It’s a truism that much of what we think we know about history is, if not a lie, then not exactly the total truth, either. Yet that bit of conventional wisdom keeps proving itself relevant in surprising ways. For instance, contrary to what many people think, the Space Age began neither in Russia nor America, but in a lesser-known German concentration camp called Dora-Mittelbau, where the world’s first rocket, the V2, was built using the labor of imprisoned Jews.

The author of more than 10 books, Patrick Hicks is best known for his 2014 novel “The Commandant of Lubizec,” a fictionalized exploration of Operation Reinhard, the code name for the planned extermination of Polish Jews in the General Government district of German-occupied Poland. His latest novel, “In the Shadow of Dora,” revisits World War II, but this time through the unexpected connections between the Holocaust and NASA’s Apollo Space Program.

This slim but intensely researched book centers on Cape Canaveral, Fla., in July of 1969 and the tunnels of a former mine, “a place of labyrinths, crypts, and hidden waterways” where protagonist Eli Hessel, “a Jew from Berlin,” works as a skilled laborer soldering fuses and building propellant tanks for the Nazis’ secretive V2 rocket program. Of his and his fellow workers’ endurance of abuse in Dora, he notes, “They weren’t being treated like children — that would imply they were still human beings — they were being treated more like machines. A machine was replaceable. A machine had no past and no future.”

Apollo 11, the spaceflight that landed humans on the moon, has been held up as the apex of American achievement, but Hicks’ novel dramatizes how this incident was far from purely glorious, aided as it was by Wernher von Braun, a Nazi party and SS member, who “would spend the rest of his life bending attention away” from those facts.

Hicks depicts the dissonance that Eli, after his liberation and immigration to America, experiences when he and von Braun cross paths again. Eli recognizes his fellow scientist as “nothing more than an opportunist whose career had profited off the murder of thousands” and feels sickened by the sleazy bargain his adopted country makes by having the ex-Nazi at Kennedy Space Center.

In the 75 years since its conclusion, World War II has been the subject of countless works of literature, so much so that some readers might feel as if the subject has been exhausted. Yet this fall, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany released a survey that revealed how little many Americans know about the Holocaust. Nearly two-thirds of respondents were unaware that the Nazis murdered 6 million Jews, almost half were unable to name one concentration camp, and 12% said they’d never heard the world Holocaust.

Clearly, the need for new books to uphold the vow “Never again” remains. Eli reflects that “Dora had no place in this story of discovery and optimism,” but Hicks’ novel refuses to permit such an erasure.

 

Kathleen Rooney is the author of “Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk” and, most recently, “Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey.”

In the Shadow of Dora
By: Patrick Hicks.
Publisher: Stephen F. Austin University Press, 224 pages, $22.