Chapter Four: Charon’s Bark
We were received at Dora according to the customary routine: Out of the rail cars, a frantic race across the rubble, in the mud up to the ankles, under melting snow, insults, shouted threats, barking, blows.
Across the S.S.-Lager. about fifty buildings were spreadaround, with no paved walks going from one to the other; just muddy paths through fields.
Entrance to the H-Lager: two blocks of wooden buildings, one on each side of a wire tangle that opened in front of us. We were counted. “Zu funf ! Zu funf ! Mensch Bloeder Hund!” Wham, a blow trom a fist. Wham, a kick.
On the other side of the wire fence was the camp itself. Ten or so square blocks of wooden buildings, a dozen at the most, were laid out haphazardly with no visible coordination. On the way wecould read from a distance the numbers on the Blocks: 4, 35, 104, 17. Where are the other Blocks?
A muddy track, marked out by many tramping feet, led away from the entrance and climbed the hill, with nothing to indicate that it led anywhere. The guards had us take it and we came to the gemeinde Abort (public toilet) where we were penned in, waiting for orders. The gemeinde Abort was a Block in which there were only toilets, urinals, and wash basins. It was impossible to sit down or to stretch out, and going outside was forbidden. We were tired and famished, too. Toward six o'clock, a bowl of soup, 300 grams of bread, a piece of margarine and a slice of sausage were served to us. We noticed that the rations were ampler than at Buchenwald. A breath of optimism blew over us. “We shall be working, but at least we shall eat” was whispered among the group.
Men with brassards appeared at eight o'clock: a table was set up; a clerk sat down. One by one we passed in front of the table where we stated our registration number, name, and profession. The men with brassards were Czechs and Poles who had been interned for a variety of offenses. They were heavy handed and made generous use of the rubber truncheons with which they were armed. “Hier ist Dora! Mensch! Bloder Hund!” and wham, wham.
At midnight, the business was finished. Everyone was ordered outside. We retraced our path, in the dark this time, always surrounded by Kapos and S.S. Suddenly we found ourselves in front of an immense excavation which opened on the hill side: the Tunnel. Two enormous iron folding doors opened: this was it, we were going to be buried; nobody had any idea that these iron doors would ever open again to liberate us. The horrors that we had heard about this “underground” installation while we were at Buchenwald worried us.
We entered the Tunnel and were confronted with a Dantesque scene: outside, all was darkness; inside. we were in full light. Two parallel railroad tracks were set a yard apart; so trains shuttled back and forth in the belly of the monster? A string of cars loaded and covered with tarpaulin shrouded torpedo shapes, immense shells longer than the cars which carried them, was sitting on one of the tracks. They were the famous V1 and V2 rockets. By their looks, their diameter was greater than a man’s height, and they appeared to be more than 40 feet long. “That must have quite an effect where it falls!”
Talk started to turn to the mechanical details and the launching method of the V1 and V2 which we had heard about and which we saw now for the first time. To my great amazement, I found that there were some persons among us who seemed to be very well informed, and who with the greatest seriousness provided the most precise details, but who later turned out to be the most fanciful story-tellers.
We kept going farther inside. On each side of the main tunnel were offices and caverns that had been fixed up as work shops. We came to a portion of the Tunnel which was still being worked on: gaunt, thin, diaphanous shadows of men perched on scaffolding all over, against the walls like bats, were boring into the rock. On the ground, the S.S. guards walked around, guns in hand; the Kapos, in all the coming and going, bawled out the poor men who were carrying tools or were pushing wheel barrows full of the excavated material. The noise of machinery was deafening, and dead bodies were sprawled along the passageways.
One cavern was fixed up as a living Block; we were ordered to stop.
At the entrance were two garbage cans and fifteen or so corpses. Inside, men were running around like madmen between the tiers of bunks, three, four and five layers. Brawls erupted between two orin a group now and then. Among them, serious and imposing, were the Stubendienst who tried in vain to restore order. That was where we were to spend the night. The Stubendienst interrupted their police work to take care of us. “Los! Los! Mensch! Hier ist Dora!” The rubber truncheons began to dance on their new targets. The Block Chief, a big German, looked on, amused, mocking, and threatening at the same time. We quickly saw that this Block was occupied by Russians whose day gang was off work. Still dressed we threw ourselves down on the straw pallets assigned to us. At last! Hours later, we woke up: all our shoes and what was left from the food distribution the evening before had disappeared. Even our pockets had been emptied. We admired the dexterity of the Russians who had accomplished this general pillage without waking us up. Only two or three were caught in the act. The victims took them to the Block Chief and were themselves brought back to their straw mattresses, with blows of the rubber truncheon, by their Stubendienst accomplices “Hier ist Dora, mein Lieber!” We had fallen for sure into the lair of brigands whose only law is that of the jungle.
As soon as we were awake, we were brought back up to the daylight. We breathed easier; so we were not to be buried indefinitely. The morning was spent standing in front of the Arbeitsstatistik, stamping around in the mud and the snow; we were freezing cold and hungry again. In the afternoon, we were divided up into Kommandos: Fernand and I were landed in the Strassenbauer 52 (road builders). Right away they put us to work, and until the evening roll-call we carried fir trees on the run, from the camp to the railway station.
