Living underground

The pre-war model of SS camps consisted of rows of wooden barracks. Conditions inside were hard. But at least there were basic facilities like washrooms and toilets. By contrast, new barracks built during the war often lacked these basics. Other new sites were completely uninhabitable. One of the worst was Dora. The camp was set up in summer 1943 in tunnels near Nordhausen (central Germany), after Nazi leaders decided to move their V2 rocket production here to protect it from air raids. For several months, concentration camp prisoners worked, ate and slept in the cold, dark and damp tunnels. By spring 1944, more than one in three Dora prisoners had died. One of the survivors, Cecil Jay, later described the early days, testifying at a US trial in 1947.

032 – The survivor Cecil Jay on life and death in the Dora tunnels

We left Buchenwald [in August 1943] in lorries – 300 prisoners – and we arrived at Nordhausen, went past Nordhausen into the fields. As we came into the fields we saw a few small tents made of plywood. These tents were in front of the tunnels and then the fields and the woods. As we arrived we were put in the tents straightaway and after the first night we were taken into the tunnels. […]

All we were getting was dust and dirt

The entrance to the Dora tunnels (April 1945)

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park

As we arrived in the tunnels there was very little light, perhaps one electric bulb every hundred metres […]; we couldn’t see for the dust; our throats were dry. There was also no water in these tunnels at no time at all when they were being built.[…]. [We] were in these tunnels from mornings early until evenings late building […] beds, but we knew it had to be finished because prisoners were lying on the floor everywhere, on the stone floor in these tunnels.[…]

We worked in the tunnels all day long from morning until evening. We were driven […] to work as fast as possible. We had little food, no water in the tunnels, and very, very bad air. All we were getting was dust and dirt caused by the blastings in the tunnels.

Source: National Archives, Washington, D.C., M 1079, roll 6, direct examination, 7 August 1947