1940 - 1945

GUSEN: granite, death, remembrance and oblivion

Polish History Museum

Everyone has heard about German camps like Auschwitz or Treblinka. But very few have heard about Gusen, where more than 35 000 people were murdered. Our exhibition is a journey to hell and how the traces of it are constantly being decimated.

War and crimes
The hell of Mauthausen-Gusen was a logical result of the criminal plan executed by Adolf Hitler the very moment he took power. The first camp for people perceived as enemies by the Third Reich was created in Dachau in March 1933. Jews were treated especially viciously. World War II opened a new chapter in the tragedy. Germany invaded Poland on the 1st of September 1939. The Soviet Union attacked Poland on the 17th of September 1939. Prior to the outbreak Germans prepared lists of Poles who were supposed to be exterminated. At the beginning, as part of the so called Intelligenzaktion, 50 000 Polish citizens living in areas incorporated into the Third Reich were murdered. The so called AB Aktion in the General Governorate cost the lives of thousands of people.
Beginning and structure 
Only five months after incorporating Austria into the Third Reich, in August 1938, the SS launched a concentration camp in the vicinity of Mauthausen. Over time a network of about 100 subcamps and external commandos started emerging around the concentration camp. Gusen, operating since the 25th May 1940, was the first and the biggest subsidiary camp of Mauthausen, called “Vernichtungslager für die polnische Intelligenz” (extermination camp for the Polish intelligentsia) by the Germans. Together with Mauthausen they were concentration camps of the highest and severest category in the Third Reich. Mainly used for political prisoners, they were sent there, which effectively meant sentencing them to death. 190 000 men and women from various nations, apart from Poles, also Jews, citizens of the USSR, Third Reich, Hungary, France, Yugoslavia, Spain and Italy were deported to KL Mauthausen-Gusen till 1945.

Main gate of the Mauthausen camp: “I ask my Austrian colleague, what it actually is. And he replies: A lot of beating, working and no food”- this is how Stanisław Lada, a former prisoner, remembers arriving in the camp.

Prisoners of KL Mauthausen-Gusen had to work like slaves for German and Austrian companies producing weapons, ammunition, aircrafts and medical supplies.

The first and most important reason for choosing the vicinity of Mauthausen were the Wiener Graben granite quarries. SS bought this area and created the company DESt (German Earth&Stone Works Company).

Slave work guaranteed the SS high profits. The prisoners had to set records in working efficiency. They were treated with unimaginable cruelty.

Rock blasting in quarries in 1941. The Germans wanted to use granite to build motorways, a gigantic stadium in Nuremberg and to rebuild Berlin and Linz.

Meeting with Hitler in Obersalzberg in May 1939 regarding the reconstruction of Linz. The Führer dreamt about building monumental buildings in the city of his youth.

Gusen I – the biggest subcamp in KL-Mauthausen-Gusen with barracks and quarries in 1945. In the centre of the picture: long halls, where military equipment for the manufacturing conglomerate Steyr-Daimler-Puch AG was produced.

“We came to Gusen and we saw at once that it all looked worse than in Mauthausen,” Eugeniusz Śliwiński, a former prisoner, recalls. Gusen was located 4.5 km west from the main camp.

In the face of allied air strikes the authorities of the Third Reich decided to move the armaments production underground. The secret project of building an adit called “B8 Bergkristall” was executed in St. Georgen, east of Linz. Many prisoners died buried under sand and stone: “Those prisoners were not even salvaged from the rubble,” Tadeusz Hanuszek recalls.

Gusen II camp was created on the 9th of March 1944 to answer the needs of the “B8 Bergkristall” project. “If Gusen I was the vestibule of hell, then Gusen II was its bottom,” prisoner Jerzy Osuchowski wrote.

An underground plane factory was launched in the adits. On the 16th of December 1944 Gusen III camp was created in the city of Lungitz. In February 1945 over 26 000 prisoners were kept in Gusen.

Heinrich Himmler visiting KL Mauthausen-Gusen. Franz Ziereis, the commandant, is the third person on the right. In accordance with the rules in every German concentration camp, guards were supposed to hate prisoners as they were enemies of the Reich.