At six o'clock, the roll-call: it lasted until half past eight. At nine o'clock we were ordered to Block 35. This time we were sure that we were not going to be put underground in the Tunnel. But, we learned that quite a few among us had claimed to be skilled in all kinds of specialized technical professions so that they would be employed in the factory and so that they would not have to come up again in all probability until the liberation.
The Chief of Block 35 was a Czech; the Stubendienst, too, naturally. The Block itself was still bare of furnishings. We slept piled together, right on the floor, without covers, in our clothes. But first, in an indescribable scuffle, they gave us a quart of rutabaga soup which we ate while standing; that was all we had to eat that day. At ten we went to sleep, certain now that we were an integral part of Dora. Dora!
The first day of work …
Half past four: a gong sounded four times in that shell of a camp. The Block lights went on, the Stubendienst, rubber club in hand, burst in to the Schlafsaal. “Aufstehen! Aufstehen! Los Waschen!” Then, with pause, “Los, Mensch! Los, Waschen!”
The two hundred men got up as one, crowded through the Esszimmer, bare to the waist, and in the passage between came to the door of the wash room at the same time as the two hundred from the other Flugel. The wash room could hold twenty persons. At the entrance two Stubendienst, hose nozzle in hand, held back the invasions. “Langsam! Langsam!… Langsam, Lumme!” At the same time the hose went into action. The poor fellows fell back… Meanwhile, two other Stubendienst having anticipated the water spray, forced them on:
“Los.' Los.' Schnell, Mensch! Ich sage: waschen!” And, the truncheons rained down pitilessly on the thin bare shoulders.
Every morning it was the same tragi-comedy. It didn’t stop there, however. After washing came the distribution of food for the day. We went single file holding in hand the chit that had been handed out in the wash room (you could not get your food until you had shown that you had washed) and which had to be given to a Stubendienst. Another solid crush of humanity. The hour allowed by the rules to accomplish this double formality was soon over.
Half past five: the Kapos, warmly clothed, were there on the mustering ground waiting for the arrival of the human tide. It came pouring out toward them from all the Blocks; men running in the icy morning while still dressing and swallowing the last mouthful of the meager portion of the daily ration that had been handed out for breakfast. The Kapos proceeded with the assembling of the Kommandos and called the roll of their men blows and insults rained down. With the roll-call over, the Kommandos started out at a predetermined pace according to the distance they had to go; some had to go as far as three and a half to five miles, and they left first. Then came those who had only an hour’s march, and finally those with only half an hour’s walk. Kommando 52 was twenty minutes away. It left at six thirty. At exactly seven o'clock everyone was where he was to work. The Tunnel Kommandos were run on another schedule: reveille at seven in the morning for the day shift, seven in the evening for the night shift, and all of the preliminaries for the work took place in the Tunnel itself.
At seven o'clock Kommando 52 was at the embankments, having arrived there after having completed the washing and the feeding operations, after having waited shivering in ten inches of mud at attention for an hour and ten minutes, and after having marched the mile and a quarter or so from camp to work. The men were already exhausted long before the work began.
The purpose of the work was to construct a road bed from the station to the camp. An ellipse of narrow-gauge railway track, whose greatest diameter was perhaps 800 yards, was used in the construction. Two trains of eight dump cars each pulled by gasoline-powered engines, made a perpetual circuit over the tracks. While 32 men — four per car loaded the train up at one end, 32 others unloaded the other one at the far end, being careful to spread the rock level. When the empty train arrived, the other had to leave filled; this was supposed to happen everytwenty minutes. Generally, the first train left in the time prescribed. However, with the second, there were delays which provoked growls from the Meister, the Kapo, and the Vorarbeiter. On the third circuit, the empty train had already been waiting for five minutes and another five were needed before it was ready to leave. The Meister smiled ironically and shrugged his shoulders, the Kapo shouted, and the Vorarbeiter lashed at us; no one escaped being hit. The delay was increased by the amount of time that it took three men to beat thirty-two, and from then on the time lost was never made up, and the work was off schedule for the rest of the day. On the fourth trip, there was a further delay; more blows rained down. On the fifth the Kapo — and Vorarbeiter — grasped the fact that nothing could be done, and they gave up beating us. In the evening, instead of the thirty-six trips planned at the rate of three per hour, only fifteen or twenty had with difficulty been achieved.
Noon: a pint of hot coffee was distributed right where we worked. We drank it standing up while eating the remains of the bread, margarine and sausage given out in the morning.
Twelve thirty: we began work again. During the afternoon the work dragged. The men, hungry and frozen, had just enough strength to keep standing. The Kapo disappeared, the Vorarbeiter calmed down, the Meister himself seemed to recognize that there was nothing more to be got from such rags as we were,and he gave up. We kept up an appearance of working;but that was hard, too. We had to rub our hands and stamp our feet for the cold. From time to time, an S.S. guard went by. The Vorarbeiter, on the lookout, saw him coming from way off and gave the signal. When he reached the Kommando, everybody was busy at his job. He tossed out a word to the Meister, “Wie geht's?” (How’s it going?) A discouraged shrug of the shoulders answered, “Langsam, langsam, Sehr langsam! Schauen Sie mal diese lumpen: Was machen mit?” (Slow, slow, very slow. Just look at these no-goods. What can you do with them?) The S.S. guard shrugged his shoulders, too, grunted and went on, or else, depending on his humor, gave vent to insults, handed out a few blows of his fist, threatened with his revolver, and left the area. Once he was outside of earshot the Kommando relaxed again. “Aufpassen! Aufpassen!” said the Meister almost paternally.
