|The Mauthausen prison orchestra escorting prisoners to the gas chambers.|
For instance, we can talk about the "Holocaust," but then you get into different German policies for different groups, the history of the persecution of the Jews and others, then the different camps and the men and women who ran them, then the treatment of prisoners at different camps, then different events at each camp, and on and on. The level of detail becomes granular, getting down to events as experienced by one person at one time in one place. There is no end to the complexity. The only way to keep it manageable is to focus on discrete topics as representative of the greater whole.
Ultimately, World War II is millions of stories, events as seen and experienced and memorialized in different ways by each person affected. Many of those people did not outlast the war and they never had a chance to communicate their experiences, so the whole store is forever incomplete. It is pretty much assured that we only know certain parts of the greater whole, probably not the depths of depravity nor the absolute heights of valor. We can only work with what is available, but sometimes there is a keyhole provided almost by chance at the lowest - in more ways than one - level. With this article, we go beneath the general heading "Holocaust" to look at one particular camp of many, and it just so happens to be perhaps the worst of them all.
|A Mauthausen prisoner beaten up by guards, then stood up against the wall for this picture|
|Sankt Georgen an der Gusen, Austria, part of the Mauthausen complex|
Mauthausen is a small market town in the Austrian state of Upper Austria, near the German border. It is located about 20 kilometres east of the city of Linz, the childhood home of Adolf Hitler, and not far from Berchtesgaden, Germany, where Hitler vacationed during the war. It is quite picturesque. There is a green valley with ponds and a sign reading "Memorial. No swimming, diving, car washing, ball games, etc."
The word "Memorial" is the tip-off. The valley, despite its undeniable beauty, was the site of the most grisly events of World War II. More people were exterminated elsewhere, most notoriously at Auschwitz–Birkenau. On the scales of horror, that simple fact always weighs heaviest, so all descriptive words are relative in this field. At Mauthausen, though, prisoners went through a process that can only be described as barbaric and was unmatched elsewhere in the system.
Mauthausen, technically known as Mauthausen-Gusen, was the center of World War II Germany's only category III concentration camp. It was the destination for "incorrigible political enemies of the Third Reich." People who had no sponsors or protectors were sent there to work until they died. Mauthausen itself, a small market town in upper Austria, was simply the administrative center. Operations spread out for miles around to the east, west and south.
|Typical SS guards at Mauthausen|
The Germans chose the site because of its huge quantities of granite. The stones were used to build highways, the country's monolithic government buildings and the concentration camps themselves.
|Commandant Franz Ziereis accompanies Heinrich Himmler on an inspection tour of the Mauthausen concentration camp|
The first Mauthausen barracks were erected some 20 kilometres (12.5 miles) from the city of Linz. It was only five months after Austria's "Anschluss," or annexation. This is when the Germans began to get big dreams of conquest and began seriously contemplating a general war against the other major European powers. They knew they would need a dedicated workforce.
|Aribert Heim - Austrian doctor, also known as Dr. Death. As an SS doctor in the concentration camp in Mauthausen, he was accused of killing and torturing inmates.|
Mauthausen grew steadily over time. It expanded from a single labour camp to a network of 49 satellite camps across Austria and Germany. It now generally is referred to as the "Mauthausen system." Waves of prisoners showed up, first Spaniards, then Poles, then Russians, as the Germans expanded their empire.
The detainees were brought to Mauthausen for their registration before being sent to one of the sub-camps. Since Mauthausen was not an extermination camp, the point was to make the prisoners work and produce as much as possible whilst being given only the barest means of subsistence.
|An SS-Obersturmführer serving in KZ Mauthausen.|
There, they would produce and assemble parts for weapons, rockets or warplanes for instance. In addition, local firms and national corporations used prisoners from Mauthausen for cheap slave labour, thereby turning the network into one of the Reich's most profitable enterprises.