Mauthausen; the number of SS men increased along with the new wave of prisoners. In 1938 there were only 80 of them but by the end of WWII there were 9859 SS men.

In order to terrorize the thousands of deported prisoners, SS appointed so called prisoner functionaries (“Kapos”, etc.). They enjoyed a number of privileges; in the majority of cases they became dedicated tormentors and murderers of fellow prisoners.

The majority of prisoner functionaries were Germans and Austrians, mainly criminals. With time political prisoners of other nationalities also received minor functions in the camp.

The prisoners
The first transport of German and Austrian prisoners from KL Dachau arrived in Mauthausen on the 8th of August 1938. After the war broke out, transports of Polish citizens dominated. From December 1939 onwards inmates from Mauthausen were daily marched to work in the local quarry. From autumn 1941, Soviet prisoners of war were sent to KL Mauthausen-Gusen. Also, over 7,000 Spanish republicans and members of the International Brigade were held captive in the camp. Approximately 190,000 prisoners including at least 10,000 women and a couple of thousand children, went through KL Mauthausen-Gusen. A significant percentage of them were Jews. 90,000 of prisoners died. Gusen was the place where 71,000 people from 27 different countries were deported. More than 35,000 of them lost their lives. 60% of those victims came from Poland.

Identification numbers were not tattooed on the bodies of the prisoners in KL Mauthausen-Gusen. Camp badges with a number, primarily next to triangles, were sewn on prisoners uniforms. They had specific meanings indicated by colour (the reason for being arrested) and the letter, which referred to nationality.

“They told us to strip naked and they took everything.
I didn’t have anything; apart from my soul I had nothing actually.”

Born 1927. Prisoner of Mauthausen and Wiener Neudorf

The Topolewski family from Warsaw
After the beginning of the Warsaw Uprising they were transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Jan, the father (employee of the Social Insurance Institution), together with his 13-year-old son, Jan Wojciech, were transported to Mauthausen-Gusen. Jadwiga, his wife, died in Auschwitz. Jan died in Mauthausen right after its liberation. Their son came back to Poland in 1946. After many years he still remembered the moment while in quarantine his father gave him a slice of his bread saying: “This won’t change anything if I eat this slice of bread because I will die here but maybe you will survive.”

Henryk Sławik (murdered in the Mauthausen-Gusen camp in 1944) – Polish journalist, social activist, during World War II he saved the lives of many Jewish and Polish refugees in Hungary.

The legendary Polish boxer – Antoni Czortek, participant of the Olympic Games in Berlin, the European vice-champion in 1939. He fought dozens of show fights in Auschwitz-Birkenau. After being moved to Mauthausen-Gusen he had to continue boxing.

Slaves and paratroopers
“The exploitation of prisoners as a labour force was criminal and has never been known before. None of the slave owners were interested in such a quick extermination of people working for them, but the SS men followed two simultaneous goals: extermination and exploitation,” as Stanisław Dobosiewicz, prisoner of Gusen 1940-1945, wrote. The work-day lasted 11-12 hours during summer and approximately 9 hours during winter regardless the weather, often in a haste, under brutal circumstances. Prisoners of Gusen worked in quarries and in factories (mainly armament factories), forged adits in St. Georgen, built embankments along the Danube river and housing estates for the SS, but also for Austrians and Germans who worked in quarries and regulated the Gusen river.

Work in quarries was considered to be the hardest and the most dangerous. The Germans calculated prisoners to have enough strength for 3-6 months of work before dying from exhaustion.

Stone carriers
Witold Domachowski: “Whoever took a smaller stone was made to go back to the quarry, being hit all the time. Then the person was given a 60kg stone and he had no chance of bringing it back. So he died.”

Return of the Kommando from work: “When we came back to the barracks, no one started eating, everyone went to bed because we were very exhausted. Many of us slept in the corner,” father Marian Żelazek, SVD, said.

