Village sits atop remnants of grisly Nazi labor camp

June 10, 2007|By Tom Hundley | Tom Hundley,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

GUSEN, Austria -- Garden Street, Flower Street, Park Street. The bland names can be found in any Austrian village. The solid, two-story houses that line these streets, the BMWs in the driveways, the neatly trimmed hedges, potted geraniums and inevitable garden gnomes speak of contented middle-class normality.

A few residents always knew the truth, but they chose to ignore it, or at least not to dig too deeply into it. Occasionally, when they dug in their backyards to install swimming pools, they were startled to find human skeletons.

But even then there was a reluctance to confront the fact that their comfortable suburban community was built on the remains of one of Nazi Germany's most dreadful concentration camps.

Few people outside academic circles have heard of Gusen. It is not nearly as well known as the infamous Mauthausen camp, four miles away, even though Gusen was larger, claimed more victims and, in the Nazi scheme of things, was far more important.

Christoph Mayer, a 32-year-old artist who spent a happy childhood in this community, thinks it is time to confront the reality.

His specialty is interactive art, and he has designed an audio tour during which visitors walking through Gusen can listen on headphones to the recollections of survivors, townspeople who watched the terrible events unfold and camp guards who perpetrated the crimes.

Visitors walking through the quiet village learn that an elegant mansion with a distinctive masonry archway, now occupied by a wealthy local family, was once SS headquarters and that political prisoners were tortured and killed in the basement.

They also learn that a comfortable, one-story home with a fine stone porch once served as the camp brothel, where female inmates were forced to work. Male slave laborers whose diligence pleased their masters were rewarded with brothel privileges.

Some local residents are unhappy with Mayer's project. Several have put up no-trespassing signs.

"People are worried about their property values," said Ferdinand Naderer, a former deputy mayor. "They are worried that if a lot of visitors are coming here to look at their houses, they will be made to feel guilty for living here."

Naderer, 57, an engineer whose house is directly across from the sealed-up entrance of the camp's vast underground industrial complex, said he supports the project.

"I do. I'm even proud to live on this devastating field of horror where the grass has literally grown over our history. I think we can use this project to show that evil can be overcome by good things like liberal democracy and hard work," he said.

Unlike Auschwitz-Birkenau or Treblinka, Gusen was not built for genocide. It was a camp where the slave laborers who supplied the Nazi war machine were worked to death. An estimated 37,000 died there.

Frau Traude, whose voice is heard on Mayer's audio walk, was 11 when the SS arrived to establish the camp a few yards from her village.

"We were quite smitten with the Germans because they were so nice and sweet," said Traude, 80, who asked that her last name not be used because she still lives in the area.

She was less smitten a few years later when she witnessed the massacre of children who were tied up in cloth sacks and heaved against a stone wall.

In its final phase, the Gusen site housed production facilities for a new Messerschmitt jet plane.

"It was the second-biggest and most important underground plant for Nazi Germany, and the Messerschmitt project was the last hope of Hitler and SS commander Heinrich Himmler for turning the tide of the war," said Rudolf Haunschmied , a local resident.

As a boy in the 1970s, Haunschmied played in the abandoned underground complex. Later, as an amateur historian, he unlocked many of Gusen's secrets. His work inspired Mayer's project.

Gusen was liberated by the U.S. Army on May 5, 1945. By that time, days before the German surrender, it had become an overcrowded transit camp for prisoners from Auschwitz and other camps that the Nazis were evacuating as the Soviet army approached.

The Americans were stunned by the mountains of corpses, the emaciated prisoners and the rampant disease. U.S. Army Lt. Col. Milton Keach took command of the area and immediately ordered residents of Gusen to be rounded up and brought into the camp to see the crimes that had been committed in their name.

The men of Gusen were ordered to dig the mass graves and place the corpses in the ground. The women were ordered to cover the bodies with dirt. Traude, 18 at the time, was among the women who performed this task.

"My mother and I had to shovel soil onto the bodies," she said in an interview last week. "We tried to look away, but the soldiers wouldn't let us. They grabbed our heads and forced us to look."

A few weeks later, the Americans handed command of the area to the Soviet army.

Tom Hundley writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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