Steyr’s dark past

The scene of a fun jazz festival bears some heavy historical baggage.

The Tunnel of Memory, which commemorates some of the local Holocaust victims (photo credit: BARRY DAVIS)
The Tunnel of Memory, which commemorates some of the local Holocaust victims
(photo credit: BARRY DAVIS)
About a month ago I visited the picturesque Austrian town of Steyr. The principal motive for the foray was a fun three-day jazz festival.
I travel to Austria several times a year.
I have friends in Vienna and am drawn to the capital city, with its magnificent imperial architecture, pleasant boulevards and parks and rich array of cultural venues.
I also feel a bond with Austria because of my personal history with the Holocaust.
My mother, Ruth, was born in Vienna and lived with her parents, sisters and brother on Hollandstrasse, in the Second District, not far from the Donau Canal, a man-made tributary of the Danube River. She escaped from the Nazi terror with her two older sisters, to Britain on the first Kindertransport out of Vienna, in December 1938. Her parents and younger brother – and a sister who was born while her parents were in hiding in Belgium, and whom my mother never met and did not even know had existed until much later – all perished in the Holocaust.
So, for me, the horrors of the Shoah are never far from my mind and heart when I am in Austria. They surfaced in Steyr, too. Before getting into the jazzy grooves proffered by festival director Peter Guschelbauer’s entertaining lineup, I met with Karl Ramsmaier, an Austrian Catholic theologian, who for the past 28 years has spent much of his spare time working with Mauthausen Komitee Steyr to commemorate Holocaust victims from the area. Ramsmaier’s Holocaust- related endeavor was sparked when, as a student, he wrote a thesis on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor and theologian who spoke out against Nazi tyranny and was arrested by the Gestapo in 1943 and sent to a concentration camp. He was executed by the Nazis in April 1945.
The name (Mauthausen Komitee Steyr) of the team, which comprises 15 local Roman Catholics, comes from the fact that there was a subcamp of the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp located just outside the town.
The inmates of Steyr-Münichholz outlet were largely skilled workers who were exploited to produce arms for the Steyr-Daimler-Puch corporation factories, and also to build air-raid bunkers in Steyr to keep the locals safe from Allied bombing.
The subcamp was established following a request by Steyr-Daimler-Puch general manager Georg Meindl, for approval from high-ranking SS officer Ernst Kaltenbrunner, to establish a satellite prison camp so that the manufacturing company could exploit slave labor. One of the tunnels built by the subcamp workers, as an air-raid shelter, today houses the Tunnel of Memory, which charts the Nazis’ rise to power, and the Anschluss in 1938, and commemorates some of the local Holocaust victims, including non-Jewish slave laborers.
The well-crafted subterranean facility was opened in 2013 and received the prestigious German Design Award from the Frankfurt-based Design Council.
The local Jewish community did not account for much of the town’s population and, according to Ramsmaier, peaked at around 200 in the late 19th century, out of a total population of around 25,000. Many originated from Czechoslovakia and were drawn to Steyr by the possibility of getting involved in the well-established local iron industry. The community had the services of a single synagogue, which operated between 1894 and 1938, and is now a restaurant. Thanks to the efforts of Ramsmaier and his colleagues in Mauthausen Komitee Steyr there is, today, a memorial plaque outside the nondescript corner building which serves as testament to the building’s Holocaust connection.
“The building was not destroyed because it was given to a Nazi,” explains Ramsmaier. “He, of course, destroyed anything to do with the synagogue inside.”
We crossed the bridge that spans the confluence of two rivers – the Steyr and the Enns – overlooked by the impressive twin-towered baroque St. Michael’s Church, which was built in the mid-17th century. We climbed up a steep path that leads up the hill to the Jewish cemetery. The burial ground is not open to all and sundry, possibly due to the fact that the sign outside the gates was defaced by neo-Nazis shortly after renovation work on the cemetery was completed last year. The compact site contains 144 graves and a memorial to the local Holocaust victims.
Eighty-six members of the diminutive Steyr community were killed, while the others managed to flee Austria – to Australia, North America and elsewhere.
The oldest grave dates from 1874, and the most recent from shortly after the end of World War II, containing the remains of DPs.
The Steyr-Münichholz subcamp was located just three kilometers outside town, and some of the prisoners worked in Steyr, so the local inhabitants must have known about the camp.
“A lot of people knew about it but, after the war, they said we didn’t do anything,” Ramsmaier notes. “The people of the town did not go near the camp, because of the SS.”
Ramsmaier and his colleagues are doing their best to make sure that present- day townsfolk know about local Jewish history, including what went on during the Holocaust.
“We have been working on this for more than 27 years,” he says. “We have workshops, and concerts with Jewish music. This is very important.”
The hill overlooking Steyr also contains another chilling, albeit anonymous, reminder of those dark times.
The abandoned nondescript building, which has no plaque outside alluding to its inglorious past, served as a crematorium for the early inmates of the Mauthausen concentration camp.
“[The remains of] 4,600 prisoners of Mauthausen were cremated here,” says Ramsmaier.
“They brought them by trucks. Mauthausen had a crematorium from May 1940, and the camp was built in 1938. Mauthausen was only 22 kilometers away from here.”
Nothing now remains of Steyr-Münichholz. The last barracks building was destroyed in 1993, by the owner of the land, much to the consternation of historians, and, naturally, of Ramsmaier and the other members of Mauthausen Komitee Steyr.
“We protested. We wanted to make a memorial there, but the problem was money. He wanted money for the property, and if it became a memorial he wouldn’t get any money,” Ramsmaier explains.
Steyr traces its origins back to around 600 BCE, when Celts settled there. In the interim, several notables made their home there, including early-19th-century poet and librettist Johann Mayrhofer – a close friend of Franz Schubert – and novelist and short story writer Erich Hackl. The list also includes some who belong firmly in the infamy category, such as local Nazi party leader August Eigruber, who was hanged in 1947, and a certain Adolf Hitler who attended the local high school, the Bundesrealgymansium.
To the right of the imposing entrance to the school one can clearly see troubling evidence of the long-maintained Austrian ethos that fueled the official view that Austria was the first victim of Nazism – a stance that began changing only 20 or so years ago. The marble plaque is dedicated to a Prof. Gregor Goldbacher, an acclaimed writer who died in 1950 at the age of 75.
“He was a teacher of Hitler and he wanted the occupation,” says Ramsmaier, referring to the Anschluss. “He wrote a poem to Hitler in 1938.”
The Mauthausen Komitee Steyr responded to the tribute to the – at the very least – Nazi sympathizer educator by installing a metal plaque to the school’s students who perished in the Holocaust. The nine names include that of Josef Sommer who, says Ramsmaier, was a friend of Hitler’s during the latter’s brief stay at the school.
That childhood friendship did not help Sommer. He died in Izbica, Poland, in 1942.