Since there were always plenty of prisoners who worked for nothing, Mauthausen served as a sort of temporary worker business for whoever needed some work done. The workers also had the advantage from the point of view of employers of not complaining about anything - if you wanted them to whistle while they worked, they would whistle a merry tune.
|Austria, Paul Winter, commander of blocks 13-15 in Mauthausen death camp toward the end of the war.|
Mauthausen, from a certain perspective, was the absolute heart of Occupied Europe, both geographically and morally. The Germans were all about war, and Mauthausen supported the effort wholeheartedly.
|The garage entrance at Mauthausen|
Manufacturing during the last years of the Reich were dispersed by Armaments Minister Albert Speer, who was appointed in early 1942. Speer was brilliant at his work, though he had his detractors within the government hierarchy for his supposed laziness and paranoia. He chose Upper Austria mountain locations near the mountain town St Georgen an der Gusen for major production facilities after the destruction of Peenemunde by British bombers in 1943. St Georgen is a fairly typical small Austrian mountain town, blink and you'll miss it as you drive through. However, it has quite a history.
|Aerial view of the main camps|
The Germans knew that the Allies were targeting their fighter production facilities, and Bergkristall had numerous advantages:
- at the extreme range of Allied bombers,
- tight security,
- a large productive workforce and hidden,
- bomb-proof facilities that would be difficult to destroy even if the Allies knew where they were, which apparently they didn't.
Speer chose quite wisely. Parts of the facility are believed to remain undiscovered to this day.
|The underground works in the Bergkristall|
B8 Bergkristall is near the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp. Mauthausen provided the slave labor that kept the Bergkristall factory humming along. There were a lot of slave laborers - up to 320,000 - and many were killed in various ways. The nearby town was the site of the Gusen 2 sub-camp which supplied the factory laborers.
The B8 Bergkristall - Esche II program was located in a series of caves (some 40 square miles are known) carved out of the mountains near Sankt Georgen an der Gusen. That is a very small town in the middle of the mountains. The census gave it a population of 1,429 in 1939. Even today, it only has a few thousand inhabitants. It remained under German control until the final surrender.
The underground plants are extensive and many were buried late in the war, and it is not clear if they have all been located even today. The Soviets occupied the area until 1955 and did little excavating. The local citizenry basically ignored the whole matter until the 1980s, when a new generation came along interested in the past.
The Human Toll
Of the 200,000 prisoners who passed through Mauthausen from August 1938 until its liberation on May 5 in 1945, half would die. The death toll for the whole complex remains unknown, though the figure of 200,000 is often quoted. Russian and Polish prisoners were the biggest victims, along with Jews.
|The door to the showers.|
Of the some 7,200 Spaniards who entered Mauthausen as its first large group, only 2,200 were alive by their liberation in 1945. Other groups suffered similar reductions.
Another 2,000 probably died in other camps such as Dachau and Buchenwald. Many were at the limits of their resistance and half were dead within a year. Most of the survivors who could not return to Franco’s Spain were given asylum in France.
|Bring out your dead|
Prisoners at Mauthausen, as at other camps, were forced to collect the corpses of their gassed friends and family and load them into the ovens. These "Sonderkommando" or Special Detail were at first given preferential treatment, only to be exterminated themselves after a month or two, so as not to be able to give away camp secrets in the event of their escape.
|Suicide by electric fence.|
The quarry mentioned above was the epicenter of the horror of Mauthausen. It was a dusty, noisy, dirty place that had the so-called Stairs of Death, which were 186 uneven rock-hewn steps, some up to a half a meter high, up which prisoners were forced to carry heavy granite rocks.
|The Stairs of Death, after the liberation|
It since has been replaced by 186 even steps, but even they are formidable.
|This is one of the most notorious photos of World War II. Imagine having that rock on your back and then having to wait patiently just for the chance to walk up the stairs and set it down - then walk back down and grab another.|
Countless prisoners sentenced to the "punishment kommando" were forced to carry heavy granite boulders up the steep flight of stairs, over and over, until virtually all perished.
|The stairs today.|
Six days a week, from sunrise to sunset, the prisoners were forced to extract the granite and carry the heavy stones on their back.
|Female prisoners at Mauthausen|
Thousands died on these steps, killed as punishment for being too weak or exhausted or simply because the guards thought them annoying or a threat.
|The 11th Armored Division liberated the Mauthausen camp. This photo was staged the next day, 6 May 1945, to celebrate the liberation.|
Mauthausen was finally liberated by the prisoners on May 5th 1945, the only camp to be taken this way. The Germans destroyed a lot of evidence before the liberation, though of course they could only do that with a small portion of the immense infrastructure. Photos remained, however, and preserved the reality of the horror.
|Residents of nearby Linz review photos of the camp immediately after the war.|
The Americans were welcomed with a huge banner proclaiming ‘Los españoles antifascistas saludan a las fuerzas libertadoras.’ Boix himself set to work photographing the liberation.
|Prisoners showing the Mauthausen ovens.|
Recording the Events at Mauthausen
Francesc Boix is probably not a name that you have heard. Even experts on World War II will probably be scratching their heads about that name. There isn't any reason for you to know anything about him. He was just a guy, and that is probably how he would like to be remembers - a man with no pretensions, but skills.
