Most people who know anything about World War II, have heard of Auschwitz. Concentration camps like the infamous Auschwitz forced people to endure inhumane treatment and poor living conditions. It was one of the worst of the death camps set up by Hitler as part of the “Final Solution” killings of Jews, Gypsies, and Jehovah’s Witnesses during and right before World War II. Nevertheless, Auschwitz wasn’t the only death camp, and some were even more afraid of going to Mauthausen than they were Auschwitz.
Between 1939, when World War II began, to 1945 when it ended, more than 1 million of the 1.5 million Jewish children who had lived in the areas German armies occupied, had perished. The Mauthausen camp wasn’t as well known as Auschwitz, but it was equally horrific. Built in 1938, Mauthausen was one of the first concentration camps erected and the last to be liberated. It was a place where terrible medical experiments took place, and the guards humiliated the prisoners. Mauthausen “Stairs of Death” were especially tragic because prisoners were forced to climb to their deaths. This 186-step structure was brutal for prisoners. They had to carry stones weighing more than 100 pounds from the bottom of the quarry to the top of the stairs. Climbers often collapsed beneath the stones’ weight. Exhausted prisoners slid down the steps, knocking over other prisoners while the stones crushed their limbs. Nazi Party members called the camp “the Bone Grinder.”
Prisoners who actually made it to the top of those torturous steps, were then forced to make the most unthinkable decisions. The German guards lined up the survivors of the climb, then forced them to choose between either pushing a fellow prisoner off the cliff or being executed. Many prisoners opted to jump off the cliff. German officers called these acts “parachute jumps.” It didn’t matter if they had been strong enough to make the climb, carrying the 100 pound rocks, because they were to lose their lives anyway.
Some prisoners escaped the stairs, if it could be called escape, but they were subjected to Dr. Aribert Heim’s horrific experiments. In 1941, Heim started working at Mauthausen. His experiments involved disfiguring people indiscriminately. During his first year of employment there, guards brought in an 18-year-old Jewish athlete with a foot infection. “Heim put the teen under anesthesia, cut him open, removed his kidney, and castrated him. Finally, the doctor removed the athlete’s head, then boiled the skull to remove all the flesh. He kept the severed body part as a trophy.”
Austrian winters are brutal, with temperatures dropping to around 14 degrees Fahrenheit. The guards at Mauthausen used the frigid temperatures to torment and execute inmates. They took groups outside, forced them to strip naked, then sprayed them with water. The poor terrified prisoners were the left to freeze. Many died of hypothermia. The guards also “enjoyed” physically and mentally abusing their prisoners. Former inmate and French resistance fighter Christian Bernadac said Mauthausen was “infernal, without a second’s rest.” Officers offered prisoners breaks from the grueling work, but then executed those who accepted. Mauthausen survivor Aba Lewitt recalled a man who met that fate: “The guard said [to the man], ‘Well, then, sit over there’ – then he shot him. [He] said the inmate tried to escape the camp. That happened umpteen times every day.”
The Germans created Mauthausen to benefit Adolf Hitler’s army. They needed granite and brick for Linz, a neighboring city the dictator hoped to rebuild with huge, elaborate structures. The concentration camp sat on the edge of a granite quarry, and prisoners collected the plutonic igneous rock to form Mauthausen’s main structures. Inmates called their time there “vernichtung durch arbeit,” or “extermination by work.” They did not expect to return home.
Mauthausen was a central concentration camp, but it had numerous subcamps that surrounded it. The subcamps were connected by underground tunnels. One of these smaller subcamps, the Gusen complex, was the place they took people who were too weak to work. Gusen inmates were simply thrown on the ground and abandoned. People there were piled on top of each other, often unable to move around and covered in human excrement. German guards rarely distributed food in Gusen, so the prisoners simply starved to death.
Crazed prisoners at Mauthausen allegedly resorted to cannibalism to survive. Food was so scarce in Mauthausen, and sometimes high-ranking German guards like Oswald Pohl cut the rations in half. To stay alive, some inmates resorted to cannibalism, particularly during the winter months when other sustenance such as grass and sand was scarce. A black market of stolen meat emerged. Allegedly, “meat” came from dying inmates. Cannibalism became so rampant that extremely ill prisoners feared sleeping, afraid others might remove chunks of their flesh.
Mauthausen guards had nothing but time to come up with the most horrific ways to torture the prisoners. Sometimes they ordered them to pick strawberries in a field and then shot them…saying they were trying to escape. Concentration camp leaders also threw prisoner’s hats near the structure perimeters and shot whoever tried to retrieve their belongings. Barbed-wire fencing surrounded Mauthausen. The guards loved dangling “freedom” in front to the prisoners, or at least saying that the prisoners were trying to escape. Some inmates ended their own lives by throwing themselves against the fence. That didn’t usually end their lives instantly. The prisoner would just hang there, stuck in the wire, for days until they finally died.