The infamous Todesstiege, the Death Stairs. 31 metres high and 186 steps. The prisoner “climbed a couple of stairs, as far as he had the strength to go. He lurched, fell down, dropped the stone and hit others,” Stefan Rzepczak said.

Todesstiege, the Death Stairs, connected the main camp with the quarry became a symbol of the nightmare of Mauthausen. Present view.

Heinrich Himmler on the Todesstiege during a visit in KL Mauthausen-Gusen in 1941.

The path from the peak of the Death Stairs to the Mauthausen camp partially led over a 50 metre high cliff. The SS men used to push the prisoners down the rocks and irreverently call them “paratroopers”.

Gusen also had its Death Stairs leading to the Kastenhofen quarry. During construction projects, prisoners had to carry stones quickly to the building site a couple of times per day while constantly being beaten by Kapos.

Next to Gusen camp there was a stone crushing mill, the so called Schottersilo, where prisoners worked without protective masks. After a couple of weeks they died due to inhaling sharp quartz dust.

The characteristic shape of the Schottersilo and the first words of the camp tango “Janeczek” depicted on a postcard made by a prisoner.

Messerschmitt factories, where fuselages for Me 262 jets were produced, were hidden in the adits. The SS received a payment from German and Austrian companies for the slave work of every prisoner.

Cleaning of the fuselage before painting. On the backside of the drawing former prisoner Stanisław Dobosiewicz wrote that the German foreman Seider was understanding for the prisoners, but sometimes he swore using the word “Kruzifix”.

Satirical painting by one of the prisoners showing the dream about making the 100th fuselage for a plane. Hazardous paints, gases and acids were used in the production process. A lot of prisoners died due to poisoning and suffocating.

Every day there were fewer and fewer of us
Every day there were fewer and fewer of us. A couple of prisoners, who got arrested in the city of Turek,  were already dead after a week. For example the brother of the Chlewski sisters, Kazimierz Chlewski, where I worked as a shop assistant, who was a clerk at the Fiscal Office. Or the teacher, Czesio Kozłowski, my father's colleague, he died very quickly…  I am not sure if he survived even one week. We were all in one barrack. One day I noticed that that one is missing and the others are missing as well...   ALBERT JUSZKIEWICZ Born 1917. Prisoner of Dachau and Gusen
Nightmare and resistance
“If one was not hit with a stick, such a day was considered a happy day, despite the hunger. Every activity - carrying stone or gather in camp groups - was one big scream, beating and murdering. If we add feral hunger after supper and an even stronger hunger in the morning, because we received only a ladle of herbs, then we really became animals.” Former prisoner Leon Ceglarz said. Chronic hunger and exhaustion, diseases, constant torment and beating, sadistic punishments, paralysing fear, lice and filth - this was everyday reality in Mauthausen-Gusen. Despite all that many prisoners resisted: “Our conspiration in the camp,” as Wacław Pilarski recalls, “was all about helping others, saving their lives. These were the most important things. The battle for survival.”

At the beginning the nutrition value of meals in German concentration camps was set at a level of 1800 calories a day; by the end of WWII it dropped to 1300 which was below any norms. In addition to that the prisoners worked tremendously hard.

Gusen prisoners right after liberation. Ludwik Kosiarski: “I was starving. If I could only get close to a human corpse... I sometimes came close to the crematorium, but there was no possibility.”

A drawing by Franciszek Znamirowski, entitled “Dreaming about a replete Easter Holiday”. Food was one of the most popular topics of discussion and dreams.

This drawing depicts lunch in the Messerschmitt hall. It is entitled: “A sad muselman" (from the German word Muselmann). That was the term for extremely exhausted prisoners, who were close to starvation.

Jean Bernard Aldebert depicted a moment of barter in Gusen II. Food was most valuable. Józef Szkuta: “This was a kind of hunger that is difficult to imagine because there is no such hunger in freedom.”

A barrack (block) in Gusen had two chambers, A and B. Between them there was a room for the block leader, a writer and a hairdresser. By the end of WWII, two or even more prisoners slept on the same level of the wooden cot.

Barrack of the so called Revier, the camp hospital of Gusen. The majority of the medical personnel consisted of political prisoners, who tried to protect and save others at any price.