Six o'clock came, and everybody slackened off. “Feierabend,” (Knock off) said the Meister. The Kapo who had returned a few minutes before, had his men stack the tools, shouted a few insults which stimulated the Vorarbeiter, and distributed a few cuffs; a return to discipline through the use of terror.
Six forty: the Kommando started the march back to the camp in fives. At seven o'clock, organized by Block, and not by Kommando, we once again waited shivering, feet in the mud, for these gentlemen to finish counting us; that job took two or three hours.
Between eight and nine o'clock we got to the Block. A Stubendienst, rubber truncheon in hand, was stationed at the entrance. We had to take our shoes off. wash the wooden soles and enter with them in our hands; and then only if they passed as really cleaned were we allowed to go in. On the way to the Esszimmer we put them down in rows; then we held out tin bowls into which theoretically a quart of soup was poured, which we ate standing up in an indescribable jostling. When these various formalities were over, a third Stubendienst gave us permission to make for the Schlafsaal, where we simply fell in a heap on a little straw that had been brought in during the day. Half past ten. We were dead tired, hungry, and cold. We felt that the work forced on us counted for very little in contributing to our fatigue.
The next morning, it all began again at four-thirty. During the night the Russians stole the Holzschuhe which we had so carefully lined up in the Esszimmer at the command of the Stubendienst. Thus, in addition to the washing and the distribution of food, we had to locate another pair before running outside, while still dressing and swallowing the last mouthful of the meager breakfast, into the cold night to reach the mustering grounds where the Kapos were waiting. By the end of the week we had become shadows of our former selves.
There were worse Kommandos than ours: the Ellrich Kommando, the Transport Eins and all the transport Kommandos, Steinbruch. Gartnerei …, etc.
At the other end of the Tunnel, camp Ellrich was being built. A very important Kommando of about a thousand men went there every morning on a ballast train which left the station at Dora at half past four. There were three miles to go. On foot it would only have been necessary to leave at half past five to get there by seven o'clock, but that would have been too simple. The S.S. authorities decided to show that they had some human feelings and, to spare the Kommando the fatigue of the march, they ordered the prisoners to be transported to work by the train. As a consequence, the Ellrich Kommando was awakened at three; the men washed, got rations and were at the mustering grounds at four. Then came the departure from the station. The train which was due at four-thirty was never less than an hour late, and the Kommando had to wait. At six at the earliest, half past six at the latest, it arrived at Ellrich. The work consisted of digging all day. The work stopped at six. Theoretically, the prisoners should have gotten on the train at half past six, but like the morning train, it was never less than an hour late. They had to wait again. At about half past eight, at the best, but often nine or even ten, they returned to Dora where they had to observe all of the formalities of going into the Block, the shoe washing, and the distribution of soup. At about eleven they could lie down and sleep; five hours of sleep and up again, assembly, departure, waiting. The grind of the days was merciless; the steps that the S.S. took, or pretended to take, to improve things turned into an additional torment. The very travel back and forth was more killing than the work itself. Added to that fact was the fact that the Kapos of the Ellrich Kommando were the worst of brutes, whose blows rained down upon the prisoners without pity. Then, too, the work was rigorously supervised; in short, it was the Kommando of death, and every night corpses were brought back.
In the camp itself there was Transport Eins. The men of Transport Eins began their day in the same way and at the same time as all the others: they unloaded cars and carried on their backs heavy loads from the station to the tunnel, or from the station to the camp. We saw them from morning to evening working like circus horses in fours with large boards, by twos with railroad ties, by lines of eight or ten with rails, and singly with bags of cement. They moved slowly under the weight of their burden. Their Kapo was a Pole with the red triangle who went from one group to the next swearing, menacing, striking.
The Gartnerei, or garden Kommando also worked in teams like Transport Eins, but they carried human excrement instead of building material. The Kapo was a “green” who used the same methods as the Pole of Transport Eins with the same results.
The Steinbruch, the famous quarry for all of the camps, supplied rock building material. Stone was excavated and loaded on wagons which were pulled or pushed to the places where the stone was broken up to be used as surfacing for the camp roads. The people at the Steinbruch had the additional bad luck of having to work on the slope of the hill at the opening of the quarry where the beatings by the Kapos often caused them to lose their footings and to fall to the bottom of the quarry where they were killed. Every day the dead were brought back to the mustering grounds. Four men carried each body by the arms and legs. “Ein, zwei, drei, vier,” the Kapo at the head of the column called out to set the pace; ploc, ploc, ploc, the heads of the dead men knocked against the ground. From time to time we heard that some poor devil at the Steinbruch, having been hit with a truncheon tottered and fell into the stone-crusher, or the concrete-mixer, without anyone trying to stop him.
There were also Kommandos that were better. Among them were all those that made up the camp administration: the Lager Kommando, the Holzhof, the Bauleitung, the Schwung.
