More about Mauthausen


Mauthausen Concentration Camp today_edited.jpg

Because early readers of the book expressed curiosity about this ghoulish marvel of Nazi ingenuity, I am posting it as the first in a series of articles that supplements the material in "Single Handed."

The architects of the Mauthausen concentration camp had a singular vision: to work its prisoners to death as efficiently as possible, and make a profit in the process. From the very beginning it was designated as a “category 3 camp,” where only the most despised were sent, their files stamped “return not desired,” their sentences, “extermination by work.”

In 1938 Heinrich Himmler, Reichsfurer of the SS and commander of the German gestapo, came to newly annexed Austria and toured the Weingraben quarries, which had supplied pavement stones for the city of Vienna. Himmler liked the hills and woods that overlooked the Danube, and the convenience of the Mauthausen railroad station, only a few kilometers from the quarry. He believed that work camps like Dachau, in Germany, would soon be filled to capacity and the Reich’s need for building materials would only increase in coming years.

The nearest city was Linz: far enough so that the prison could operate unobserved, yet near enough for it to utilize the city’s resources. There would be an ongoing need for supplies that the prison couldn’t make for itself, like disinfectant, fuel, and bread.

Several hundred prisoners were brought from Dachau to construct an impregnable fortress. Materials were selected to last a thousand years, designed to accommodate the great mass of laborers the Third Reich planned to exploit and dispose of as it conquered the whole of Europe. An awesome wood gate was set in 30 foot walls of stone, positioned between two watch towers, one tall and square, the other squat and round. The contrasting proportions sent the message that nothing could escape the oversight of those inside. A foreboding swastika and eagle were mounted dead center between the two asymmetrical towers. A thousand foot long wall, crowned with electrified barbed wire, surrounded and completely enclosed the entire installation.

The Mauthausen gates opened onto the “Appelplatz,’ a rectangular courtyard capable of holding the entire population. It was in this space that roll was called. Also where executions could occur at the merest whim of the commandant or his staff of Secret Service police. Knowing that they could die any time kept the inmates in perpetual fear.

One side of the courtyard was a solid wall of stone, topped by a walkway where armed guards patrolled with machine guns. Powerful floodlights could illuminate every square meter in a matter of seconds.

The inmates’ barracks were placed behind the courtyard; squalid, one story, box car shaped structures, with slightly raked rooflines and rows of rectangular windows. Originally twenty, their numbers increased to thirty two as the needs of the camp grew. Inside they were little more than long lines of bunks made of naked wood slats.

An elaborate sanitation system, the installation of which slowed the overall construction, included a large, underground shower room, vats for delousing, and two reservoirs in the unlikely event of drought. The shower beneath the main plaza, used to cleanse new arrivals, dispensed water with the force of a fire hose. Floors, bunks and latrines were regularly fumigated with harsh chemicals or sprayed with cold water. There were nights when prisoners had no choice but to sleep on wet planks. Both the routines and means of sanitation stated the makers’ preoccupation with cleanliness, in stark contrast to their monstrous disregard for human life.

The open corridor between a row of barracks and the prison’s service facilities became a kind of parade grounds. SS used the space to conduct spontaneous exercises, largely for their own amusement. The laundry, the kitchen, a stone structure, referred to as “the bunker,” and an inmate hospital faced the exercise yard. The main function of the hospital was to control infection. Those deemed too sick to work were given lethal injections, sometimes shot straight to the heart. A crematorium was conveniently located close to the hospital, its ovens in nearly perpetual use.

SS officers, who comprised the vast majority of staff, lived in separate barracks, safely secured behind electrified barb wire. The twenty thousand volts coursing through a menacing network of bare metal instantly electrocuted anyone who touched them. SS were fed in their own dining facilities, with food raised on the prison farm. A special clinic for staff was outfitted with the most modern equipment.

Prisoners knew nothing about what occurred inside the so called “bunker,” a prison within the prison, where higher level captives, American airmen, spies, resistance fighters, and prominent enemies of the state were brought for torture and execution. A rudimentary gas chamber was built below its ground floor, but remained unfinished until the early forties. If the SS wanted to execute a group of visiting VIPs without the inconvenience of evidence, they sent them off in a van equipped with a mobile gas chamber. It was only later, when the growing numbers called for more efficient means of disposal that gassing began on camp grounds. Mauthausen was never intended as an extermination camp. There was no need for that; work and starvation were enough.