Mauthausen was finally liberated when World War II ended in 1945, but many of the inmates never received justice. They died before help arrived. The Austrian concentration camp claimed about 100,000 lives and thousands more were lost after their release. Allied soldiers didn’t understand the gravity of the situation when they arrived in Mauthausen. They were trying to help when they threw chocolate to the starving inmates. Chocolate has lots of calories, and is often given as a source of energy, but many of the inmates died, because their bodies could no longer digest solids. I can’t imagine the horror the soldiers must have felt, knowing that in trying to help, they had inadvertently caused the death of these poor prisoners. The camp was liberated on that day in 1945, but the terror that was daily life in Mauthausen will never be forgotten.
Everyone knows the horrors of the Nazi regime, but few people can say that while they thought it was all a part of war, until one day they were forced to see it for what it really was…horrible. These soldiers honestly thought that the concentration camps were no different than the prisoner of war camps they were in, but when they saw the truth, it made them sick. They were forced to face the awful truth that their leader was a complete monster…and worse yet, that they could do nothing to stop his tirade. This forced confrontation brought Germans face-to-face with the worst works of the Third Reich. I can’t imagine the horror of finding out that human beings were being murdered in the gas chambers. The absolute horror of it shows on the faces of the prisoners of war in the United States camps, as they compared the treatment they received at our hands, to what the Nazis were doing to the Jewish people.
An important part of keeping moral up in any war is making sure that the people believe that what their nation is doing, is the right thing. To find out that their nation…their leader, Hitler…was involved in the unwarranted killing of human beings, just because these people were a race they did not like, had to have been such a shock…a sickening shock. This forced process was part of the Allied policy known as denazification, which was designed to to purge Germany of the remnants of Nazi rule and rebuild its civil society, infrastructure, and economy. The program included actual visits to nearby concentration camps. Posters displaying dead bodies of prisoners hung in public places, and forced German prisoners of war to view films documenting the Nazis’ treatment of “inferior” people. The German people had to be changed. They had to realize that Hitler’s evil agenda could not continue. The only way to do that was to change the hearts of men. The best way to change the hearts of men is to show them the horrible truth that they have been lied too and taken advantage of.
While such a harsh method designed to facilitate change was necessary, I must think that it was as hard on the Americans as it was on the Germans. I don’t think anyone could easily watch such horrible murders, without feeling something…except maybe Hitler and his serious henchmen. I still believe that the majority of human beings cannot easily stomach blatant hatred, and horrific murder. I can’t say exactly how big an impact the denazification efforts had at that time in history, but I believe that it was huge. The reason is that the German soldiers weren’t necessarily Nazis, and the Holocaust was just one side of the World War II. They were also fighting for territory and power. Strong nationalistic feelings were quite normal back then. Oddly, no conflict existed between not following the Nazis and fighting for the “good of your Fatherland.” Some soldiers were Nazis, some just wanted revenge for Versailles, others wanted to sit at the same table as France and Britain. And many followed because they had no other choice. It was a very strange situation, and one that had to be changed. It may not have been a humane way to bring change, but it was all they could do, so denazification was what they did…and at that time, it worked.
Not all of us can say that we knew a US President, before or during their presidency, but my uncle, Jim Wolfe could say that. Uncle Jim was in the army during World War II, and was on his way to England on a ship. Being the kind of guy who liked to see how things worked, Uncle Jim was laying on the back end of the ship watching the propeller go in and out of the water. Ike came up behind him and asked him if he was sick. Uncle Jim said, “No, I was just watching the prop.” Ike said, “Lord, man I would be so sick it would kill me and I’m on ships all the time.” He told Uncle Jim to come with him and they were going to go to Officers Mess and have coffee. Dad said “I can’t go there I will get in trouble.” Ike informed Uncle Jim that as long as he was with him, they wouldn’t say anything to him.
In the Officers Mess, Uncle Jim and Ike talked for a long time and then went their separate ways on the ship. When they got to England, Uncle Jim saw him a few times and then on D-Day, they found themselves on the same ship again. When they disembarked, they were under heavy fire, and my cousin Shirley Cameron tells me that Ike got a hold of her dad, my Uncle Jim and asked him how his shooting was. Uncle Jim said that it was good. Ike said, “See that guy in that tree way up there.” Uncle Jim said that he did, and Ike asked if he could hit him. Uncle Jim shot, hit, and killed the man. Ike said for Uncle Jim to stay with him. They were together for quite a while before they got separated. At that point, Uncle Jim was sent to another area.
Uncle Jim ended up opening up some of the concentration camps. That was probably the worst part of his service. He said the men were like the walking dead. They were sick, weak, and skinny. All they could do was grab hold of him and thank him over and over for getting them out of that horrible place. Shirley tells me that he saw little wooden sheds that had bodies stacked from bottom to top, There were also pits that had bodies stacked in them ready for the heavy equipment to push the dirt over the top. She told me that experience gave him nightmares for years. He used to have pictures of all of that and the people that they helped out of the camps, but unfortunately they were lost in the fire that destroyed his home a number of years ago. After his time there, Uncle Jim was sent to France to help with the Liberation there. I’m sure he came home with many stories of the war, but as far as I know, that was the last time he ever saw the man who would later become our 34th US President, Dwight D Eisenhower…aka Ike.