At the Effektenkammer, an account was kept of the clothing that had been taken away from the prisoners when they came into the camp; that was an easy job. It was lucrative, too. From time to time a pair of pants could be stolen, or a watch, or a fountain pen, all of which were valuable exchange goods for food. At the Wascherei, the underwear which the prisoners were supposed to change every two weeks was washed. There it was sheltered and warm. Also quite a few opportunities presented themselves to obtain food. At the Schusterei, the shoes were repaired, at the Schneiderei, clothing was repaired and underclothing mended, and at the Kueche…
The best Kommando was without question the kitchen or Kuche Kommando. The food was not rationed to those who prepared it, and the work was not difficult. First they got the ration that was given to everyone at the Block before starting for work. When they got to the kitchen or place where they worked, they received a supplementary ration officially. Then, whenever they were hungry they could help themselves from the provisions that they were preparing. In addition, they stole food in order to provide themselves with exchange for tobacco, socks, clothes, and favors. On top of that, they were exempt from the roll-call. They lived the life of regimental cooks. A certain amount of influence was necessary to get into the Kueche Kommando; the French did not have it; and, as a result, the positions were reserved for Germans, Czechs and Poles.
On a par with the Kueche were the Arbeitsstatistik and the Revier. There was no roll-call either. Blows were not the usual practice. At the Arbeitsstatistik, the work was office work, and one could obtain as much food as one wanted because those who were assigned to the better Kommandos by the personnel there paid in kind: clothing, food, tobacco, etc. I know two Frenchmen who had managed to get themselves into the Arbeitsstatistik; all the rest were Germans, Czechs, and Poles, as in the kitchen service.
In the Revier, there were doctors, Pflegers, and Kalifaktors. The Pflegers, or nurses of sorts, took care of the patients, and the Kalifaktors were responsible for the cleanliness of the hospital. In addition, there were a lot of clerks, who ate their fill; you could hardly say that they worked, and they were not beaten.
Then came the Lagerkommando, or the Kommando responsible for the maintenance of the camp. All those prisoners in delicate health were assigned there, in principle. Actually only those prisoners with pull, with friends among the Kapos and Lagerschutz, with influential friends in the Revier or the Kueche, or with relatives who sent good parcels were assigned to the Lagerkommando. The Lagerkommando supplied crews for light janitorial work, cook-house work for the S.S., the Haftling, — and the volunteer foreign workers who worked in the factories at the camp, and for the care of the Altverwertung, the place where things were repaired. At the beginning, when the camp was still small, it was a very much sought after spot. Later on, when the Kommando had grown to include hundreds and hundreds of individuals, the personnel were periodically screened for manpower to fill out other Kommandos without enough men, a fate which was escaped only by those with pull.
Two other Kommandos were also sought after: the Tabakfabrik and the Zuckerfabrik. They both went to Nordhausen to work, and they were transported in trucks. Each evening, the first group came back with pockets full of tobacco which they exchanged for bread and soup, and the others did the same with sugar. Afterwards, a third Kommando was assigned to the slaughter houses at Nordhausen, and they introduced meat barter into the camp.
To get a good or a bad Kommando was a matter of chance. which connections with someone in the Arbeitsstatistik could decisively influence. The constant preoccupation of all the prisoners was to get into a good Kommando, and this overriding objective was pursued by any means regardless of how incompatible it might be with human dignity.
The Tunnel Kommandos were considered both the best and the worst. They were formed into a single Kommando, called Zavatsky, after the name of the supervisor who ran the Tunnel operations.
They had at their head a Kapo general — the great Georges — who had under his orders a whole team of Kapos in charge of prisoners according to their specialties. To be assigned to a Kommando working in one of the ten or twelve factories sheltered in the Tunnel was to be guaranteed light labor and to be protected from the wind, the rain, and the cold. All this was a very great advantage. Such an assignment also guaranteed being free of the roll-calls, since there were no roll-calls for the Tunnel people. But, it was also a certainty that the tunnel workers never came up into the daylight, and had to breathe in galleries that were badly ventilated. Consequently, they were afflicted with miasmas of all sorts and dust for months on end, and they risked dying before they were liberated. But on the road building, for example. one worked in all kinds of weather: rain, snow, wind, or hot sunshine. In other words, the work never stopped. Nor were the roll-calls cancelled or shortened. During the rainy season it happened that for weeks on end we could never get the rags that served us for clothing dry. In the evening, coming back to the Block, we put our clothes under the straw mattresses in the hope that the heat of our bodies would evaporate the dampness. The next morning we put them on warmed, but wet, and we went out once again into the rain. Simple or double pneumonia was endemic among the road workers, and many ended up in the crematorium, but at least we were living out in the open. And, during the good weather… Opinion was divided between wanting to work in the Tunnel or on the roads. “One should be able to get in the Tunnel during the winter, and come out during the summer,” Fernand said to me. That solution was obviously impossible, and I was not sure that in the end that it would be a good solution.
What was called the Tunnel was a system of two parallel galleries going through a mountain from one side to the other. At one end was Dora, and at the other was the hell of Ellrich. These two main galleries, each about three miles long, were connected by about 50 transverse galleries or halls each about 200 yards long, 8 yards wide, and 8 yards high. Each one of these halls contained a work shop. In April 1945 the Tunnel was all finished and if it had not been for the sabotage would have produced at maximum capacity. It was estimated that at that time there was a total of eight to ten miles of galleries, excavated and fitted out, as against the five to six in existence in August 1943, when Dora was just started. These figures give an idea of how hard the prisoners were made to work. It should also be noted that the two camps, Dora and Ellrich, together, could never handle more than 15,000 men, who had, in addition, to build barracks, as well as to produce a certain number of V1 and V2 rockets, or airframes and secondary weapons. And, that if one wants to calculate the cost of this work, one must add to the francs or marks, the 20,000 to 25,000 human lives it cost in less than two years.
