A first-person account from the 70th-anniversary commemoration of the liberation of Dora and Buchenwald is captured in photographs and memories.
More than 20 years have passed since I first came upon the former Nazi slave labor camp of Mittlebau-Dora. In August of 1944, prisoners were brought from the nearby Buchenwald concentration camp to labor in inhuman conditions, building a factory inside a mountain. Two shifts of 10,000 prisoners each worked 12 hours building Hitler’s “vengeance” weapons — the V-1 and V-2 rockets.
Sixty thousand prisoners worked at this camp, half of them perishing from disease, starvation, beatings or as a result of death marches as the United States army approached the camp and factory known simply as Dora.
Arriving at the site in April 1994, I photographed the skeletal remains of the camp and the partially destroyed factory inside the mountain. When I emerged from photographing inside the factory’s tunnels, the director of the camp’s memorial museum asked me to exhibit those photographs at the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the camp, in April of the following year. Since then, I have returned many times to Dora to photograph the annual reunions of the survivors, always in awe of the courage and comradeship exhibited by those who chose — and were able — to return.
I was honored to be invited once again to attend and photograph the 70th reunion of survivors on the anniversary of their liberation, April 11, at both Dora and Buchenwald. This was surely the last time that a significant reunion could take place; the observances were more remarkable and poignant than I could have imagined.
It was a celebration of life and of death, and more than 2,500 people — survivors and their families, friends, liberators, officials and citizens of Germany — came to Buchenwald to hear words of memory, tales of terror and lives rebuilt. And it was a memorial as well, as the people gathered at Mittlebau-Dora to pay tribute to those who had passed beyond, those who survived and memories, memories. These events, little noted in the United States, were front-page stories in the German newspapers.
At Dora, there were 14 survivors. Some journeyed from Israel, others from France, some from Russia and Ukraine, from Poland, Hungary, Italy and Denmark. And it is a journey from the darkest past to the light that continues to filter through a scrim of 70 years since their liberation from the hell of Buchenwald and Dora.
These were not ordinary people, not ordinary places. The doctor from Italy, now 102 years old, had come to remember the bitter days of slavery and his comrades who perished. The Jew from Salonika who arrived in Auschwitz as a 15-year-old, transported to Dora when the Soviets approached Poland, and then survived a Todesmarsch (German for “death march”) to Bergen-Belsen. The Ukrainian who could still laugh and offer a “Prost!” despite tears.
A volunteer youth group from the camp provided companions for each survivor, assisting those in wheelchairs and canes, guiding them through the events and meals. I had met some of the volunteers during previous reunions — many of them returned from year to year, acknowledging a personal responsibility for their country’s history.
I was surprised and pleased to meet again a volunteer who had assisted a survivor five years ago, a friend of mine from Toronto. This young man, who had spent several years volunteering his services at the camp’s museum, had left his business in the South Pacific for the sole purpose of helping at this very special reunion.
For me it was a personally profound experience. I knew that my Israeli friend Jackie Handeli had been in Auschwitz, and that he had been briefly in Dora at the end of the war. I also knew that he had returned to Auschwitz as a scholar-in-residence on behalf of the Jewish Agency of Israel — but he had never returned to Dora. When he walked into the room on the first day of the gathering, I knew immediately it was Jackie, even though we had not seen each other for more than 30 years. Of course, he had no knowledge that I had any connection to the camp.
I reached out my hand and cried, “Jackie!” He looked at this person in whose home he had stayed, whose children he came to know from their earliest years, he who had been our guide on our first trip to Israel in 1965, who had shared meals with us in his home in Jerusalem — and he remembered. “Al Gilens!” he exclaimed, as we embraced.
Seventy years after their liberation, these souls chose to return to the scene of their torment, knowing that they had survived the brutal regime hellbent on conquering the world. They came, knowing full well that this might be their last opportunity to remember those who had gone on, to remember and recognize their personal commitment not to forget, to remind the world of another world that had been, that might have been, that almost was.