The devastating impact of Allied air strikes on the Nazi military machine led to the development of extensive underground factories and living spaces. One of the most notorious was the underground ammunitions factory and concentration camp Dora-Mittelbau, where the Nazis took the lives of tens of thousands of prisoners in the quest to perfect the V2 rocket.
The construction of Dora-Mittelbau began in the summer of 1943, when thousands of prisoners were sent to the hills near the town of Nordhausen to dig out tunnels for an ammunitions factory. Not only were these men starved, diseased, beaten and overworked, but they were also kept underground, in the dangerous and unsanitary tunnels that they were clearing out. Unsurprisingly, the mortality rate was extraordinarily high. Hundreds of prisoners died each month, and sick or weak prisoners were often sent to Auschwitz or Mauthausen to be killed. By the beginning of 1944 the factory was complete, and production of the first V2 missiles began.
To allow the camp to hold its expanded population, the SS ordered the construction of barracks outside the entrance of the underground factory. By the end of the year they were packed with more than 11,000 prisoners. Originally intended as a sub-camp of Buchenwald, in October 1944 the camp was declared an independent concentration camp, with dozens of smaller sub-camps under its jurisdiction.
Dora-Mittelbau did have an orchestra, by order of the SS, which played during roll call and probably for the entertainment of officers and guards as well. In addition, the prisoners entertained themselves with singing and music in their small allocations of free time. The main location for these prisoner concerts was Block 3, where an international group of prisoners would gather every day after dinner to sing for one another. A former inmate’s recollection of these times reflects the diversity of music made in these bunks:
The Czech prisoners wanted wandering songs, especially the march song ‘Old Comrades’. To that melody they would sing the words, 'They bore their hard fate quiet on their lips, they worked until they fell over in the stony chasms'. For Dora-Mittelbau, it was remarkably apt ... the Poles wanted the song from ‘The Miner’ (A Young Miner Marches to Work). For the Russians it was ‘Volga Volga’, for the Germans ‘Lili Marleen’. Only the British didn't know any [songs].
Dora-Mittelbau was liberated by the American army in April 1945. Just days before the Americans arrived, the Nazi soldiers forced the vast majority of the prisoners on to mass death marches; thousands died, and thousands more were moved to other camps. Only a handful of living prisoners remained in the camp to celebrate the liberation.