Twice every day, at seven in the morning and at seven in the evening, the Kommandos of the Tunnel who slept in the galleries, or in those parts of the galleries fixed up as Blocks, were awakened by shifts. They had less water; consequently the hygiene was deficient, and fleas and lice abounded. At nine in the morning and at nine in the evening depending on the Schicht to which they belonged, they were at work.
There were also bad Kommandos in the Tunnel. Those digging the galleries, and those who were assigned to the transportation of drilling tools and the excavated material had a bad time. Those Kommandos were veritable chain gangs whose members died like flies, their lungs poisoned by the ammonia laden dust. But, most of the Tunnel Kommandos were good.
In the factories, scientific management was carried to an extreme: one Kommando spent its time sitting in front of drills punching out holes one after the other; another inspected gyroscopes; a third assembled electrical switches; a fourth polished sheet metal; a fifth was made of turners or fitters. And, there were some jobs that were neither good nor bad like those involved in the assembly of the V1 and V2 rockets. Generally speaking, the productivity was not very good: ten men were employed at a job, against their will, which one or two could have done if they had had the incentive. The most difficult things were always to pretend to be working, to be standing up all the time, to seem to be very busy, and. above all, to live in that noise and miasma, getting hardly any air from the outside through the few and inefficient air ducts
Toward the middle of March. at the request of Zavatzky; who wanted to eliminate one of the main causes which he thought was responsible for the poor output, they began to take the Tunnel Kommandos up into the open air to have their camp soup, instead of taking the soup down to them. By the end of April. the construction gangs had finished just about all of the Blocks that had been planned: 132 of them. It was decided that no one would sleep in the Tunnel any more. So, all the Kommandos after that date only went underground to work, that is, for twelve hours a day.
To give the whole picture, it must be said that civilians, too were used in the various factories in the Tunnel. In April 1945. there were six to seven thousand of them. They included the Germans who were Meister, and the S.T.O.. or volunteers from all over Europe They too were grouped in Commando, but they lived in a camp about a mile from Dora worked ten hours a day got good wages and ate fairly monotonous food, but which was healthful and plentiful Besides they were free to move about within an 18 mile radius; in order to go beyond that, they needed special papers. Among them were many Frenchmen who kept themselves at a distance from us and in whose eyes one always saw the fear that they had that they might some day have to share our lot.
The date was March 31, 1944. For the past week the Kapos, the Lagerschutz, and the Block Chiefs had been particularly on edge. Quite a number of prisoners had died from blows; lice were found not only in the Tunnel, but even among the Kommandos outside; and the S. S.-Fuhrung laid the responsibility for this state of affairs on the H-Fuhrung. On top of that, the weather the whole day long was terrible: it was colder than usual, and an icy rain mixed with hail came down without any let-up. In the evening, we got to the muster grounds, frozen, soaked, and hungry beyond belief. How we hoped the roll would not last too long! But, there was no such luck. At ten o'clock we were still standing at attention under the rain of hail, waiting for the order Abtreten (break ranks!) which would liberate us. Finally it came, and we could go and eat the hot soup in a hurry and fall onto the straw. We got to the Block and began the shoe cleaning. But, then, gesturing that we should stay outside, the Block Chief, standing framed in the entrance, announced that since lice had been found, the whole camp was going to be disinfected. It was to begin that night. Five of the 35 Blocks were picked for Entlaeusung — (delousing) that night. Consequently, that night there was no soup until that was over. The delousing process then began: “Alles da drin!” (Everybody in there!) We went into the Esszimmer with our shoes in our hands. “Auszieben!” (Undress!) We took our clothes off, wrapped them in a bundle with the number on top. “Zu fuenf!” (By fives!) That frightened us. “Zu fuenf."' We form into lines. With the Stubendienst carrying our clothes on blankets, surrounding us, all naked, in the cold, in the rain and the snow, we went in the direction of the building where we were to be deloused. There were about 800 yards to cross.
When we got there, the four other Blocks, naked like us, were already pushing against the entrance. We felt Death in our presence. How long would it last? There were about a thousand of us, all naked and shaking in the wet and the cold which penetrated to our very bones, pushing at the doors. There was no way to get in. Only forty at a time could go in. The scene was hideous. At first we tried to force our way in, but the delousing men kept us back with water hoses. Then we wanted to go back to the Block to wait our turns; but that was impossible since the Lagerschutz, truncheons in hand, surrounded us. So we had to stay there, crowded together, between the water and the truncheons, soaked and beaten. We pressed together. Every ten minutes, forty of us were allowed to enter the delousing chamber in a crush that was a life and death struggle. Elbows went into play; there were fights, and the weaker were mercilessly trampled underfoot, and their bodies were found at dawn. At about two in the morning, I succeeded in getting inside, Fernand behind me, where we received a haircut, cresyl, and shower. At the exit we were given a shirt and a pair of shorts which we wore when we went out into the night to return to the Block. I felt as though I had accomplished some act of heroism. When we came to the Block, we went into the Esszimmer where a Stubendienst handed us our clothes which had been disinfected. Next came soup and bed.
