By Betty Gordon
© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.
The continuous hell that was daily life in the Mauthausen concentration camp was characterized by a starvation diet, forced labor, savage beatings and the constant fear of death.
These monstrous conditions and worse were echoed in other concentration camps, but there was one particularly cruel aspect that some Mauthausen prisoners faced day in and day out: the Stairs of Death.
Hour after hour, tightly bunched horizontal rows of poorly fed and clothed men, growing weaker by the day, were bullied into putting one exhausted foot in front of the other to climb 186 steep steps from the quarry floor to the exterior rim, each carrying heavy pieces of granite in a rigid backpack-like wooden frame. (Some prisoners tried to balance the granite on one shoulder.)
And then driven to do it again, and again and again.
Eleven hours a day in summer and nine hours a day in winter, prisoners extracted granite from the quarry’s cliffs by hand or using explosives. Then those chunks were shattered into smaller pieces for hauling up the Stairs of Death.
Some pieces of granite, destined to comprise administration buildings for the Third Reich’s ambitious construction program, weighed 30 pounds. Others were as heavy as 75 pounds, not much less than the prisoners whose bodies were wasting away.
Needless to say, men already weakened by lack of nutritious food and illness didn’t survive the Stairway of Death for long. Blows from vicious guards rained down on prisoners who stumbled or fell. For some, those blows brought instant death.
Among the most unfortunate were those who “committed suicide by jumping” (that’s how it was recorded officially), and referred to as “parachuting” by the sadistic overseers. In reality, the SS shot or pushed prisoners from the quarry’s rim to meet their death below. If the fall didn’t kill them, they would drown in the lake.
(The quarry floor is overgrown now with trees, shrubs and weeds.)
I visited Mauthausen concentration camp, in the bucolic Austrian countryside, in October 2015. It is just a few miles from the village of Mauthausen proper, so close that it is impossible to believe that residents didn’t know what was going on at the quarry, even before the world was plunged into war. The camp was on a hilltop, and residents would have seen prisoners being marched from the rail station.
Visitors can spend several hours looking at the exhibits in a very good museum, watch a 45-minute film featuring some survivor testimony, and take their time walking around the extensive grounds and buildings. The Room of Names, opened in 2015, lists more than 81,000 victims, though more people than that died here.
Like other concentration camps I’ve visited, Mauthausen has been sanitized and downsized. For hygienic reasons, the camp obviously couldn’t remain in its World War II condition. The liberating U.S. Army burned down the camp infirmary and parts of the barracks in a move to keep rampant disease from becoming an epidemic.
However, cleaning up the site does somewhat lessen the impact of the horrors — including mass gassings, executions and twisted medical experiments — that were perpetrated here and at other camps. The gas chamber and crematorium seem to have preserved close to their original states.
Visitors will have to use their imagination in the rebuilt barracks — meant for 5,000 each but housing 19,000 — to picture the wretched, overcrowded conditions, and what it was like for prisoners to stand in the wide-open gravel area in all weathers when roll call was taken several times a day.
Around the grounds are striking memorials of different shapes and sizes, erected by the diverse countries whose citizens were prisoners. Many of the memorials list names and display moving tributes to the many thousands who lived and died at Mauthausen.
On the fall day I visited, there were few other people on the grounds. I had taken a train from Vienna, and changed in Linz. Total travel time was a bit over two hours. As I was sitting on the second train waiting to depart, a young woman of Chinese heritage was walking up the aisle asking other passengers in English if this was the train to take to Mauthausen. I assured her it was, we got to chatting, and we ended up spending the day together touring the camp.
My guidebook suggested asking the agent at the small Mauthausen station to call a taxi or shuttle service for a lift to the camp. No agent was in sight and neither was a phone.
Before I met Jen, I had originally planned to walk the 2 miles or so from the station to the camp. But by the time I came outside after using the restroom, Jen had commandeered a postal bus. I’ve taken postal buses in other countries — they often go on routes that regular service doesn’t cover — and had no problem.
This turned out to be extremely creepy and unsettling and probably not the smartest thing to do. If I were by myself, I wouldn’t have gotten on the bus. Particularly icky was the middle-aged driver saying out loud “Hitler,” and doing so with a wide and leering grin.
