Nordhausen: Quiet Village, Lively History

 
 Nordhausen is a small town on the edge of the southern Harz Mountains, a chain of lovely tree-covered mountains in Germany. The Harz are bounded on the north by Wernigerode, on the east by Ascherleben, on the south by Nordhausen, and on the west by Goslar.
      The highest mountain in the Harz range is Brocken, which stands 1142 meters high or approximately 3700 feet in elevation. Though these mountains are diminutive in comparison to the Alps or the Rocky Mountains, the fresh and invigorating air, the smell of scented fir and the appealing quiet that adds to the charm of any visit to the region.
      Only recently did I learn of the Harz Mountains but last summer, Lois, my wife, and I had the good fortune to visit with Herr Doktor and Frau Carsten Salander, who for two days, drove us around to only a few but impressive ancient, pre-Reformation, Reformation, and other sites associated with the Harz.
      As a boy growing up in World War II, the geography of Europe or anywhere else did not matter. No longer is that the case, however. In the 1940s, I remember listening to newscasts about the V1 flying bombs and the devastation they did to England and its principal cities. And I surely had not heard of Nordhausen.
      In 1943, Allied bombers destroyed two V1 and V2 flying bombs assembly sites, scattered elsewhere in Germany, but the Nazis had an ace up their sleeve. It was Nordhausen's "Camp Dora," the last assembly point in the Nazi war effort.
      Unfortunately, as history amply records, Camp Dora, outside Nordhausen, became both the home and the grave of some 20,000 slaves or POWs. It was the POWs who dug over 15 miles of tunnels in the soft limestone rock. For a time the tunnels were their home, their bedroom (as the barracks had not been built), their latrine and the assembly line for the flying bombs. It was a cramped and dismal quarters for human beings, but the slaves or POWs did not matter.
      Even now, however, any visitor but the most hearty should wear a sweater in the one tunnel that is open to the public. Even if the air outside is warm in late July or early August, the air inside the tunnel is damp and cool. One's imagination drifts back over 60 years or so to a time when those who lived in the tunnel must have suffered greatly, and for good reason.
      In addition to the damp and cold, the inhumane conditions that existed at Camp Dora, forced the inmates, many of whom already physically exhausted and starved to near extinction by the last-ditch Nazi effort to conduct wartime scientific experiments with flying bombs, must have been intolerable. So intolerable that, in fact, many died from treatable illnesses. Of course, the slaves were expendable because the assembly of weapons was paramount.
      Yet, in spite of what I have written, the historical records of Camp Dora, shows that work on assembly line at Camp Dora caused more causalities than in the deployment to the firing site.
      In retrospect, the workers' efforts to assemble flying bombs and the loss of their lives in what proved to a futile the war effort must be remembered. Unfortunately, from the Nazi point-of-view, the combined effort at Camp Dora had little impact on the final outcome of the war.
      Civilians in the United Kingdom, whose homes and property, were targets of the V1 would argue otherwise but, quite quickly, they learned to anticipate the V1.
      Survivors in the target cities say that the V1 gave warning to those on the ground because a V1 made noise. On the other hand, the V2, with its jet engine propulsion, was a killer because one never heard the V2's approach.
      In 1945, when the United States Army captured the production site and discovered it was intact, the United States Army liberated the surviving prisoners and took the scientists to the United States.
      One of the scientists Americans know well was Werner Von Braun. In 1948, as part of their right of occupation, the Soviet Union occupation force stripped the factory at Camp Dora of anything that could be packed and shipped to Russia. The Soviet authorities took the engineers to Russia shortly after the war. What the United States authorities overlooked, however, the engineers, who knew how to produce and assemble the flying bombs, were not included in the United States VIP roundup.
      In a strange turn of history, it was the German engineers who contributed significantly to the USSR's successful effort to put Sputnik 1 and 2 into space October 4 and November 3, 1957, respectively. Almost immediately, the United States launched a program to "catch up" and did so successfully when we launched Explorer 1 on January 31, 1958.
      Today, the grounds on which Camp Dora was located are serene and lovely. A modest museum is open to the public, as are some of the remaining buildings. And, of course, one of the tunnels is open a few hours each day to the public.
      A visitor's walk through the Camp Dora grounds and especially a walk inside the long tunnel lingers long after one leaves the now pleasant and quiet surroundings.
      Yet the memory of the cold on a late July or August warm day penetrates the soul and body. Just feeling the cold and damp environment inside the tunnel serves to remind the visitor that once upon a time some 20,000 slaves of Camp Dora occupied this hidden complex that served as the final assembly site of the Nazi V1 and V2 flying bombs.

 


 

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