At reveille, the sinister comedy was just barely finishing. At least half of the Block got back only just in time to get dressed, get soup, get the daily ration, and hurry to the grounds to go to work. And, there were a number missing: those who had died during the execution of this sorry business. Others survived it only for a few hours or for two or three days and were carried away with the inevitable double pneumonia. The job itself probably killed as many men as it did lice.
How did it happen? The S.S.-Fuhrung — was responsible only for the decision to disinfect five Blocks per day, and the H-Fuhrung was left in complete control of how it was to be carried out. A schedule could have been set up: at eleven, Block 35, at midnight, 24, at one, number 32, etc… The Block Chiefs could have, within this frame-work, sent us in groups of one hundred at twenty minute intervals, for example, and in our clothes. But no, that would have been too simple.
When what took place on the night of March 31st reached the ears of the S.S.-Fuhrung, the latter itself set up an exact schedule the next morning tor the Blocks that remained to be disinfected.
April 2. 1944: Easter. The S.S-Fuhrung decided on a twenty-four hour rest period which was not to be disturbed except by a general roll-call, that is, the Tunnel people as well as the quarry workers would be present. The weather was magnificent, a radiant sun in a pure calm sky. Joy; the Gods were with us! We got up at six instead of four-thirty: washing and food distribution was done at a slower pace.
Nine o'clock. All the Kommandos were on the grounds at attention. The Lagerschutz went in and out among the groups: Block Chiefs were at their stations. The Lageraltester — chatted familiarly with the Rapportfuhrer. He had a paper in his hand: a detailed list of the camp personnel drawn up by the Arbeitsstatistik. About thirty S.S. in helmets, their pistols in holsters, were assembled at the entrance to the camp: the Blockfuhrer. It looked as though all were going to go well.
A whistle blew, and the Blockfuhrer spread out fan-wise, each toward the Block which it was his responsibility to oversee. Each one made his count and compared his figure with that which the Block Chief handed him. “Richtig” (Correct.) One by one the Blockfuhrer came to report to the Rapportfuhrer who waited, pencil in hand, and who wrote down the figures as they were given him.
There was not one discordant note: the roll-call would not last long. The S.S. wanted to take advantage of this Sunday and were moving fast. We were exultant: one day ot rest with nothing to do but to eat our soup and to stretch out in the sun.
Just a minute! The total number ot prisoners which the Rapportfuhrer had, did not tally with the figure given to him by the Arbeitsstatistik:there were twenty-seven fewer men on the grounds than on the paper. Question: what had become of them ? The kapo of the Arbeitsstatistik was sent for in a hurry. He was asked to go over his figures right away. One hour later he came back. with the same figure. Perhaps, then, the S.S. had made a mistake. The count was made again, and the Rapportfuhrer came up with the same figure. They searched through the Blocks, they searched through the Tunnel: they found none of the missing prisoners.
It was noon. The ten thousand or so prisoners were still on the grounds waiting for the figures of the Arbeitsstatistik and of the S.S.-Fuhrung to agree. Time dragged: some men fainted: those whose turn it was to die fell down never to get up again: those with dysentery relieved themselves as they stood: the Lagerschutz felt that things were getting slack and began to to lay about. The S.S. guards whose Sunday was threatened were furious. They went off to eat, but we stayed there. At two o'clock they came back.
Suddenly the Kapo of the Arbeitsstatistik came running: he had come up with another figure. A murmur of hope rose from the crowd. The Rapportfuhrer looked over the new figure and became violently angry: there were still eight men missing. The Kapo of the Arbeitsstatistik went away again. He came back at four. Now no more than five men were missing. At eight only one was still missing, and we were still there, pale, drawn, and exhausted, after having stood for eleven hours, with empty stomachs. The S.S. decided to send us to eat. We left. Behind us the Totenkommando picked up some thirty dead.
At nine, it all began again, in an attempt to find the missing man. At eleven forty-five, after various comings and goings, this missing man was found, too: the S.S-Fuhrung and the Arbeitsstatistik were in agreement. We went back to our Blocks and were able to go to bed, again leaving behind us ten or more dead.
There you have the explanation of why the roll-calls took so long. Those employed in the Arbeitsstatistik, illiterate or nearly so, had been made bookkeepers only as a favor, and they were incapable ot adding up at the first count the number ot men present.The concentration camp was a world where every man’s place was determined by his connections and his cunning and not by his abilities Accountants were made masons, carpenters became accountants, wheelwrights became doctors and doctors became fitters, electricians or road graders
Every day a railway car. full of packages from every western European country, except Spain and Portugal. arrived at the Dora station. With a few exceptions, these packages were intact. However, by the time that a package was given to the one to whom it was addressed, it had been three quarters pilfered. In many cases, one got nothing but the sticker listing the contents: shaving soap. or shaving brush, or a comb, etc…
A Kommando of Czechs and Russians were detailed to unload this car. From there, the package was taken to the Poststelle where the Schreiber and Stubendienst — of each Block went to take delivery. Then the Block Chief himself gave it to the addresse. It was during this chain of distribution that the packages were plundered.
