I’m glad they call this blog the Student Adventures Blog, because I’ve been doing some adventuring! I mentioned my tentative plan of going to Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp for the weekend. That’s exactly what I did.
On Saturday, I slept in and just hung out around Weimar. It was lazy, wonderful and refreshing. If I hadn’t taken this rest, I don’t think I would have actually made it to Mittelbau-Dora.
My plans for Sunday were tentative and more of a general direction. I had looked up the camp online and read about it and how to get there. I saw that I could take a train and walk 30 minutes to get there. I decided that I could handle that and left it at that. I woke up on Sunday and decided that I should maybe have the train stops and times and the directions to the camp from the concentration camp. So I went searching for internet and furtively copied all of the information in the alley behind the cafe so I wouldn’t have to purchase anything. Then I headed out to the train station.
Adventure #1: Trains and train stations
I believe that one of the crucial differences between Americans and Europeans is their train system and how it connects everyone. Also, the European ability to use the train system is absolutely astounding. I see elementary school children purchase a ticket and just hop on the train like it was old hat. Then I come and stare at the ticket machine as if it were the most complex super-computer that has ever existed in the history of humanity. A two-minute purchase time easily becomes a 20-minute disaster with my inexperience.
Once the ticket is in my hand, I have to find the terminal. Now the Weimar train station is quite small, so technically this is easy, but again inexperience plus a language barrier equal a daunting task.
Next, getting on the train. How hard is that? The train stops where it’s supposed to, and then the people who have purchased a ticket should get on. I, on the other hand, stare at it as if it is all a trick. I confirm the train, the terminal, the ticket the time about 20 times before I will enter the train.
Then I sit down and wait for the ticket lady to come and silently interrogate my ticket. Every time this happens I feel like a criminal. I can feel my heart pound and my stomach twist. It just doesn’t make any sense. The most stressful part is the transfers. I’m not sure what the deal is, but there is always a tiny interval of time to get to the complete opposite side of the station.
On this trip I had two transfers. One was at a larger station (Erfurt), so there were lots of people and quite a large distance to cover. Next was at a much smaller station (Nordhausen), but it was almost more stressful because there was no tunnel under the tracks to walk through. I had to walk over the actual train tracks to get to my next terminal. At every track crossing there is this cautionary sign with a stick figure being run over by a train. These signs just freaked me out, and I could just imagine a train coming out of nowhere after I had checked from all directions or it sucking me from the sidewalk to its crushing underbelly.
OK, so I get on the train in Nordhausen and only have to wait seven minutes to get off at my last stop, which is a suburb of Nordhausen called Niedersechswerfen. When we get to the stop (the second stop from Nordhausen), I am the only person to get off. The train station is unmanned with only a little ticket machine, a sign with the train schedule, and a bench. I go and check the train schedule to confirm the time when the train will be returning to take me back. I tie my shoes and head out of the train station.
Adventure #2: Walking to the camp
I take out my written directions from Google Maps (walking directions) and the first street that I need to take is the one directly in front of me. I took this to be an excellent sign, at least that I had the right train station and city. So I followed the road along a quaint neighborhood until I got to the next direction point, which was to turn onto the highway (two lanes). I also noticed that the address of Mittelbau-Dora is actually in Nordhausen, but apparently the Niedersechswerfen station is closer than the Nordhausen station. While I’m in Niedersechswerfen there is a nice sidewalk along the highway and quite a few bikers. There are a few little shops and restaurants, but everything is closed because it is Sunday.
I just continue to walk. Eventually I notice that I see no more bikers and then my sidewalk disappears. There is not even a shoulder on the highway. Then I see the Niedersechswerfen sign with a red slash through it signifying that I left the village. However, I do not enter another city, I just walk in the strange no man’s land.
Since I’m not stupid enough to walk on the actual highway with the crazy German drivers, I walk on the side in a ditch, which happens to be a part of this immense swamp. So I slosh forward- slosh slosh slosh. Suddenly a car with three guys who are about my age pull off of the highway right where I am walking and start yelling at me in German. I’m not at all sure what happened. I just didn’t look at them and kept going forward. Maybe they thought I was trying to hitchhike. Thankfully, they left me alone.
Once I was sure that I was safe from them, I looked at my watch to check the time, because I thought that surely it had been 30 minutes. In fact it had been exactly 30 minutes and I didn’t seem to be anywhere near a town, city, or village. I was completed surrounded by swamp, fields, and mountains. It was lush, green, and gorgeous, but it was definitely not a city.
