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Dad, Death and Dora

"In the concentration camps, we discovered this whole universe where everyone had his place. The killer came to kill, and the victims came to die."
- Elie Wiesel

By Dave Berry

The tiny packet of photos, concealed inside a torn envelope and fastened by a crumbling black rubber band, represented a time in my father's life he simply didn't want to remember. Like most veterans of World War II, Dad wasn't comfortable talking about his experiences, and those eight photos were a part of that silence.

We knew the basics: He was inducted into the Army before Pearl Harbor and served throughout the war with the Third Armored Division as a tank commander in a maintenance company. His unit followed closely behind the Sherman tanks as they broke through the hedgerows of Normandy and charged across France and into Germany. We didn't know half of it.

It wasn't until his granddaughter asked to interview him about the war for a class that he finally opened up. He still didn't want to talk, preferring instead to tap it out on his old Compaq computer. Thirty-eight, single-spaced pages later, he finished telling his story.

But of the photos, he wrote only this: "On the 11th of April (1945) we took Nordhausen, the site of the notorious concentration camp. Enough said!"

That was a topic we knew he didn't want to discuss, so we sidestepped it. And now he's gone. But the story needs to be told of the Dora-Mittelbau slave labor camps at Nordhausen, where Hitler's V2 rockets were produced deep underground.

The photos are horrific, unsettling, images in my head that I hesitate to put into yours. I'll forego the graphic description; just eight images that show what happened when the workers at Dora could no longer provide the labor demanded of them.

"Spearheading with the Third Armored Division," a weathered yellow book my father treasured, said this: "Much-bombed Nordhausen was the center of a concentration camp-slave labor system, which in its utter disregard for human life and dignity must rank with the hell holes of Maidenek and Buchenwald."

Over a span of 20 months, between 40,000 to 60,000 political prisoners, mostly Jews, lived and worked in the underground network - two caves extending for a mile into the hillside, crisscrossed by 46 smaller tunnels. Protected from Allied bombers, the work went full speed day and night producing the new and devastating V-2 missiles Hitler hoped to rain down on London, Paris and other liberated cities. With a range of 500 miles, the V2s had already killed 2,500 and injured twice that many.

The camp's inmates - exhausted, starving, and forced to work 12-hour shifts in the dank, noxious tunnels - were simply worked to death. When they dropped, new arrivals took their place. The estimated death toll at Dora was 26,500 - about six human lives for every V2 rocket produced.

Dad's contact with Dora came on April 11, 1944, when the First Army's Third Armored Division discovered the Dora factories - lights on, ventilators humming, unassembled V2s aligned in the tunnels. The Nazis had fled, herding the remaining 12,000 workers on a death march to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Thousands never made it.

What my father and the men of his division experienced at the Nordhausen camps cannot be termed a liberation. Instead, the tank crews encountered a sea of death - and only a handful of survivors.

The photos he brought home give a hint of the horror he experienced, but I will never really know what he saw. I always wanted to ask, always meant to ask, but never got the chance.

Dad's visit to Nordhausen and the Dora-Mittelbau V2 factories lasted a single day. His combat team, part of the Third Armored Division's "Spearhead," continued its thrust into Germany. They rumbled on the following day, "blowing through town after town and blowing out their roadblocks." The division's historian would write: "To the shocked eyes of American fighting men, the camp was the most complete condemnation of Hitlerism yet exposed. The tankers of the Third would never again doubt the reason for their fighting... The Yanks were mad and mean after what they had witnessed."

Allied forces were pushing into the Third Reich from all directions, and the full horror of Hitler's "final solution" was being exposed. Soviet troops overran camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau and Belzec. British and Canadian troops liberated Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald and Neuengamme. American forces would be first to enter death camps at Dachau, Dora, Flossenberg and Mauthausen.

There were many such camps. My father saw only one; he couldn't know the full scope of the Holocaust. But he had seen enough horror, encapsulated in the eight small photographs.

He raced on toward the end of the war.

In 18 days, Hitler would kill himself in his underground bunker and the war in Germany would end.

At Dora, other stories were unfolding. Within the death camps, carpeted with bodies of the workers, American doctors tended to a few survivors, engineers dug trenches for graves and GIs marched civilians from nearby Nordhausen to Dora, where they would confront the horrors they had ignored.

Deep in the tunnels, a unique group of American scientists and rocketry experts raced another deadline. They were struck by the advanced state of German missile technology, and Washington wanted 100 V2s shipped to America for study. But Soviet troops were closing in from the east... just days away. The rockets could not be allowed to fall into their hands.

Trainloads of V2 missile parts were shipped to the port of Antwerp, filling the holds of 16 liberty ships. But... the documentation was missing. German rocket experts had fled to Bavaria, secreting them away in a salt mine near Domten. Without documentation, divining the secrets of Hitler's missile program would be a challenge.

One captured scientist, however, readily revealed the location, which would soon fall under British authority. Racing ahead of their allies, a U.S. Army truck convoy hauled away 14 tons of manuals and documents a day before the arrival of British troops.

The scientists who fled soon surrendered to the advancing Americans rather than trusting their lives to the Russians. In exchange for their assistance with the missile program, they sought passage to America.

Just as the citizens of Nordhausen denied knowing of the atrocities within the camps at Dora, Werner von Braun, who led the German scientists, also denied knowing slave labor was the key to developing his V2 program. He would go on to guide America's space program and take us to the moon.

Along with the memories, my father brought home a few trophies of war: German binoculars, an Iron Cross, some German Marks and a Zeiss-Ikon camera. Did that captured camera take the photos inside Dora? Was my Dad the one who tripped the shutter? Or were the images already in the camera?

I don't know, but what I believe is this. When my father wrapped those eight photos inside that envelope and tied them with a black rubber band, it was his way of burying the victims of Dora.

Even today, some - despots and those who can only be labeled as misguided, gullible or ignorant - still preach that the Holocaust didn't happen.

But the veterans of World War II know for sure. For them, the images are clear. My Dad knew.

He wouldn't... couldn't talk about it. But he brought back proof, proof that he wouldn't share or discuss... eight small photos, wrapped in half an envelope, tied with a black rubber band, labeled in his writing with two words:

"Concentration Camp."

Enough said.


Dave Berry is the retired editor of the Tyler Morning Telegraph. This Focal Point column was published Oct. 1, 2014.

Photo: Like many veterans of World War II, Lester Berry couldn't talk about what he had seen. The eight photos in the tiny packet illustrated the worst of those memories.

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