For some reason I seem to keep passing former Nazi concentration camps and each time I see the sign KZ, I am compelled to go in and try to understand how this sad period in our European history occurred and also learn about the people who suffered and often died within the walls.
Mauthausen, like Le Struthof in France, was established above a quarry. Much of the stone was used in building the camp which has more of a fortress structure than either Le Struthof or Dachau. Prisoners were forced to carry the stone up a steep flight of steps called the ‘stairs of death’ due to the number of prisoners who died during this task. Others ended their lives by being pushed off the high cliffs at the so called ‘parachute jump’.
Like the other camps, Mauthausen had a small gas chamber and a crematorium where prisoners were regularly executed and disposed of. 190,000 prisoners from 40 different nations passed through the camp gates and at least 90,000 never left, having been worked to death, fatally tortured or executed. Records are difficult to find as many were destroyed by the Nazi SS before they left and stolen by prisoners as souvenirs or by locals who were embarrassed about the horrors which took place in their town.
According to the number of deaths, by nationality, listed on a stone plaque at the entrance gate, there were 17 British prisoners at Mauthausen and I want to learn more about them. There is nothing in the comprehensive museum exhibition but a helpful young man leads me through the ‘Room of Names’ and outside to an area behind the crematorium where a plaque lists the names of 40 Dutch and 7 British prisoners who were captured behind German lines and transferred to Mauthausen where they were executed on the 6th and 7th September 1944. The British men were mostly SOE wireless operators working with the local resistance.
Before I leave, I drive down to the quarry where I find another plaque at the foot of the ‘stairs of death’ dedicated to the 47 murdered men. What a horrible place to die.
Further south I come across one of the many satellite camps at Ebensee. Whereas Mauthausen was one of the first concentration camps to be opened to the public as a memorial to the victims in 1949, the camp at Ebensee lies hidden beneath a village which used the foundations of the prisoner huts on which to build houses and apartments. All that remains are the stone entrance gate and a small memorial garden on land that was used for mass graves. It seems strange that anyone would want to live in such a place but next to the memorial garden children are playing on the swings and filling their digger trucks with fallen autumn leaves.
Ebensee concentration camp was focussed on building 7.6 kms of tunnels in the adjacent mountains where fuel was produced and the A9/A10 rockets were developed. The camp is quite far from the main town which lies at the bottom of Lake Traunsee. I wonder if the tourists who visit to take boat trips or scale the mountains in the cable car realise what is just down the road.