I started to get nervous that I was gong in the wrong direction, so I decided to wait until I entered a city or saw a sign (which I hadn’t seen since the leaving Niedersechswerfen sign). About 10 minutes later I saw a Nordhausen sign, which made me so happy.
The second street was the one I was to turn on. So I started down a new direction into another nice neighborhood. This one had a lot of huge, vicious-looking dogs, which looked like they could have destroyed their fence with a little nudge. I just walked quickly through the neighborhood until the street I was on made an odd turn into the middle of a farm with pigs, goats, and horses.
At this point I passed an adorable village that had been incorporated into Nordhausen called Salza, which had, in 2002, celebrated its 1200th anniversary. It was the quintessential medieval village with the little houses, the church, and even the castle on the mountain overlooking everything.
I continued along the road until I saw a sign that said Mittelbau-Dora KZ that pointed to a street that looked like it was on a 45-degree angle with the rest of the street. This sign also made me happy, because I had done it; I had followed the directions and not gotten too lost. So I started climbing up the road, which was actually a mountain. Then one more right and climbing of more mountain for about 2 km until I finally got to the museum.
It took me an hour and a half to get there, but it was well worth it. It made me feel so good to actually figure it all out and then actually accomplish the task. Plus it allowed me to really see part of the countryside, a medieval village, a beautiful stream and meadow.
Adventure #3: The camp
The museum was really well done. It was a single-room exhibit, but very detailed and informative. It was entirely in German, but they had a written guide to the exhibit in English, which was 60 pages. It took me about an hour to go through the museum. By the time I was done, I thought I was too late for the tour of the camp, which was supposed to start at 3.
When I got outside of the museum, I saw the tour, so I joined in. The tour was completely in German, so I just looked around and picked up a few words. The tour lasted 90 minutes. The reason I chose to take the tour was that it was the only way you can get into the tunnels of Mittelbau-Dora, which are the most unique and important part of the camp.
This is where the prisoners not only worked, but also lived. We stayed for about an hour in the tunnels. They were freezing, and I was not at all prepared for the cold. There was ice on the walls, and you could see your breath. And this is in the summer. I can’t even imagine how it must have been in the winter.
After the tour I spent a few hours going around the rest of the camp back up the mountain. It was very large, with most of the buildings in the forest all around the cleared out roll-call square. They have made the entire forest into a large trail-walking park/museum. The hiking paths are as well marked as the ruins.
I saw a few families walking their dogs along the path and children playing in the forest. I also saw a family having a picnic in the roll-call square. There were many visitors, but it seemed like just as many people were local people using the camp as a park.
At around 6:30 I started to head back to the train station. I was looking for a shortcut back, because I thought it was suspicious that I was not joined by any of the many bikers on the highway.
I noticed a biker who didn’t look like a local go onto this hidden trail, so I followed him in. I saw a sign that had walkers and bikers on it, so I assumed it was a walking/biking path. I could hear the highway, so I knew I was walking parallel to it.
After about 15 minutes, the trail stopped, and I found myself in the middle of a neighborhood next to a power plant (which looked quite like a nuclear power plant). The road I was on led straight to the power plant, so I kept walking. The gates were open on both sides, so I took the shortcut through the power plant. On the other side of the power plant, I was at the beginning of Niedersechswerfen. Then I only had a 15-minute walk to the train station.
My shortcut shaved off 45 minutes of swamp walking alongside the highway, so I was very grateful. However, I did have to sit at the train station/bench by the train tracks.
At the train tracks, I saw an old woman who was digging through the trashcans. I assume she was looking for bottles to recycle (in Germany they give you money back for recycling bottles). She looked really worn down, but I had no food or even water to offer her. Then I saw a woman from the neighborhood give her an egg from the chicken coop. The old woman ate the raw egg right there – shell and all. I have never seen such poverty.
My trip back was quite uneventful. Except that the last train I was supposed to take broke down, so they sent another train. I was very confused about it, especially because I wasn’t quite sure that it was going to Weimar (it had a city in the other direction on the front). I got on and worried the entire time that it was the right one, but eventually it stopped in Weimar.
When I got back to Weimar it was pouring rain, so I got to walk back for 15 minutes soaking wet. When I got back to the dorm, I went straight to bed and didn’t wake up until noon on Monday.
All in all, I believe my adventure was a success. I got to learn a ton about history, get some more experience with trains, and even gained some directional instincts. That said, it was very exhausting, and I think a little too risky for an every-weekend kind of adventure. I definitely need a map and a compass before I go on my next adventure.