The way the pillage was worked was simple. First, it was the French parcels, known for the wealth of their contents, which got all the attention. Right where the parcels were unloaded, under the eyes of an S.S. guard in charge of the operation, they were passed through three hands: at the car a Czech passed it to a Russian standing outside, who had to catch it in air and toss it to another Russian or Czech, whose job it was to stack it onto a wagon. From time to time, the Czech at the car said “Franzous,” and the Russian spread wide his hands; the parcel fell to the ground where it broke open, the contents spilling all over. The Russians and Czechs filled their pockets or musette bags. If something from the parcel pleased the S.S. guard, he held out his hand and thus was his complicity bought. When the wagon was full, pulled by six men it rumbled off toward the Poststelle; during this brief trip, a number of parcels disappeared or also broke open.
Regulations required that at the Poststelle the parcels were to be carefully examined, and that medicines, wine, any alcohol and weapons or various things that could be used as weapons, be removed. This official search was made by a team of prisoners (Germans or Slavs, under the surveillance of two or three S.S. and provided another opportunity lor more filching. The S.S. guards themselves were tempted occasionally by a piece of bacon, a bar of chocolate which a girlfriend liked, a package of cigarettes, or a lighter. They made sure that the prisoners would not talk by closing their eyes to the thievery that was committed by the latter. From the Poststelle to the Block, the Schreiber and Stubendienst arranged things between them so that a third pilfering took place, and at the end of the distribution chain, there was the Block Chief who did the fourth and last and who gave what was left to the addressee.
There was something grotesque about the ceremony of handing over the remains to the party concerned. The prisoner was summoned by his number and invited to present himself to the Block Chief. On the latter’s desk lay his parcel, open and contents listed. By the desk was a large basket surmounted by a placard labelled “Solidaritat.” Each prisoner was morally obliged to drop in a little something of what he had received for those who never received anything in particular the Russians, the Spaniards, the young and the disinherited of all nationalities who had no relatives or whose relatives did not know where they were.
This is what was supposed to happen in theory; in practice, the Block Chief, after each distribution, simply appropriated what was in the basket and divided it with his Schreiber and the Stubendienst. After every load was received, the Kapos, the Lagerschutz, the Blockaltester, and all those with any rank at all in the S.S.-Fuhrung were amply supplied with French provisions, a fact which convinced me that the pillaging was done by an organized gang.
I received my first parcel on April 5, 1944: all the underclothing, a bar of chocolate, I think, and a tin of jam were missing, but there were still three packs of cigarettes, a good two pounds of bacon, a tin of butter and various other eatables. We had changed Blocks two days before, and we were now in 11. Our Block Chief was a German with a black patch. I asked him what he would like. “Nichts, geh mal.” (Nothing, get going.) Resolutely I held out a package of cigarettes to him, then pointing to the “Solidaritat” basket, I questioned with my eyes."Brauchst nicht! Geh mal, Bloede Kerl!” — (Don’t bother, get going, you dumb ass!).
I had guessed correctly. The day after the next, I was called up again. I had three parcels this time. Of one nothing was left but the label; but the two others were more or less intact and in one there was a huge hunk of bacon. “Dein Messer,” (Your knife) I said to the Block Chief. I cut off a good half which I handed him and then I went off without asking whether I should leave something in the “Solidaritat” basket. He watched me go with gaping eyes. The French had a reputation, which was deserved, of being very tight with their parcels and not very generous. Suddenly he called me back. “Dein Nummer?” (Your number?)
He wrote it down, and then, said to me, “Hoere, mal, Kamerad, deine Paketten werden nie mehr gestollen werden. Das sage ich. Geh mal jetzt!” (Listen, your parcels won’t be pilfered any more. That I can tell you. Now get going!")
Indeed, from that day on my parcels were given to me just about intact. The Block Chief had passed my number on to the various stations in the chain of distribution, implying an order “do not touch". And, it was to that fact that I owe my life since the parcels which came from France, aside from the fact that they contained food supplements to the camp diet, were a precious exchange currency with which exemptions from work, extra clothing, and light jobs could be bought. They made it possible for me to spend eight months in the infirmary, when others, just as sick. spent the same time working until they died.
Concerning the parcels, another tragic phenomenon took place. Most of the French, even those from very comfortable families, received one parcel three quarters plundered; then they received nothing more. It was only after the liberation that I got an explanation. On arrival at the camp the prisoners wrote to their families, saying that they had the right to write twice a month. The family sent a parcel, and, since it was the first, before sending another they waited for an acknowledgment of receipt which never came, because except for the first, only one out of ten letters that we wrote arrived at its destination. In the camp, the prisoner who wrote regularly wondered what was the matter. And, while he was dying of starvation, his family in France was convinced that it was not worth while to send a second package because, since he had not acknowledged reception of the first, he must surely be dead. My wife, who regularly sent me a parcel every day, told me that she did it for her conscience’s sake and against all hope; my mother herself was of the opinion that she was sending them to a dead man and that, in addition to the mourning, she was throwing her money away.
On June 1, 1944, the camp was unrecognizable. Since March 15, convoys of 800, of 1,000, of 1,500 prisoners kept coming and coming once or twice a week. And, the population grew to about 15.000 individuals. If the population did not climb beyond this figure, it was because the death rate came very close to the arrival rate. Every day fifty to eighty bodies were carried out in the direction of the crematorium. The H-Fuhrung itself made up one tenth of the total number in the camp. Fourteen to eighteen hundred men with soft jobs, all powerful and full of their importance, ruled over the vulgum pecus. With cigarettes in their mouths, plenty of soup in their stomachs, and with beer to quench their thirsts, they almost lived in another world.
