- Mauthausen was a concentration camp in Austria that is not known by many. In earlier times, Mauthausen was a wealthy city as it collected tolls from crusaders traveling down the Danube river. Mauthausen was originally a World War I POW camp. Many died from the flu epidemic during that time.
Then Mauthausen was a World War II concentration camp, the last one to be liberated. People from the other camps were transported here.
Austria was taken over by Germany on March 13, 1938, when the German unified armed forces named Wehrmacht marched into Austria unopposed. The takeover was called Anschluss (connection). A plebiscite was held on April 10 where the Wehrmacht forced the Austrian population to vote for the annexation of Austria to Germany. Someone who voted against the annexation could lose their job or even face death as punishment. 99.71% voted in favor.
Mauthausen was built for 6,000 prisoners. On the day of liberation, there were 22,000. Mauthausen used to be a men’s camp and only had women during the last year of the war. Around 190,000 prisoners came through Mauthausen during WWII to work at the large granite and stone quarries. The purpose of this concentration camp was extermination by work. Prisoners were meant to die by working them to death. They were stamped RU, Return Undesirable. Let them die.
Each prisoner was the same. They lost their identity and vanished into nothingness. Once they arrived at the train station they had walk up the hill for 2 1/2 miles to the camp. They came in the back way and not through the front gate.
When a worker arrived, they were lined up and required to take off all their clothes. They were then beaten on the stomachs and on their heads. All the hair on their bodies was shaved.
Barracks with eight toilets were meant to hold 300 prisoners. A kapo was a prisoner in a Nazi camp who was assigned by the SS guards to supervise forced labor or carry out administrative tasks. The kapos had their own rooms. Prisoners were severely beaten by the kapos.
A photograph of the concentration camp exists due to reconnaissance flights by the British. The structures that remain are in brown.
The SS, abbreviation of Schutzstaffel (In German it means “Protective Echelon”), was a black-uniformed elite corps and self-described “political soldiers” of the Nazi Party. The SS was founded by Adolf Hitler in April, 1925 as a small personal bodyguard. The SS grew with the success of the Nazi movement and, gathering immense police and military powers, became virtually a state within a state.
Thousands of SS worked here. They were young boys of 20 years old. They had built recreation facilities; pool with starting blocks, cinema, boxing, biking, and soccer field. The pool, built in late 1944, likely was never used. It had a second purpose of being a water reservoir for extinguishing fires.
There were sports clubs. The public would attend soccer games on the grounds of the camp with newspaper articles written about the game.
The SS was a terror organization. Starvation was the main cause of death. If one went to the infirmary, one had to leave his uniform and was naked.
We saw homes outside the camp for the SS and their families.
On the Mauthausen grounds there is a Memorial Park with monuments from different countries which serve to be tombstones. Each is like an embassy, an official ground of the country represented by the memorial. If there is a problem with a memorial, they contact the country.
Polish was the largest group here at Mauthausen. They lost about 30,000 citizens. John Paul II came to dedicate a Polish memorial. One memorial cautioned, “Be vigilant!” One Polish survivor said that he witnessed over 100 Jews who were lined up at the edge of the quarry and each had to push the one in front of them over the cliff. The quarry was the main place of death.
There was a quarantine camp that was used to prevent disease outbreaks from incoming prisoners. One barracks was full of Soviets, and 500 of them broke out of the camp in February, 1945. Mauthausen officials hunted them down and asked locals to help, and they did so willingly. No one was to be brought back alive. It was called “Rabbit Hunt”. Eleven men escaped and were able to hide until after the war.
That reminded me of my father’s service during the Battle of the Bulge in WWII. He was one of the “lucky eleven” from his army group of seventy soldiers who survived being killed or captured during a German attack.
The “Room of Names” features over 81,000 names of those killed at Mauthausen and the surrounding sub camps.
One survivor said, “There are more calories in a coke from McDonald’s than we were given in one day.”
Bernard Aldebert drew an unfavorable picture of Hitler, and he was arrested and taken to Mauthausen. Later he drew pictures and described the scenes in Mauthausen in a book. Roll call was a horrible time. Incessant counts. Sometimes too many, sometimes too few. The dead were laid out at roll call as they were part of the count.
Up to ten times per the day, prisoners were forced to carry blocks of stone, often weighing as much as 100 pounds, up the 186 stairs of the “Stairs of Death”. This occurred in blazing heat and freezing cold. Often, exhausted prisoners would collapse and drop their load on top of those following, creating a horrific domino effect with prisoners falling onto the next, and so on, all the way down the stairs. The heavy stones would crush their limbs and bodies. People died on these stairs every day.
