Tomorrow I will fly to Leipzig, where I will arrive late and check into a hotel. The next morning, I will drive 130km to Mittelbau-Dora Camp, which lies to the north of the town of Nordhausen, and is the last recorded destination of my uncle Cor on his long brutal journey through Europe in World War Two. I feel a little nervous, for reasons I am unsure about.
Every place in Europe is a graveyard if you dig deep enough. Millenia of history unearth brutalities that it is hard for us to imagine in this time of relative peace. The camps are the freshest wounds of that brutality. The scars left by these places, for many, have not yet healed. They have occupied my imagination for a long time, floating on the periphery, as testament to what human beings are capable of when the centre cannot hold.
Unlike most places, the camps were designed as absorbers- many things went in, but nothing was supposed to come out.
The first law of thermodynamics states that energy remains constant- its form can be changed, but it cannot be created or destroyed. Whatever energy goes in, the same amount must come out.
What came out of Dora, apart from weapons? What contains the same energy as 20,000 lives? Grief? Rage? Or hope for reconciliation, and a better future?
I wrote in a previous blog post that Tom never found out exactly where his brother died. Months ago, I checked the online record of the Dora death register, and was unable to find Cor’s name- further proof that he had vanished without a trace, lost in the thresher of the chaotic final days of the war, when the primary objective was to obliterate. This online record was incomplete, and is constantly being amended and expanded when people come forward with information or records of relatives.
Today, I checked again- and almost by serendipity, now, there he was. Gehrels, Cornelis. Born Haarlemmermeer, 20.07.1906. Date of death, 23.03.1945- just a few weeks before Liberation. Place of death- Dora. So he did die in the sick barracks, as we suspected. Inmate number- 112822.
The first thing I did was to email the archivist, to ask if it would be possible to view the entry in the memorial book. In her swift response, she told me she would withdraw the documents (plural) pertaining to Cor and have them ready for me in the Reading Room on Thursday.
Documents? More than one?
Just a few hours ago, I didn’t even know where he had died for sure. Now I have documents on his incarceration waiting for me in the German mountains.