August 08, 2008

Kevin Myers: Why I wish Nazi-hunters well in search for death camp fiend

Inmates were worked to death on a daily basis
in Nazi concentration camps such as Mauthausen
Nazi-hunters from the Simon Weisenthal Centre are, apparently, close to tracking down the war criminal Aribert Heim in South America.

Now, I have mixed feelings about the Simon Weisenthal Centre. Whereas we should all applaud its pursuit of Nazi war criminals, its neglect of Soviet war criminals, whose crimes are comparable with those of the Nazis, most especially in the Baltic states, suggest that it is more interested in Jewish victimhood than Jewish culpability. This is understandable. But it should remind us not to accept the Weisenthal Centre on its own assessment of itself — a truth, of course, which applies to us all.

I certainly wish it well in its pursuit of Heim, in the year of the 70th anniversary of the place in which he murdered so freely.

The concentration camp at Mauthausen — the name is Austrian dialect for a toll-booth, and what a toll it took — was opened in 1938, having been chosen because of the granite quarries nearby. Granite, henceforth, defined Mauthausen; and whereas Auschwitz might be the quintessence of Nazi insanity, Mauthausen was the embodiment of its utter evil, for it was here that people were mass murdered by labour. The Nazis, naturally, even had an official term for it: Vernichtung Durch Arbeit — ‘extermination through work’.

Of all the grotesque barbarities of the Third Reich, one of the most bizarre was the reason for establishing the gas chambers of Auschwitz and elsewhere. The demoralising effect upon SS executioners of killing women and children, by gunfire, day after day.

But the Vernichtung Durch Arbeit principle showed no such sensitivity towards Mauthausen guards, who were apparently made of sterner than the usual SS Totenkopverbande stuff, and the very heart of their operation was the Staircase of Death.

Mauthausen's granite quarry was well below the level of the connecting road. So hods were strapped on to the backs of prisoners into which 40 kilogram granite blocks were placed. The prisoners, six abreast in unbroken columns, were made to carry their loads up the 186 steps of a steep granite staircase from the quarry to the road, with several hundred men on the staircase simultaneously.

Prisoners who faltered were beaten to death, or shot, as the others bore their loads upwards, in a slow, ghastly rhythm.

Sometimes, an exhausted prisoner, or prisoners would collapse and, falling backward down the 35 degree slope, would cause a gathering avalanche of hod, and granite and human, in which many men might be crushed or killed. That was it, dawn to dusk, the serried ranks of stripe-clad prisoners bearing their unbearable burdens upwards. The one sure escape was death, and only mankind's passionate attachment to life made such a place feasible.

Logic should have told the prisoners they could not survive, and so should turn on their guards. Yet hoping against all the evidence of their senses, they worked on, until the final escape, though exhaustion, despair, or the lash.

Yet Vernichtung Durch Arbeit was not Mauthausen's only means of ending life. SS guards used to organise races for hod-bearing prisoners up the steps. Those who came last were shot. Winners were sometimes then given the choice of pushing a fellow prisoner to his death down the steep side of the quarry, the chirpily named ‘parachutists' wall’ — Fallschirmspringerwand, or being shot themselves.

In all, for various different reasons, some 36,318 Mauthausen inmates met their end with a bullet (who else but the Nazis would keep such records? Who? Well, the Soviets, actually). This figure presumably included the 50 Jews commandant SS-Obersturmbannfuehrer Franz Ziereis gave to his son, as a birthday present, for target practice.

Actually Mauthausen was relatively unusual, for it was generously catholic in its appetites. Its toll included 47 allied aircrew who were deliberately worked to death there, as were many German Christians who refused to take the oath of allegiance to Hitler. Of the 1,000 non-Jewish Poles sent there after the Warsaw Rising, only 100 survived. Yet in this litany of butchery, there is something particularly poignant about the fate of one group of prisoners.

Many thousands of Spanish Republicans who had fled to France after Franco's victory, were still interned in camps there when France fell.

The Germans dispatched them to Mauthausen and, over the next five years, most were systematically worked to death. By January 1945, just 3,000 were still alive.

During the final four months of the war, 2,163 of the remaining Spaniards were murdered. In the heart of this hell was SS doctor Aribert Heim. At war's end, amid the utter chaos of Germany, he was able to escape, and to become a gynaecologist in Baden-Baden, until finally suspicion fell on him in the 1960s. He then — or so it is believed — fled to South America. And though Heim is certainly not the worst of the war criminals who supervised the murder machine of Mauthausen, as one the last surviving examples of the human depravity of the Third Reich, he will do.

Of the 28,000 Jews in the camp when it was liberated by US troops on April 25, 1945, 3,000 soon died. One of the surviving Jews was Simon Weisenthal.

And oh, how many Nazis were to bitterly regret that unintended oversight?

Belfast Telegraph

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