My hosts in Linz are exceptionally gracious hosts. On the morning of the farewell, they cook, bake, puree, flambé and prepare food as if I weren’t a humble little fellow, but a horde of a hundred hungry men.
Unfortunately, I don’t have much of an appetite. Because today, my journey will take me to Mauthausen.
The extremely caring hosts don’t mind driving me the 20 kilometers. Maybe they don’t trust hitchhiking, although it got me to Linz safely. Despite the corona virus. We are cruising past blast furnaces, steel mills, smoking chimneys, sparking fires. Railroads are roaring and rushing from one part of the steelworks to another. There is hammering and smelting, productivity and perspiration. This is what the Rust Belt must have looked like before it got rusty.
These are the Hermann Göring Works. Construction began in 1938, a few months after Austria ceased to be an independent country. Built, expanded and operated with forced labor, with prisoners of war and with prisoners of the nearby concentration camps Gusen and Mauthausen. At the time, the Germans and Austrians could not show up to work themselves, because they were busy invading other countries to enslave their populations for the benefit of a German economic miracle. Capitalism needs growth, if necessary by force.
But you have to give credit to Voestalpine AG, the name under which the company is now trading, for maintaining a museum of contemporary history on the factory premises. Thousands of other companies keep as quiet as mice, even though almost everyone in the German Reich had forced laborers, down to small and medium-sized businesses and even small farms.
From the town of Mauthausen, and town is almost too big a word for it, a road winds its way through the forests and cornfields. Always uphill. Up to the fortress, which still yields a threatening and gloomy aura.
Thick walls. Barbed wire. Guard towers.
No trees, preferring a clear line of fire instead.
It is summer 2020 and there are fewer visitors than usual because of the corona virus. The lady at the reception takes a lot of time to explain everything.
Mauthausen was one of the last concentration camps to be liberated, on 5 May 1945. The fact that the first concentration camps had already been liberated ten months earlier did not stop the killing here. The fact that Hitler had killed himself a week earlier did not stop the killing. The fact that the Wehrmacht had already surrendered on many fronts at the beginning of May did not stop the killing. But thereafter, for the rest of their largely unprosecuted lives, the murderers blathered on about allegedly “not having had any choice”.
Because the killing went on in Mauthausen almost to the last breath of the Nazi regime, the camp was the destination of several transfer and death marches from other concentration camps. The number of prisoners swelled dramatically from 1944 on, and in the last four months before liberation, as many people died as in the previous four years. At least 90,000 people in total.
Mauthausen was liberated by the US Army. Looking at the banner with which the Spanish prisoners welcomed the liberators, it becomes evident that the term “Antifa” does not deserve any negative connotation. Quite the contrary.
But it is thanks to the Soviet Union that Mauthausen became a memorial site, the knowledgeable lady enlightens me. Like Germany, Austria was divided into four occupation zones, and north of the Danube was the Soviet zone. The Soviet occupying power returned the site only on the condition that it be maintained as a memorial.
“What do the people in Mauthausen make of the fact that their town is always associated with the concentration camp?” I want to know.
She turns to a young man who is doing an internship: “You’re a local, you can probably say more about that.”
“Yesterday I was handing out flyers for our film week,” he recounts. “Some people were interested. But when I walked into an ice cream parlor and said I was from the memorial site, the woman there turned around and didn’t talk to me anymore.”
He tells it like it’s not the first time this has happened.
And: “When we go abroad, we prefer to say we are from Linz.” I know this phenomenon from Dachau, where people prefer to say that they are from Munich.
Equipped with a map and other helpful hints, I begin exploring the grounds. Outside the fortress-like walls was the soccer field. Here, the SS played against local clubs. The local population could watch, and there was probably someone selling sausages or lemonade. There were also other joint celebrations and regular contact, even marriages between SS men and local women. The population of Mauthausen grew, the landlords rejoiced, the innkeepers were happy.
Next to the sports field were barracks for the prisoners who were so sick that they were no longer a flight risk. To die, they could be stacked outside the walls. Today, a woman is walking her dog in this field and picking flowers. For the breakfast table.
Where the SS barracks once stood, there is a memorial park. A mirror of the post-war situation, the Cold War and the changes that have occurred since then. The first monuments were large, heroic, male. Many groups of victims such as women, homosexuals or children were overlooked.
