The Holocaust Historiography Project

Chapter Six: Shipwreck

What happened next is of not great interest.

In December 1944 Dora was a large camp. It was no longer a satellite of Buchenwald, but, rather Ellrich, Osterrod, Harzungen, and Illfed, all in the construction stage, were dependents of it (1). Convoys of prisoners arrived there directly, just as they had earlier at Buchenwald, where they were disinfected, numbered, and divided up among the satellite camps. The numbers that the new prisoners wore now were beyond the 100,000s …

Every night, trucks brought back corpses from the satellite camps to be burned in the crematorium.

Block 172 was finished; there was a movie theater, as well as a library, functioning for the people of the H-Fuhrung and their proteges; the women who had been installed for several months in the brothel also served their needs. The Blocks were comfortable; there was running water; and there were even radios! The beds were set up, without sheets but with straw mattresses and with blankets. The period of great hurry was over; the S.S. were less exacting; their object, which was to get the camp set up, had been accomplished. But, on the other hand, they paid more attention to the political life, got excited about all sorts of imaginary conspiracies, and hunted out acts of sabotage, which, indeed, were real and numerous.

All of these material betterments, nevertheless, did not bring the general mass of prisoners the welfare that might have been expected. The mentality of the H-Fuhrung had not changed. It was as though the prisoner bureaucracy tried to make us live the life of savages, but in buildings instead of caves, so hard did they try to retain the atmosphere of the Straflager along with its hardships and cruelties.

During the night of December 23-24, some Kommando, motivated by cudgels, set up on the grounds a gigantic Christmas fir tree, the erection of which was completed by five thirty the next morning in time for the roll-call before leaving for work and which was resplendent with multi-colored lights. From that day on and until Epiphany we had to listen every night at roll-call to O Tannenbaum, played by the Musikkommando, before breaking ranks … One was obliged to listen with evident enjoyment or one risked getting hit.

Concerning the matter of prisoner welfare, two unexpected elements had to be considered: the joint advance of the Russians and of the English and Americans forced the evacuation of the camps in the East and the West and the transfer of prisoners to Dora and the more and more intensive bombing from the air that interrupted the normal flow of supplies into the camp.

After January 1945 there was no end to the convoys that arrived; often the prisoners were in an indescribable state. The camp which was planned to hold about 15,000 persons sometimes had 50,000 and more. They were bunked two or three to a bed. There was no more bread since flour was no longer delivered. Instead, one got two or three tiny potatoes. The ration of margarine and sausage was cut in half. As the storehouses were emptied as a consequence of the increased population and of the bombings, only a pint of soup instead of a quart, was distributed. There was no more clothing to replace what could no longer be used; Berlin was unable to send more. No more shoes; one made the best of the old ones. And, the same shortages existed with everything else.

On the work level, the whole camp became riddled with sabotage. Raw materials no longer arrived at the Tunnel, and the work was slowed. It was winter. It was useless to ask for window glass to replace what was broken because there was not any to be had: but any prisoner could secretly steal a pane at the Tunnel. There wasn't any paint, either. The Block Chief who needed some had it stolen from a Zawatsky warehouse by one of his proteges. One day there was no electric wire for the V1 and V2 rockets; all of the prisoners who were working in the Tunnel had stolen a yard each to use for shoelaces. Another time, a supplementary stretch of railroad track was to be laid down. For at least a year, the necessary wooden ties had been there, piled up around the station. The S.S.-Fuhrung supposed they were still there and gave the order to build the line since they had no choice. It was noticed then that the ties had disappeared, and an investigation revealed that at the beginning of winter the civilian workers had had them sawed up one by one by the prisoners and had taken them away little by little in their Rucksacks to supplement the shortage in their fuel rations. A few persons were punished, more ties were requested, and a few days later some gyroscopes were received.

In the Tunnel the acts of sabotage were beyond counting. It took the S.S. months to catch on to the fact that the Russians were making a large number of V1 and V2 rockets perfectly useless by urinating over the wireless equipment. The Russians were master pillagers, and master saboteurs, and they were stubborn; nothing stopped them. They also made up the largest contingent of those hanged. But this was for another reason: they thought they had worked out a plan of escape …

Very few prisoners had any idea of escaping from Dora, and those who tried it were all recovered by the dogs. Once back in camp they were usually hanged, not for the attempted escape, but for a war crime, since it was rare indeed that they could not be charged with some theft or other crime in one of the places that they had gone through…

Sabotage seems to have extended into even very high circles: the V1 and V2 rockets, before being used, had to be tested, and those that were not right were sent to Harzungen to be dismantled and checked. At Harzungen, they were dismantled, and the various defective parts were put into special packing cases which were then sent back again to Dora where they were assembled again in the same improper way. As a consequence, there were always about thirty V1 and V2 rockets that were being shuttled back and forth between Harzungen, Dora and the testing place.

