also for a multitude of other construction projects around the area. At the peak of rocket mass-production, a total of nearly forty camps and subcamps existed in the vicinity of Nordhausen where 65,000 inmates languished to meet the unrelenting requirement for labor.

The memorial site is designed to remember the thousands of inmates who suffered and died at Mittelbau-Dora rather than to glorify the advanced technology furthered by the Nazi regime. The rocket technology is acknowledged only to the extent that it serves to tell the story of that place and to illustrate the work carried out there by forced laborers. Most of the inmates were captured partisans and resistance fighters or civilian forced laborers from Nazi-occupied countries. Some were prisoners of war. Over one-third of them did not survive the deplorable conditions; succumbing to exhaustion, malnutrition, overwork, lack of sleep, abuse, disease, injuries and the absence of even the most rudimentary medical care and sanitation. From the late summer of 1943 through the spring of 1944, the majority of inmates toiled underground and many of them perished in misery while forced to perform grueling labor to expand the tunnel network. Even during their off-shifts, they were not allowed to leave the tunnels, so that even their vain attempts at rest were accompanied by deafening noise, choking dust and dripping dampness. In the fall and winter of 1943-44, wheelbarrow-loads of corpses were carted out of the tunnels daily. From the spring of 1944 on, death rates finally declined sharply when most of the prisoners were moved into newly constructed, above-ground barracks with improved living conditions, but even this did not prevent many thousands more from dying. Only the minority of inmates—those with specialized skills—were employed in rocket assembly in the underground production facility. Those lacking such skills were still forced to perform exhausting labor on construction kommandos either inside the tunnels or at other sites.

Today, the winding drive leading from the memorial site entrance towards the museum building provides a tranquil view across impeccably maintained grounds set against a backdrop of gently rolling hills, giving no clue at first of the horrors perpetrated there during World War II. The site is understated in its simplicity—spare, starkly elegant, dignified—but with no expense neglected to bring the plight of the inmates powerfully and unforgettably to life. The expansive museum building houses a dynamic and deeply moving exhibition of photos, artifacts, memorabilia, original documents, inmate and perpetrator stories and eyewitness accounts from inmates, civilian and military workers and occupying Allied military personnel.

Outside on the grounds, monuments and markers commemorate aspects of the forced labor or serve to mark former camp structures, most of which no longer exist. The barracks, the infirmary, the prison, the execution site were dismantled long ago. The structures that do still exist are the crematorium, the fire station, a concrete SS air raid shelter, a reconstructed wooden barracks and here and there a fragment of a wall or foundation—all bearing mute testimony to the unspeakable horrors witnessed there. In front of the crematorium, a memorial square contains a stone plate bearing the names of the twenty one countries from whence the inmates came, including the US. Near it stands a poignant stone sculpture by Jürgen von Woyski composed of five inmates with hands bound, their faces expressing the hopelessness of their situation. But still, the ability of the human spirit to persevere and rise above dire adversity is displayed in the dignified stance and expression of the figure at front left who communicates without words, “You may succeed in killing my body, but my spirit remains forever intact and inviolable!”

Perhaps most notably, what still exists from World War II are the tunnels themselves. The tunnel entrances were blasted shut by the Soviet authorities in 1947, but in 1995 a new entrance was constructed and a portion of the tunnels have once again been made accessible to visitors. Thanks to memorial director, Dr. Jens-Christian Wagner, my husband and I had a personalized tour of the tunnels where we took many of the photos on this page.

I struggle daily with the unanswered questions surrounding my grandfather, Ernst's, time at Mittelwerk. What he witnessed during his thirteen months there were experiences that he never shared with anyone in the family. Instead, he took them silently to the grave. But he was a man who did not shy away from life's deeper questions, and had we known the right questions to ask

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Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp Memorial Director, Dr. Jens-Christian Wagner with the author

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The winding drive inside the main entrance of the Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp Memorial.

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The entrance to one of the two main tunnels which was dynamited shut by the Soviets in 1947 and renovated and reopened in 1995 for the memorial

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A boxcar once used to transport inmates stands in silent witness on the memorial grounds.

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The gate to the inmate camp which, towards the end of the war, was surrounded by a high voltage fence and wooden watchtowers

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A monument and plaque to commemorate the Death March of 1945 during which over 3,500 evacuated inmates were murdered by the SS

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A scale model of the vast underground network of tunnels hangs suspended near the main tunnel entrance as part of the museum exhibition. Only a small part of the tunnels are still accessible today.

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The rusted remains of a V-2 rocket engine

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Behind this crumbling wall is a former sleeping chamber where inmates were once accommodated. Behind the right side of the crumbling wall, a row of old, filthy toilets are visible, but these were only installed later for military and civilian workers. No such sanitary concessions were ever made for the inmates forced to live here.

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A doorway and the remains of a brick wall behind which one of many office areas for military and civilian workers were located from 1944 to 1945.

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The farthest reaches of the accessible tunnels. At the back, a small, doorway was barely discernible in the darkness—access to the now mostly underwater
V-2 inspection area where my grandfather worked.

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To be able to walk freely out of the tunnels—a relief and privilege that the inmates did not have

during his lifetime, I think he would have surrendered answers with willing candor and forthrightness. Only a few transcripts of his testimony in the 1969 trial in Detroit of three men accused of war crimes at the Mittelbau-Dora Camp (The Essener Dora-Prozess) remain to give us a picture of how much he saw, how much he knew. There were, no doubt, many reasons for his participation in the rocket program which I discuss in Appendix II of Flight of Remembrance, not the least of which may have been a determination to keep himself and his family alive during the war and his sense of duty as a military man to the regimes under which he served during his long military career (the Czarist army in World War I, the independent Latvian Republic between the World Wars, and finally, after needing to flee his Latvian homeland prior to the Soviet takeover of 1940, the Nazi regime during the last years of World War II ).

In addition to paying my respects to the Mittelbau-Dora location in remembrance of the inmates who died there, my visit had another purpose. I was there to turn over documents and a photo from Ernst's time at Mittelwerk that had miraculously survived the wartime and postwar years to surface in a family archive after his death. The donated items consist of one photograph and seven exquisitely hand illustrated cards—six birthday cards and one New Year's card—most with original signatures, that were give to Ernst by coworkers at Mittelwerk during the 13 months that he worked there. One birthday card was given to him on his 49th birthday on March 13, 1944, the New Year's card was from January 1st, 1945, and the other five birthday cards date from his 50th birthday on March 13, 1945, just a few weeks before the Allied occupation of the area. (Click here to see the donated items.)

My visit to the memorial site is one that will remain etched upon my memory, and the plight of the former inmates is one that I will always mourn.

The five last photos on this page are courtesy of the Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp Memorial.

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View of the exhibition in the museum of the Mittelbau- Dora Concentration Camp Memorial (Photo: Claus Bach, Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp Memorial)

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Museum building of the Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp Memorial (Photo: Claus Bach, Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp Memorial)

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Memorial sculpture by the artist Jürgen von Woyski, in front of the former crematorium of the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp, erected 1964 (Photo: Jens-Christian Wagner, Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp Memorial)

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View into transverse chamber 45 of the tunnel of the former Mittelwerk. Inmates were housed here until June 1944; later
V-1 flying bombs were produced here. (Photo: Claus Bach,
Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp Memorial)

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Former inmates and their families at a commemoration ceremony in front of the former crematorium of the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp, September 2006 (Photo: Daniel Gaede, Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp Memorial)