Boix drifted across Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, a victim of larger events, like a cork bobbing in the ocean. However, he did brave and important things that outlasted his tragically short life. Historians know that the sources they use often are as interesting as the events themselves, especially when there is only one source for huge events. The story of Boix is no exception, though it became exceptional.
The larger picture is that photos of Mauthausen's atrocious conditions have survived into present times thanks only to a couple of Spanish prisoners who smuggled about 2000 negatives out of the camp. The photos were later used at post-war trials. They are sui generis - one of a kind.
|This photo, not taken by Boix, shows him at the left, with his Leica around his neck.|
Getting back to Boix, when he was just 15 he joined the PSUC (Partit Socialista Unificat de Catalunya), the Catalan communist party. This was when the Civil War broke out in Barcelona in July 1936. He first worked for youth magazines as a photographer. Later, he volunteered as what we would call today an embedded photographer for military activities, meaning he tagged along with the troops for propaganda purposes.
He saw action on various fronts, including the Battle of the Ebro. Franco’s German-backed forces were on the ascendant and, as they closed in on Barcelona in January 1939, Boix - a communist who feared for his life under fascists - fled for the French border. He was one of hundreds of thousands of women, children that included the defeated remnants of the Republican army.
The French government at first balked at helping the refugees, but finally opened the frontier to the soldiers on February 5th. Instead of treating them as Republican brothers, though, the French immediately imprisoned the men in concentration camps. Boix himself was sent to the Septfonds Camp. Conditions were terrible, but it was better than being captured by Franco and executed.
Boix, along with many Spanish refugees, then was conscripted by the French army to build defences. He was taken prisoner in June in Belfort in northern France, from where he was transferred to a German prisoner of war camp. They claimed Spanish citizenship, but Spanish Foreign Minister Ramón Serrano Súñer, who was Franco’s brother-in-law (hence his nickname as El Cuñadísimo), disowned the Republicans. Franco and Súñer played a cynical game throughout the war, supporting Hitler just enough to avoid any glances by Hitler in Spain's direction re a possible invasion, but also avoiding provoking the Allies to do the same. This equivocation allowed the Germans to declare the Spanish refugees stateless citizens (like Jews and Gypsies), and hence to be treated however the Germans wished (with no Geneva Convention protections and so forth). It wasn't all bad for the poor souls: the few Spaniards who were deported back to Spain faced torture, concentration camps and firing squads. As far as Franco was concerned, the Germans merely helped rid him of a problem. The Germans, on the other hand, could use the free labor.
Boix was put in several camps but then, like other Republicans, ultimately was sent to Mauthausen. On their arrival, the prisoners were forced to strip and passed like cattle through showers - which fortunately for them, really were showers. Afterwards, they received striped uniform with a blue triangle used to identify foreign forced labourers. The uniforms had an ‘S’ superimposed on top, to denote not ‘Stateless’ but ‘Spanier.’
|Francisco Franco didn't want Spanish communists back, so they went to Mauthausen|
At first, Boix, who had picked up some German, was designated as a works translator. He later managed to get a job in the camp photo lab. The SS maintained meticulous records and photographed every prisoner on arrival and at their death. Boix managed to get unrestricted access to the camp, an almost unheard-of feat for a foreigner. Together with another Catalan, Antoni Garcia, Boix developed and printed photos taken by the SS. They made five copies of each, some for the files and others for SS members as mementos. Boix secretly made copies of 3,000 negatives, showing executions, mistreatment and visits by top officials.
They then smuggled the negatives to an Austrian woman, Anna Pointner, who hid them in her garden wall. Boix survived the war, but not for long. He died in Paris on June 6th 1951 from tuberculosis which he had probably caught at Mauthausen. He was only 30 years old, but he left behind indelible images.
There is a Francesc Boix public library on Carrer Blai in Poble Sec in Barcelona. Just around the corner from the library, at Margarit 19, is the Francesc Boix i Campo birthplace, born here on August 14, 1920. A plaque there states that he was “a photographer, fighter against fascism, prisoner at Mauthausen, and the only Spaniard to be called as a witness at the Nuremburg Trials against the leaders of the Third Reich”.
The town of Mauthausen dedicated a memorial to Pointner on May 9, 2015 for her "brave and exemplary" fight against the Germans. She and Boix are heroes in the fight for justice, two of many, each a shining star.