Shortly after arrival each inmate received a triangular cloth insignia that identified his origin. From the start the greatest number wore red, which identified them as enemies of the state. French and Dutch resistance fighters along with Spaniards sent by the Franco regime, wore red. Jews received the Star of David, composed of two separate triangles. The yellow triangle pointed upwards. The other, placed on top to complete the star, was any number of colors, which indicated the prisoners’ alleged crime. A down pointing, black triangle identified a race defiler; a Jew who had slept with, or married an Aryan woman. Violent criminals wore green, which they often earned for savaging fellow inmates. Refugees wore blue; the hated Jehovah’s witnesses, mauve; and communists, black. Pink was a special distinction reserved for homosexuals. Because gay men were so often singled out for torture, wearers of red badges became deeply fearful when the harsh weather or repeated washing caused their red triangles to fade.

SS officers supervised the work, stood guard, and meted out punishment, but day to day interaction was relegated to kapos, gang leaders that were recruited from the greens to control the inmate society. Often criminally insane, they were notorious for their brutality. Some were motivated by the prospect of longer survival or black market goods, but others were sadists who relished inflicting pain.

Kapos could not be trusted with firearms. But they needed some means to keep their peers at bay. Heavy rubber hoses filled with sand were contrived for them. In the right hands these truncheons could crack a human skull.

Most inmates arrived via the Mauthausen train station. They were then marched through town, as locals pummeled them with stones and rotten vegetables. As the new arrivals climbed the hill, kapos stood on either side and hit them with the truncheons, a rite of initiation. After registration in the plaza, and a waiting period that might have lasted eight hours, prisoners were sent downstairs to the shower, given uniforms, and wooden clogs, then sent to special blocks where they remained in quarantine for up to three weeks.

The massive granite quarry operated twelve hours a day, year round. When fully operational it employed almost 1500 workers, who were divided into two groups. The first, with the vastly easier task, chiseled granite blocks from the quarry floor and walls. If they didn’t work fast enough, the kapos flogged them. The others, the majority, loaded blocks weighing upwards of forty kilos on their backs then carried them up the notorious 186 “steps of death.” The most efficient means of bringing them to the top was to assemble four or five workers in tandem, and keep them moving in lock step. But the stairs were often wet, icy, or soaked with blood. Men stumbled out of formation and fell backwards, causing a kind of domino effect that entirely stopped traffic.

If a prisoner picked a stone too small kapos would beat him, then force him to take a larger one. If he broke ranks and dropped the stone he would be kicked down to the bottom and forced to start again. If he was hurt and unable to continue the kapo might drag him to the top and deliver him to an SS guard. If the guard was so inclined, he could shoot him or push him off the ledge, to his death, two hundred feet below. SS jokingly referred to this as parachuting.

As the Nazis ravaged Europe and their slave armies multiplied, the work camps became dangerously overcrowded. Intended to house eight or nine thousand, Mauthausen was often packed with nearly twice that. In 1940 a lower camp with larger kitchens and workshops, was established just outside the prison walls. As the labor pool grew inmates were often marched to the quarry at Gusen, approximately 2.5 kilometers away. But they were never given the proper clothing to endure the cold. That winter one hundred and fifty died men perished each day. Mainly in the interest of efficiency, a new camp was built around the Gusen quarry. Inmate quarters there were designed to hold four thousand, but by 1945 it was not uncommon for them to be packed with eleven thousand.

Four more sub camps followed, and more after them, until there were approximately sixteen diverse labor units in the immediate vicinity of the main prison, with a total of forty nine throughout the region. Built and operated by the same slaves, these factories produced everything from lumber to aircraft. Some were built underground or in tunnels to better withstand Allied bombing. A castle near Linz, once owned by a charity, was confiscated and turned into a center for clandestine medical experiments and euthanasia. Its gas chamber could exterminate one hundred and sixty at a time. The Mauthausen/Gusen conglomeration became a vital contributor to the war effort, producing munitions, armaments, aircraft, and tanks.

There was a constant threat of contagious disease. Because the SS were as vulnerable to epidemics as prisoners, they murdered anyone who came to the hospital with a fever. Still, Gusen was closed more than once due to fatal epidemics. Eventually the installation just outside the Mauthuasen wall became a so called “sanitary camp.” Nothing more than a dumping ground for the chronically ill, it was an indescribably grim hell where thousands were sent to die out of sight of the rest.

In the early years very few Jews were sent to Mauthausen. But those few were singled out for rapid elimination. Eighty seven Dutch Jews arrived in 1941 and were immediately put to work in the quarry. As they struggled to carry 25 kilo stones up the steps, two notoriously vicious kapos, “Hans,” and “the blonde damsel,” struck them, knocked them down and bludgeoned them to death. Their slayings were so brutal that other kapos advised their workers to look away. In the spring of 1944, as the Hungarian genocide accelerated, the camps in Poland and Austria became choked with more Jews. Entire transports filled with Hungarians began arriving at the Mauthausen/Gusen complex. The commandants expected them to increase the output, then disappear.


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