Tunnel Horror (Extract)

A visit to a former Nazi slave-labor camp set in an idyllic resort area in Upper Austria

10ebenarch (photo credit: Reuven Rosenfelder)
(photo credit: Reuven Rosenfelder)
Extract from an article in Issue 10, September 1, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Planning a summer vacation in Austria, I wrote away for information from the tourism office of the Salzkammergut region in Upper Austria. This region offers the visitor a vista of craggy mountains, lush valleys and sparkling blue lakes. Picturesque towns dot the landscape and vacationers can pick from any number of activities. In the good old days, the mustachioed Kaiser Franz Joseph made the town of Bad Ischl, now a three-hour drive on the main highway, his summer home away from Vienna. A brochure arrived in the mail. As I leafed through color pages listing scenic spots and special sites, one struck a jarring note: "The Ebensee Concentration Camp Memorial." I would not have known about Ebensee from a popular Israeli guidebook for Austria, republished in 2007. Describing the area, the author advises that there is "no interest, no need to spend time, unless you wish to ascend by cable car to the Feuerkogel, 1,594 meters." But I do make it a point to visit these locations. For me, it is the most tangible way to fathom the enormity of the Nazi concentration camp project. And so, on a drizzly summer day, I became familiar with the story of Ebensee, a peaceful town of 8,500 at the southern end of a large lake. Ebensee is not widely known among the infamous sites linked to the Nazi era. There are three World War II-related sites in Ebensee: the former camp grounds with two mass graves turned into a memorial site; an immense man-made tunnel in the nearby mountainside, dug by slave laborers from the camp to aid the German war machine; and a small museum in the center of town devoted to 20th-century history (Zeitgeschichte Museum Ebensee). "We had close to 8,000 visitors to the tunnels last year," museum director Wolfgang Quatember, who is also responsible for the other sites, tells The Jerusalem Report. "Four thousand came to the museum, and thousands more visited the camp memorial, but we don't have a count as there is no regulated entrance." Almost two-thirds are school students, he says, who come to learn about Austria's role in the war. Born a generation after the Nazi defeat, Dr. Quatember, 47, grew up and still lives at a small village near Ebensee. "After the war no one felt responsible for maintaining the remnants of the camp," he says. "Indeed, people were striving to do away with the remains, along with the memories." Yet, he continues, a few years ago, some people in Austria began to re-examine the country's record as a close and committed ally of Nazi Germany's regime. They sought to create awareness and discussion, rather than the denial and distancing that have marked the decades after the war. It is still an issue, but it is out in the open. Why burden ourselves with that long-gone horrible time, some Austrians would say. But Quatember notes that others feel that the disturbing record must be dealt with and made known to a younger generation. Thus, for the time in 1988, a commemorative event related to the camp was arranged by the town of Ebensee. It was a change, from looking away to acknowledging a site that is undeniably part of its past. Of the concentration camp where inmates were imprisoned nothing remains except the gray concrete entrance gate, still arching over the road. A residential neighborhood has since sprung up there, but in its midst the mass graves, hurriedly dug into the ground just before liberation, are now a dignified memorial monument. Two tanks from a squadron of the U.S. Third Army drove through the camp's gate on May 6, 1945, to free the horde of skeleton-like human beings still alive. By that time, some 18,500 persons had been compressed into the camp. Jews, according to Quatember, made up one-third of the camp, but they were only one group in a mix of inmates - prisoners of war, political, criminal, Russians, Poles, Czechoslovaks, Gypsies. Some 20 nationalities made up this mass of human muscle, from which the Nazi system extracted the last bit of energy. "The Jews were treated more harshly," he notes. "Toward the end, their number increased to 40 percent." Soon after the war, investigators began to collect statements. "The Jews, who were so weak they could not walk to the construction site, had to stand outside their barracks in all kinds of weather, many half-naked, so they would catch pneumonia to hasten their end," said an eye-witness in September 1945. During the war, the Nazis coerced legions of slave laborers into impossible missions. By the end of 1943, Allied aerial strikes had forced the Germans to dig out subterranean installations to maintain their war production. Creating hidden sites became an engineering and construction priority for German and, no less, for Austrian firms. Prisoners were deployed as a ready workforce. Headed by Heinrich Himmler, the SS was in put in charge. The Nazi leadership designated Ebensee as the site (codenamed "Zement") to carry on with Germany's rocketry program, as British bombers had badly damaged the dreaded V-2 rocket facility at Peenemuende. However, Ebensee was used not for rocket work but for the production of components for tanks and trucks. It was a "sub-camp" of the notorious Mauthausen concentration camp near Linz, a major Austrian city, an hour's drive from Ebensee today. During the war, Mauthausen sprouted some 40 sub-camps in the entire region. The first work contingent was sent to Ebensee in November 1943. A concentration camp - barracks, fences, guard towers - was put up on a forested tract adjacent to the town. It could not be kept secret. "We were aware that several times a week contingents of men would arrive at the train station during the night," a local woman recalled years later. Extract from an article in Issue 10, September 1, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.