Jen and I sat in the first row, just behind the door, to the driver’s right. Three young dark-haired men were several rows back, and they were not speaking German. They didn’t bother us or speak to us, but I was still uncomfortable.
I watched like a hawk as we were passing road signs indicating the direction of the camp. Thankfully, the short ride was uneventful, and we were dropped about a half-mile from the entrance. We walked up a tree-shaded lane past well-tended houses the rest of the way.
The number of people who were imprisoned in Mauthausen and its subcamps from 1938 to 1945 were, relatively speaking, far fewer than the death camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau. But citizens of about 40 countries, in total more than 195,000, were held at the Mauthausen camp system.
At least 95,000 died. More than 14,000 of those were Jews (some sources give a larger total of 38,000).
After the Nazis annexed Austria in the Anschluss of March 1938, they were looking for a site on which to construct a concentration camp that would house Austrian “traitors to the people.”
The secluded stone quarry location, then owned by the city of Vienna, fit the bill, and so in August 1938, the Nazis transferred about 300 prisoners from Dachau concentration camp, near Munich, Germany, to build the new camp.
At the time, most of these prisoners were classified as “asocial” or were political prisoners or convicted criminals. The camp population grew to 1,000 by the end of 1938, and more than doubled by the end of 1939, about three months into World War II.
The new totals included religious conscientious objectors, but at this point, not many Jews; implementation of the Final Solution had not yet begun. From 1938 to the end of February 1944, about 2,760 Jews were imprisoned, though most of them were deceased by the end of 1943.
Mauthausen was probably the last place that thousands of Spanish refugees had expected to end up. They had fled to safety in France after fighting against General Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War and his overthrow of the republic in 1939.
When France fell in June 1940 to the Nazis, about 7,000 of the refugees were deported to Mauthausen later that year and in 1941.
As the Nazi war machine rampaged across Europe, the multi-cultural population of Mauthausen increased. Soviet prisoners of war, numbering more than 10,000, were incarcerated at Mauthausen or its subcamps, as were more than 23,000 civilians.
Other large groups by nationality included more than 37,000 non-Jewish Poles, up to 8,650 Yugoslavs, about 6,300 Italians and 4,000 Czechs.
Until 1942, all prisoners were men. In June, 24 women were brought from Ravensbrück, an all-female concentration camp about 50 miles north of Berlin, Germany. They were made to work as sex slaves, installed in a bordello as an “incentive” to service male prisoners and guards.
Larger numbers of women were transferred from other camps in 1944, some ending up in Mauthausen subcamps working in the munitions factories or making viscose, chemically treated cellulose used to produce rayon fiber.
Some women — and children — were just passing through en route to other concentration camps. Records indicate 3,000 women were registered, but 10,000 total spent some time at the Mauthausen camps.
In 1944, Mauthausen prisoners also included 47 allied personnel, most of them affiliated with Britain’s Special Operations Executive, who carried out secret missions behind enemy lines.
Not until March 1944, when transports from Auschwitz-Birkenau and Plaszow (both in Poland) did large numbers of Jews arrive, citizens mostly of Hungary and Poland. For the year, almost 14,000 ended up in Mauthausen.
On May 5, 1945, the U.S. Army’s 11th Armored Division liberated Gusen, one of the subcamps, and just in time. The Nazi SS had plans to dynamite the tunnels and factories where the prisoners worked, but American intervention saved their lives.
Mauthausen was liberated the next day. Several weeks later, a medical inspector commented on the “indescribable filth and degradation” of the concentration camp.
Generally, the Germans were meticulous about record-keeping. But it seems to have been the case that some who passed through or were briefly at Mauthausen were never registered, so the complete number of prisoners or those executed may never be known.
Mauthausen became a permanent memorial and historical site in 1947.
Quick reference: Mauthausen Memorial: March 1-October 31: 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Mondays-Sundays; November 1- February 28: 9 a.m.-3:45 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays (closed Mondays). Closed December 24-26, 31 and January 1. Free admission, but you’ll need to get an entry ticket at the Visitor Center/Bookshop. For a fee, you can join a guided tour or rent an audio headset. The website has excellent background information and many other photos of the country memorials. http://www.mauthausen-memorial.org
For train information from Vienna: Austrian Federal Railways, www.oebb.at (click Union Jack at top of page for English).