Sometimes, the SS guards would force the exhausted prisoners to race up the stairs carrying blocks of stone. Those who survived the ordeal would then be placed in a line-up at the edge of a cliff, the SS called “The Parachutists Wall”. At gunpoint each prisoner would have the option of being shot or pushing the prisoner in front of him off the cliff. Some prisoners, unable to bear the tortures of the camp, would willfully jump off the cliff. Such suicides were frequent.
SS men were from all over Europe. The war started in September, 1939. Many men were gone so there wasn’t anyone to continue producing weapons. The workers were now soldiers. The factories would ask Mauthausen to provide workers. These were like the satellite camps seen in Schindler’s list.
SS men were volunteers, and it was an honor to be selected. It was either volunteer for the SS or be drafted as a soldier. Mothers would encourage boys to join the SS to stay close to home. Many couldn’t take the fact that their job was to exterminate undesirables. This meant that you might personally need to kill. Some asked to transfer to be a soldier. There was alcoholism and suicide.
Hitler convinced the people that there was an inner and outer war. The outer war was fighting other countries and the inner war was enemies that live inside the country.
Village girls were attracted to the SS men who were young and handsome. They were the only men around. The other men of the village had been drafted. It was good for a family to have an SS contact as they could be helpful.
Austrians felt that the SS were protecting them from dangerous people. “The plight of the prisoners doesn’t directly affect me.” “If I speak up, I will be next.”
Austria lost a lot after WWI. The industry was now in Czechoslovakia. The seaport went to Italy. There were so many people in Vienna to govern what was once a large empire. Many thought Austria was too small to survive. Hitler promised to Make Austria Great Again. Germans were ethnically the same.
Austrians were poor, and there was a depression. There was already a quarry here where civilians worked. The SS hired quarrymen. They had foremen, skilled workers, etc. They got a paycheck.
Austrians saw that Germany’s economy was improving. If one eliminates the top, those below are given higher jobs. For example a Jewish doctor is sent away, a German doctor can take his place, and a student doctor moves up, etc. They arrested all the leaders and sent them to Dachau.
Our guide Tereze said that 50 gypsy families were taken away to Auschwitz. She only found that out by reading an old news account years later. No one in her town talked about it. She thinks that these dirty little secrets should be remembered.
We saw an autoclave used to sterilize clothes. It is the only one from these camps that remains.
Americans died here. They were POW’s. Jack Taylor was a POW, and he wrote down everything that he could remember. His information was important evidence used at the Nuremberg trials about the death camps.
Jehovah’s Witnesses would not go to war or salute. They were the only group that was killed for religious reasons. Our guide made the distinction that Jews were killed for a different reason – racism.
On May 5, the American Army freed the camp. The Americans burned many barracks to get rid of the filth. The liberators found heaps of bodies piled up like logs on the soccer field. Those bodies have been transported to the grave inside the complex.
Liberators were from the 11th Armored Division of General George Patton’s 3rd army. Brigadier General Willard Holbrook was in command. He accepted the surrender of Linz, Austria and the Mauthausen camp. The SS had already left so there was no fighting. They had the enormous task of keeping the former prisoners alive. They needed to organize survivors and carefully feed them. Many men died after liberation. Some soldiers had met some survivors who had left the camp. One soldier gave his rations and cried at the thought that that food likely might have killed them.
Hitler had been dead for one week. When the liberators approached Linz, the SS fled and the protection for the kapo was gone. The numerous prisoners, weak as they were, killed the kapos.
Soviets were supposed to die in battle. They were deemed traitors because they worked for enemy. Surviving Soviet prisoners were sent to Soviet camps upon their return.
How do you organize repatriation? Many train stations and tracks had been bombed. There was no fuel. Many people had no place to return to. Former neighbors now lived in their homes. They were not welcomed back. Antisemitism had not disappeared.
One Hungarian young man was the only survivor of his family. After the war he returned to find his neighbor living in his home, and they didn’t want leave. He went to the mayor who told him to get a good night’s sleep and they would figure something out in the morning … but he was killed in the night.
Ten years after the war until 1955, Austria was divided into four zones and occupied by four countries: British, French, American, Soviets.
Gusen was a Mauthausen subcamp, but much of it no longer remains as a memorial. People have built houses on the land where that camp stood. Prisoners at Gusen also worked in the stone quarries but later worked in an underground airplane factory. Prisoners had to dig tunnels 4 1/2 miles long. It took them 13 months.
Carl Littner, a Polish Jew who was liberated wrote a book called Life Hanging on a Spider Web.
If a Republican would have returned to Spain after the war, he would have been killed by Franco.
Most wanted to emigrate. They were held in Displaced Persons Camps (DP Camps). Many stayed there for 14 years.