MAUTHAUSEN, Austria (AP) — Many people were worked to death or starved. Others were gassed or killed by injection. But of all the ways to die at Mauthausen, Austria’s largest concentration camp, one method in particular reflected the horrible cynicism of the Nazis in charge.
As emaciated inmates struggled up the 186 steps of “the Stairway of Death” balancing huge blocks of granite on their backs, a guard would ask one if he would like to step out of the line to sit and rest for a minute on a ledge, recalled former inmate Aba Lewitt.
Of course, most said yes.
“The guard said, ‘Well, then, sit over there’– then he shot him,” said Lewitt, tears welling in his eyes. “He said the inmate tried to escape the camp. That happened umpteen times every day.”
Austria marked the 70th anniversary of Mauthausen’s liberation Sunday with somber speeches by dignitaries and funeral marches by scores of flag-carrying delegations from Europe and beyond. More than 20,000 people attended. The most powerful commemorations, however, were the stories told by some of the approximately 50 survivors present.
One of the longest-existing concentration camps in Hitler’s Reich, Mauthausen received its first railway wagon of inmates in 1938. By the time it and its nearly 50 satellite camps were liberated by American troops in May 1945, more than 100,000 people had died, most in the main camp.
That main camp was designated “Category III” — which meant its inmates were slated for death through labor.
Many of the hundreds of thousands at the Mauthausen complex — Jews as well as prisoners of war, political prisoners, conscientious objectors and other opponents of Hitler’s Nazi regime — built war planes and other military equipment in deep tunnels they dug at the auxiliary camps .
But the most unfortunate landed in its huge granite pit. Those assigned to 12-hour days of trying to climb the stairs — uneven slabs, some half a meter (yard) high — died from exhaustion, being shot or after being transferred to barracks for the sick, where lack of care and epidemics decimated the horribly weakened inmates.
The Nazis called the main camp “The Bone Mill.” On Sunday, cows grazed on rolling meadows near tidy farm houses within eyesight of the forbidding granite walls of Mauthausen as people in nearby villages went about their business — a scene witnesses have described as not much different than Sundays past, as those inside the walls suffered and died.
Most Austrians denied knowing about the camps until after the war. It took decades for public opinion to swing from the perception that Austria was a victim of Hitler to recognition that it was one of Germany’s most willing accomplices after its annexation in 1938.
Invoking the memory of “one of the most horrible chapters in our history,” Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann on Sunday urged his countrymen “to never forget and to elevate values such as tolerance, democracy, non-violence and solidarity.”
Earlier, scores of delegations from countries whose citizens died at the Mauthausen complex made their way to the podium. A survivor with the Israeli delegation wore a copy of the black-and-white pajamas issued to inmates.
Mauthausen was the last concentration camp to be liberated by the allies, with U.S armored troops rolling into the compound on May 5, 1945. It was a day many survivors remember with joy.
“One of the sergeants on the first tank took a packet of cigarettes out his pockets and lit (one),” Max Garcia recalled Sunday. “I said, ‘Ahhh, it’s a long time ago since I saw a Lucky Strike.’
“He gave me one and … immediately called his lieutenant,” said Garcia, 90, now of San Francisco. Within hours, Garcia was ensconced in a comfortable hotel and helping the Americans interrogate his former tormentors and their backers.
But for Lewitt, 92, of Vienna, the day of liberation was bitter.
With nowhere to go, he and fellow inmates spent their first free night still in the camp. Transferred to Linz, the nearest big city, and then left on their own, they wandered the streets dressed in their camp stripes, hungry, penniless, and lonely as the rest of Austria started picking up from the ruins of war.
“No one cared about us,” he says. “It was trauma in the camp and afterward too.”
His eyes teared up again Sunday when asked what his thoughts were.
“I survived,” he said. “And the others didn’t.”
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