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Subterranean Nightmare Comes Alive in Black-and-White Photos

October 19, 2006
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Water-logged tunnels taper off into the darkness, while a mangled rocket frame protrudes in the foreground. The underground chambers form a lifeless labyrinth of tracks, rubble, steel -- and the occasional shoe, the only souvenir of human life.

These images, captured so starkly in Alvin Gilens' photography exhibit, "Inside a Mountain," now running at Haverford College, are all that remains of the Mittelwerk factory.

And they only hint at the subterranean nightmare that took place here 60-some years ago.

During World War II, the Germans created this underground lair to assemble V-2 rockets -- 6,000 of them. Built into a 400-foot-high mountain near Nordhausen, Germany, the factory was meant to provide engineers and their slave laborers protection from air raids.

The plant was immense -- some 12 miles of tunnels and chambers -- and the conditions horrendous.

Approximately half of the 60,000 laborers who toiled there perished either during their stay at Mittelwerk and surrounding concentration camps, or in death marches as the war wound to a close.

Gilens was the first photographer to document this chamber of horrors in the postwar period.

The black-and-white images, which were completed in 1995, have toured London; Berlin; Munich; Santa Barbara, Calif.; and Huntsville, Ala. The Haverford exhibit runs through Oct. 20, and is on display in the school's Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery.

Interest Was Peaked

A veteran photographer of Holocaust memorials and sites, Gilens, 73 and a resident of Gladwyne, first heard about the factory in a 1993 New York Times article.

He said that his interest was immediately peaked at the prospect of photographing a preserved Holocaust site; the factory had been dynamited shut by Soviets when that portion of Germany fell under Communist rule. It had not been reopened for 50 years.

In October 1994, Gilens gained access to the factory, and spent three days exploring the complex with a camera and single flash. He explained that he used a raft to navigate the flooded caverns, and crawled through one chamber on his hands and knees.

Speaking at a gallery talk last week, Gilens shared his impressions of the experience:

"Once you're about 60 yards from the entrance, there's utter blackness ... there is nothing level on the floor anymore."

He described the air as "always damp ... and almost impossible to explain."

In April 1995, the photographer went back with an archaeological team. He had been asked to compile a book of his work from Mittelwerk, as well as the attached Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp, and needed more images to round out the album, titled Discovery and Despair: The Dimensions of Dora.

Gilens said that the "only human signs" he found during two trips to the factory were a few scattered shoes.

"On the other hand, I never had the feeling when I was in the factory, or when I was in the camp, that I was alone, even if I was the only live person there."

The pictures he produced offer a somber tribute to a macabre world.

In some photos, Gilens focused on Mittelwerk as a technological hub, capturing the worn machinery parts, derailed tracks and toppled carts inside.

It was in this space that the first successful intercontinental ballistic missile was launched, according to Gilens. "We're more sophisticated today, but you know it's a straight line [from Dora] to the moon, to Mars."

He also credited the V-2 rocket with launching Soviet and American missile programs during the Cold War, since much of Mittelwerk's technology -- and its premier scientists -- were split between the two superpowers after Germany fell.

One of these men, Wernher von Braun, went on to head the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., and to engineer the Saturn V launch.

"The V-2 rocket has been memorialized by space, by Neil Armstrong. But the people incarcerated here," he said, "there's no memorial to those people."

'Terrible Things Would Happen'

For Alex Hacker, 80, of Toronto, stories about the tunnels and the camps are all too real.

A Hungarian Jew, Hacker worked at Mittelwerk from November 1944 to March 1945 -- when he was 18. Though the camp was largely made up of non-Jews -- resistance fighters from France and Belgium, and Italian and Russian prisoners of war -- Hacker finagled his way into an office job as a mechanical draftsman. Most of his Jewish friends were carted off to more grueling subcamps; Hacker never heard from them again.

Hacker, who stumbled upon Gilens' work while surfing the Web, has been in touch with the photographer for 10 years. But last week was the first time he met the man face to face.

Walking around the gallery, Hacker recognized the factory entrance. The last time he'd passed that spot, he had to sign in with a guard.

"And if you forgot your number, terrible things would happen," he recalled, quickly spouting off his number in German.

As a placard under one of Gilens' photos reads: "Nothing lives in the tunnels of Dora today. There is no sound. There is no light. There is no movement. For there is nothing to move."

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