It was not until the 1970s that a memorial to the Jewish victims was erected. The Roma and Sinti had to wait even longer, until 1989.
And the commemoration was national. Each country wanted its own memorial. Germany is represented twice, not as perpetrator and victim, but as East and West. There are countries that no longer exist, the USSR, the GDR, Yugoslavia. And new countries like Ukraine and Slovenia.
This nationalization of remembrance is what skeptics of the planned Polish memorial in Berlin are worried about.
Visitors from around the world put up plaques. There is gratitude to the U.S. liberators next to remembrance of the Soviet victims. The latter ones, at least if they were lieutenant generals, received the more flowery obituary. (“… Torture and mockery did not break the courage of the fiery fighter for the liberation of peoples from the fascist yoke. …“)
Memorial plaques for children. Plaques for Jewish paratroopers from Palestine who volunteered to fight the Nazis behind enemy lines. Plaques for homosexuals. For scouts. For Roma and Sinti. For Jehovah’s Witnesses. For Turkish victims. For Chinese victims. For Georgian victims. For Louis Häfliger. For deserters and conscientious objectors of the Wehrmacht. For communists and socialists. For Azerbaijani victims. For Kosovar victims. For Portuguese victims. For Montenegrin victims. For Cuban victims. And for Leopold Figl, who was elected Chancellor of the Republic of Austria after his imprisonment in Mauthausen.
One hundred and ninety thousand prisoners. One hundred and ninety thousand stories.
The lady from the memorial center had told me that in pandemic-free years, relatives of former prisoners come from all over the world. The historians then retrieve the respective files from the archives. And all relatives are given a personal tour.
“Sometimes,” she continues, “people hand us a bundle of papers they found after their father or grandfather died. Old IDs, documents, a diary or a handwritten memoir. Our work won’t be over for a long time.”
Visiting a former concentration camp, one expects to be most shocked by the gas chamber. Or by the furnaces in which the corpses were burned. Or by the photos of piles of corpses. But here, the memorial has a different concept: in the basement, where the crematoria are located, relatives are allowed to place plaques, memories and photos of the victims.
The rooms are full of faces, full of names, full of lives cut short.
One hundred and ninety thousand prisoners. One hundred and ninety thousand stories.
I want to tell one of them. The story of Francisco Boix.
You may have wondered, when you saw the image of the liberation, why the poster was written in Spanish. Well, there were about 7,000 Spanish (many of them Catalan) prisoners in Mauthausen.
How did that come about? Spain was never conquered by the Nazis, was it?
It was a consequence of the Spanish Civil War. After Franco prevailed in 1939, many Spanish leftists and republicans fled across the Pyrenees to France. Some of them became German prisoners when Germany invaded France. Others fought with the French Foreign Legion against Germany and thus ended up in German captivity. The Third Reich did not want to put them in concentration camps at first, but treated them as prisoners of war. Germany even offered Franco to send them to Spain, which after all was not at war with Germany. But the Spanish dictator replied: “No thank you. These people have conspired against me, they are no longer Spaniards. Do with them whatever you want.”
That was their death sentence.
Francisco Boix was one of those Spaniards who fought against Franco and against Hitler. He was caught and sent to Mauthausen in 1941. He was also a photographer.
That saved his life.
He had to work as a photo lab assistant for the SS identification service in the camp. Propaganda photos, photos of all new prisoners, photos of deaths in the quarry, photos of executions, photos of the cruel living conditions in the camp were passing through his hands. Photos of everything.
Boix secretly made an additional print of many of these photos. Other Spanish prisoners working in the quarries outside the camp smuggled the photos outside. On the footpath through the town of Mauthausen, they noticed a woman who seemed friendlier than the other locals, who nodded at them, greeted them. The prisoners slipped the photos to this woman. Again and again. Each time at the risk of the lives of everyone involved. This woman, Anna Pointner, kept the photos hidden until 1945.
It was almost unbelievable, but Francisco Boix survived the four years in the concentration camp. Without him or his helpers ever being exposed. His photos and his testimony at the first Nuremberg Trial as well as at the Mauthausen Trial not only proved the cruel conditions of imprisonment, but also the personal knowledge about it of Albert Speer, who was photographed during his visit to the Mauthausen concentration camp.
