Work in the Tunnel, woodcut by concentration camp survivor Dominik Černý, 1952. Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp Memorial

“Buried alive”: Dora in the Autumn of 1943

On August 28, 1943, i.e. a mere ten days after the air attack on Peenemünde, the first 107 concentration camp inmates arrived at the Kohnstein near Nordhausen with their SS guards. A new subcamp of Buchenwald Concentration Camp was thus founded: the Arbeitslager Dora (Dora labour camp), as it was officially designated by the SS. In the weeks and months that followed, further inmate transports arrived from Buchenwald almost daily.

By the end of September 1943, there were already more than 3,000 concentration camp inmates in the Kohnstein, by the end of October more than 6,800, and by Christmas 1943 more than 10,500. Yet Dora was not a camp in the strict sense of the word. Because of the fact that no barracks or permanent living quarters had yet been made available for the inmates, the SS housed them in the tunnels of the planned Mittelwerk, as one section of the underground factory was called. For this purpose, Chambers 43 to 46 – four transverse chambers of the ladder-shaped tunnel system – were furnished with four-tiered wooden bunks.

There were no sanitary facilities apart from oil barrels which had been sawed in half for use as latrines. The inmates suffered and died of hunger, thirst, cold and the heavy labour itself. In the initial months, a large percentage of them were put to work doing heavy construction and transport labour for the completion of the underground rocket plant. This task had priority over the construction of the aboveground barrack camp on the south side of the Kohnstein. It was not until January 1944, when the production of the A4 rockets got underway in the Mittelwerk, that the first inmate groups were moved to the barrack camp. Many remained in the crowded conditions of the underground sleeping chambers until May 1944.

A large number of inmates, the majority of them Russians, Poles and French, did not survive the wretched months of the tunnel construction phase. Between October 1943 and March 1944, nearly 2,900 inmates died in Dora. A further 3,000 dying inmates were transferred to Lublin-Majdanek and Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camps in the spring of 1944. Hardly any of them survived. For the SS, which had directed the construction work, the tunnel system of the Mittelwerk was a prestige object. Particularly SS Gruppenführer Hans Kammler, chief of Bureau C of the SS Department of Economic Administration, was intent on distinguishing himself with a view towards further construction projects in the armament sector.