International Youth Camp Helps Keep Memory of Nazi Death Camps Alive

At Mittelbau-Dora, where Hitler's V-1 and V-2 'vengeance' weapons were built, Young people from all over the world learn of the thousands of slave laborers who died there.

AP

DPA - Rita wipes the sweat from her brow as she takes a brief break from shifting large stones in the late summer heat. The 20-year-old Russian, one of a group of 18 young people from across Europe and Asia, is unaccustomed to this sort of work.

A student of English and education in Tula, some 200 kilometers south of Moscow, Rita is on a summer camp at the site of a World War II concentration camp in the eastern German state of Thueringen.

Here at Mittelbau-Dora at the southern end of the Harz mountain range, slave workers laboured from August 1943 to dig tunnels and build the production facilities for Hitler's V-1 flying bombs and V-2 rockets.

Around one in three of the 60,000 prisoners sent to the camp died. It was liberated by U.S. forces on April 11, 1945, just a month before the end of the war.

The summer camp organized by Service Civil International (SCI) is the first at this memorial site near the town of Nordhausen. Chia-Yu Lei, an 18-year-old from Taiwan, has come the greatest distance.

The group is busy on the slopes of the Kohnstein mountain working to outline the site of a former barracks for the slave labourers.

Wheelbarrows rattle over the roots of the trees, as the youths swing pickaxes to break up the ground and hammers on the white stones.

Her hair tied back as she kneels on the ground shifting the stones, Rita tells of her interest in history. "Five years ago I read a book about Wernher von Braun," she says.

Von Braun (1912-1977), a member of the Nazi party and of the SS, was the leading German rocket engineer and technical director of the military research and rocket development center at Peenemuende on the Baltic coast.

Following Allied bombing raids, a decision was taken to shift the rocket production site to a more secure location, and the mountains near Nordhausen were chosen.

Russians were among the slave laborers worked and starved to death here. Rita learned a great deal about the history of the camp from her mentor, Peter Otto, a 31-year-old engineer who took leave of absence from his job to participate in the summer camp.

The central aim of the project is to keep alive the memory of those who worked and died as a result of Nazi war crimes.

"At some point in the future I would like to show my family that I helped here to ensure that places of this kind are not forgotten," says Gerrit, a 28-year-old participant from the north-western German city of Bremen.

The head of the memorial, Stefan Hoerdler, sees the summer camp organized by the SCI as helping the Mittelbau-Dora site contribute to international reconciliation. Some 60,000 people continue to visit 70 years after the labour camp was liberated.

The SCI has organized events in other concentration camps, so that young people can come face to face with the crimes committed by the Nazis.

This year there were camps at Dachau near Munich, Woebbelin in northern Germany and Ravensbrueck north of Berlin.