Block 141, destined to be the movie theater, was under construction and the brothel was ready to receive the women. All of the Blocks, geometrically and agreeably set out on the hill were connected with concrete streets. Cement staircases with railings, led up to the higher Blocks. In front of each of them were pergolas with climbing plants and little gardens with carpets of flowers; here and there were cross roads with a fountain or statue. The mustering yard, which covered about half a square mile, was entirely paved, and was so clean you could not lose a pin on it. With a swimming pool that was fitted with a diving board in the center, a sports field, and shaded areas nearby, Dora was a regular resort camp for anyone who might happen in, when the prisoners were not there. In fact, such visitors would go away under the impression that a pleasant life was led there, not to be compared to the war risks which free men were running. The S.S. authorized the establishment of a music Kommando. After that, every morning and evening, a band of wind instruments, supported by a bass drum and cymbals, gave rhythm to the march of the Kommandos going to and from work. During the day they practiced and deafened the immediate area with the most extraordinary sounds. On Sunday afternoon they gave concerts in the midst of general apathy while members of the prisoner elite played football or did acrobatics on the diving board.
Although the appearances had changed, the realities were the same. The H-Fuhrung was still what it had always been, except that the politicals had worked their way in in appreciable numbers and the prisoners, instead of being brutally treated by the “greens” got the same from the Communists or so-called Communists. Every person regularly received a wage, of two to five Marks per week. These wages were collected by the H-Fuhrung who distributed them usually on Saturday evening in Arbeitsstatistik square. But, the distribution was done in such a way that chaotic mobs were created which made any attempt to get them tantamount to offering yourself for the crematorium. Very few prisoners were bold enough to claim their share. The Kapos, the Block Chiefs, and the Lagerschutz, divided up among themselves what they were relieved of having to pay out. Cigarettes too, were distributed — twelve cigarettes every ten days — for about 80 Pfennig on the average. We had no money to pay for them, and the Block Chiefs in charge of dividing them up exacted from those who did have some money such standards of cleanliness and order that it was just about impossible to get possession of one’s ration. Finally, beer was distributed, in principle, to everyone. But, there again one had to be able to pay. The families of the prisoners were allowed to send them 30 Marks a month, which they no more received than their weekly wage or their cigarettes, and for the same reason. And, all in keeping with this, one day the H-Fuhrung people decided to divide up the clothing and the various other things that had been taken away from us when we arrived at Buchenwald.
It can be added that for things to have reached that stage, thousands and thousands of prisoners had died as a result of natural causes, as a result of the life they were forced to lead, or as a result of their summary execution for various other reasons, especially for sabotage and were no longer around to claim their property that was stored in the Effektenkammer. From March 1944 to April 1945, not a week passed when I did not see three or four men hanged for sabotage. Toward the end, they were being hanged by tens and twenties, right in front of each others eyes. These executions took place on the muster grounds in front of everyone. A gallows was set up, the condemned men arrived, a gag in the shape of a bridle-bit was placed in their mouths, and their hands were tied behind their backs. They climbed onto a stool, and their heads were put into the hanging noose. With a kick, the Lagerschutz knocked the stool over. No sudden jerk; it took the poor people four, five or six minutes to die. One or two S.S. guards supervised. When the job was done, the whole camp filed past the bodies strung up on their ropes.
On February 28, 1945, thirty men were hanged in groups of ten. The heads of the first ten were placed into the nooses. The next ten were waiting their turn, at attention, near the stools: the following ten were standing five steps away, waiting for their turn. The following March 8th, nineteen men were hanged. This time the job took place in the Tunnel, and only the Kommandos of the Tunnel were witnesses. The nineteen condemned men were lined up in front of Hall 32. A huge pulley, to which nineteen ropes were attached, was slowly lowered above their heads. The Lagerschutz handed out the nineteen nooses: then the pulley raised up slowly, slowly. Oh! How the eyes of the poor fellows grew large, and how their poor feet searched to keep some contact with the ground! On Palm Sunday, fifty-seven were hanged, just eight days before the liberation, when we had already heard Allied cannon fire very close and when the issue of the war could no longer be in any doubt for the S.S. But this was the way it was: the S.S. themselves discovered a certain number of cases of sabotage (in 1945, and since the middle of 1944, it had become impossible for anyone in the camp, or even on the outside to live without sabotaging); however, the H-Fuhrung, without any mercy, pointed out to them an even greater number.
It is almost impossible to grasp the cost of this undertaking in human lives. On June 1, 1944, the population of the camp was almost exclusively made up of people who had arrived in March of that year or later. There were still seven prisoners whose numbers ranged between 13,500 and 15,000; at least 800 of them had arrived on July 18, 1943. There were about a dozen left in the 20,000 to 22,000 range, they had arrived in a group of about 1,500 in October, 1943. Of the 800 included in the 30,000 to 31,000 group, who arrived in December-January, there remained about fifty; of the 1,200 taken from the 38,000 to 44,000 group, who came in February-March, three or four hundred survived. Those prisoners who wore numbers 45,000 to 50,000 and who arrived during May 1944, were still more or less all there; but not for long.