Even the administration at Dora was snowed under in confusion. At the entrance to the Tunnel, there was a sort of stockroom where all the parts that could not be used were collected: nuts, bolts, pieces of sheet-metal, screws of all kinds! etc. A special Kommando, detailed for light work, was in charge of sorting all these pieces: into one box went the bolts, into another the screws, in a third the odds and ends of sheet-metal. When all of the boxes were full, the Kapo would give the order to empty them all together into a rail car. When the car was full, it was attached to a train which went off to an unknown destination; then, two days later it ended up at the entrance at Ellrich where it had been sent to be unloaded and sorted. The Kommando in charge of this work at Ellrich sent to the storeroom at Dora all of the pieces that they had sorted out and had dumped in a heap. Thus was a whole Iot of scraps being endlessly sorted at the opposite ends of the Tunnel. And so, from incident to incident, from bombings to diminishing food supplies, from virtual conspiracies to sabotage and hangings, we reached the liberation.

During all this period I lived as batman to the Oberscharfuhrer in command of the company of dogs; it was easy work which included the polishing of his boots, the brushing of his uniforms, the making of his bed, the keeping of his room and his office meticulously clean, and the fetching of his meals from the S.S. canteen. Every morning at about eight my stint was done. I spent the rest of the time talking here and there, warming myself near the fire, reading newspapers, and listening to the T.S.F. When the S.S. cook gave me food for my Oberscharfuhrer at each meal, he surreptitiously gave me just as much for myself. In addition, the thirty S.S. men who lived in the Block gave me various jobs from time to time; they had me wash their mess kits, wax their boots, sweep out their rooms, etc… In return, they gave me their left-overs, which every night I took to friends. It was the good life.

This direct contact with the S.S. personnel made me see them in quite a different light than that in which they were universally seen in the camp. There was no possible comparison: in public they were brutes; taken individually, they were lambs. They looked at me with curiosity, they asked questions; then spoke on familiar terms with me; they wanted to know how I thought the war would turn out and took my opinion seriously. They were all men — former miners, factory workers, plasterers — who had been unemployed in 1933 and who the regime had taken out of their misery by giving them what they thought of as a bridge of gold. They were simple, and their intellectual level was extremely low. In exchange for the well-being that the regime had brought them, they carried out its more ignoble deeds and were at peace with their consciences, with morality, with the German fatherland, and with humanity. Although they were very sensitive to the bad luck that had befallen me when I was sent to Dora, they nevertheless, went among the prisoners in their charge with their heads high, haughty, unbending and without pity. Not once did the idea occur to them that the other prisoners were people like themselves, or even … like me!

The anomalies in the administration were not generally obvious to them, and when by chance they did notice them, they quite sincerely attributed them to the H-Fuhrung (2) or to the general prisoner population. They did not understand how we could be so thin, so weak, so dirty, and so badly clothed. The Third Reich, after all, had furnished us with everything we needed: food, everything necessary to keep us perfectly clean, comfortable lodging in a camp as modern as possible, health recreations, music, lectures, sports, a Christmas tree, and so forth. And we did not know how to take advantage of it. That was proof that Hitler was right and that, with very rare exceptions, we belonged to a physically and morally inferior part of humanity! The idea never occurred to them that they might be responsible as individuals for the wrongs that were done under their eyes, or with their cooperation, unconscious or active. They were victims of the environment — of that special environment — in which, while breaking collectively with the restraints of tradition, all peoples, without distinction as to regime or nationality, founder periodically.

On March 10th, a group of female Bibelforscher (Baptists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and conscientious objectors) arrived at Dora, followed by an order from Berlin stipulating that these women — there were twenty-four of them — were to be put to light work. Henceforth, the Schwung work was turned over to them. I was removed and sent back to camp. To escape a bad H-FuhrungKommando, I thought it wiser to take advantage of my state of health and to get hospitalized in the Revier; from the hospital windows I watched the bombardment of Nordhausen on April 3 and 5, 1945, two days before being taken in the evacuation transport, the account of which is included in the Prologue.


  1. The Haftlingsfuhrung of these satellite camps was in the hands of the "greens" which the " red" H-Fuhrung of Dora sent there to get rid of them and to prevent their return to power.
  2. The majority of the prisoners also felt that the H-Fuhrung was much more to blame than was the S.S. for the kind of life that they were forced to lead.