And then, Boix and the other Spanish prisoners were not able to return to their homeland after liberation. Spain made no effort to restore their revoked citizenship. They remained stateless.
I am learning so much in the exhibition that I cannot reproduce here without going beyond the scope of the article.
About Martin Roth, who was responsible for the operation of the gas chamber and the crematorium at Mauthausen. Since 1945, he was wanted for murder. But apparently not wanted very much, because he was able to live unmolested in Germany and Austria until 1968. Only then was he sentenced to seven years in prison. From 1977 until his death in 2003, he went on summer vacation to Mauthausen every year. He liked to sit in the garden of a pub there, with a view of the former concentration camp.
About the SS, which, in the spirit of capitalism, founded its own limited company to exploit the quarries in Mauthausen. With brochures that advertised the quality of the granite from Mauthausen, Gross-Rosen and Flossenbürg. From the latter quarry, people with a terrible taste in gardening still like to get their granite today.
About the camp brothel to which women from Ravensbrück concentration camp were brought. Only a few privileged prisoners were allowed to visit the brothel. Jews were excluded. The subsequent release which had been promised to the women never happened, of course.
About the efforts of the SS to destroy all evidence in the last months. Most of the documents were burned. The killing facilities were dismantled. Good thing that Francisco Boix had hidden the photos. And good thing that Jack Taylor, an OSS secret agent, survived his imprisonment in Mauthausen concentration camp and was able to help with the US Army’s meticulous investigation.
As is so often the case when confronting National Socialism, it is above all the bureaucracy, the obsession with regulations, the orderliness of the bookkeeping – the German virtues – that are so frightening.
I have to catch some air, step outside, walk through the grass, which is now greener than it ever was in the days of the concentration camp. But everywhere I step, there is a cemetery.
Only at the fence, once electrically charged and another killing instrument, does my walk, lost in thoughts, come to a stop.
Only once did prisoners manage to break through this fence. In February 1945, Soviet prisoners of war attacked the guard towers and short-circuited the electric fence with wet blankets. 419 of them were able to leave the camp.
However, only for a short time. Many collapsed from exhaustion or died in the hail of bullets from the machine guns. The SS organized a veritable hunt for the rest. For three weeks, all surrounding forests and villages were combed to find and kill every escaped Soviet soldier. Under the cynical name “Mühlviertel Hare Hunt” the police, the fire department, the Wehrmacht, the Hitler Youth, the Volkssturm as well as the civilian population participated in the manhunt. Mass murder as a public spectacle. Those were the people who after 1945 claimed that they hadn’t known about anything.
Only eleven of the escaped Soviet soldiers survived because they were hidden by farmers or by forced laborers. These were the ones whom the majority resented after 1945, because they had shown that resistance was possible.
I walk down to the Danube, through the town. It is four kilometers to the train station, which the prisoners had to walk the other way, always uphill for them. Past pretty villas, petit-bourgeois houses, well-tended gardens.
I do the math. Those who were 20 years old back then would now be 95. There won’t be many of them left. The 60- or 70-year-olds sitting in the garden now are the ones who never asked. For fear of what might come to light. Including about their own parents.
It probably takes two or three generations for people to start asking. And sometimes even longer. On the website of the municipality of Mauthausen, the concentration camp memorial is not listed among the local sights. Neither is the memorial to Anna Pointner. But there is a proud reference to the war memorial for the Nazi soldiers who rounded up the victims for Mauthausen all over the world.
- Both from Mauthausen train station as well as from Linz train station, there is a bus going directly to the memorial complex.
- In winter, the memorial is closed on Mondays, otherwise it’s open every day. I recommend that you schedule at least 3-4 hours for the visit.
- Entrance is free of charge. The app which guides you around and provides background information is also free of charge. If, like me, you don’t have a smartphone, you can rent an audio guide for 3 €.
- I was somewhat reconciled with the town of Mauthausen when a nice gentleman rescued me from the scorching heat and drove a 20 km detour to take me to the highway ramp leading to Vienna. Thanks!
- More reports from Austria.
- And more about history.
- There is a graphic novel about Francisco Boix. It has an extensive and illustrated appendix, introducing the history and system of the Mauthausen concentration camp. I found this a very helpful preparation for the visit.
- The disturbingly fascinating story of Enric Marco is also set against the backdrop of the Spanish connection with Mauthausen.