Anamatopathological unit; the Germans documented cases which were “interesting” to them and conducted pseudo medical experiments. At the same time there was not enough medicine in “Revier” and wounds were bandaged with concrete bags.

The daily routine was determined by the ring of a bell with the inscription: Regardless if day or night/Always with consideration/The sound of the bell resonates/-A sign/Your duty starts.” Prisoners took the bell to Poland after the war.

“You will not have any more lice!” The inscription on the drawing by a prisoner says. Prisoners were poured with cold water in the baths, especially during winter in order to torment them. Later they had to stand naked outside for hours.

Flogging punishment. You could receive punishment for a missing button, holding hands in pockets during frost, or an unevenly made bed. After the punishment the tormented prisoners very often died.

Another form of tormenting prisoners were senseless and exhausting physical exercises. In the picture: Appellplatz of the Mauthausen camp.

Punishment, the so called standing post: “I was hung only once and only for 5 minutes. It is difficult to describe the pain; I felt as if my arms were ripped out of my joints.” Stanisław Nogaj recalls.

Prisoners from KL Mauthausen-Gusen were sometimes transported and murdered in a gas chamber of the euthanasia centre in Hartheim. The ill ones were murdered with injections consisting of gasoline, phenol or hydrogen peroxide.

Many survived thanks to camp solidarity. The picture presents the paint shop of the Messerschmitt works. The foreman left for 10 minutes so the prisoners warm themselves near the furnace. One of them stands to watch.

A drawing by the prisoner Zbigniew Filarski. Illegally created sketches, poems and songs all were elements of the resistance. There also was a choir in Gusen and lectures were organised. Such activities were punishable by death.

For Lent 1945 prisoners prepared a special camp version of the Way of The Cross. Priests imprisoned in Mauthausen-Gusen supported other prisoners by holding masses and confessions in secrecy.

Ash dice - urns from Gusen - were made of granite from the quarries, wood from the gibbet and plastic from a shot down plane. After war, prisoners assembled the dice into a rosary.

Before the liberation in March 1945, the prisoners organised a secret competition to choose the badge of the Gusen prisoner. The project of Teodor Bursche, an architect, won.

Crime and liberation
“Prisoners died from bullets, clubs, hanging, gas, poison, electricity, starvation, buried alive, burnt alive, stoned to death, ran over by trains, pushed off cliffs and so on,” Stanisław Nogaj, prisoner of Gusen from 1940, remembers. The doctors stated “approximately 80 types of sudden death”. At least 90 thousand men and women of over 40 nationalities were murdered in KL Mauthausen-Gusen. Polish citizens were the largest group: over 51.000 prisoners, over 25.000 victims. US Army soldiers reached KL Mauthausen-Gusen on the 5th of May 1945. 40.000 survivors waited for their liberators. In the following days many prisoners died due to grogginess, chronic hunger and diseases.

Very often prisoners in Mauthausen and Gusen commited suicide, going - as it was said in the camp jargon - “on the wires”. “The moment the body hit the fence generated a tremendous electrical discharge, a horrific noise.” Aldo Carpi recalls.

A transportation list to Mauthausen from January 1941. Prisoners crossed off the list and marked with the letter “G” were transported to Gusen. Out of the 8 Poles mentioned, only one survived.

Crematory furnace in Gusen. Telesfor Matuszak: “120 people could be burnt daily. It was horrific when in 1941 a lot of Soviet prisoners of war were transported to the camp. We worked day and night.”

Baths in Gusen. SS men and prisoner functionaries drowned prisoners in flumes filled with water.

“Drowning of prisoners” – watercolour painting by Maksymilian Chmielewski.

Death toll in KL Mauthausen-Gusen.
Before the transport left to Dachau, one of the Kapos warned a Polish prisoner, Albert Juszkiewicz, that MAUThausen in fact is MORDhausen (English: MURDERhouse).

Mauthausen-Gusen was liberated in May 1945.

“People started jumping, dancing... this was the most precious moment - we are free! It was as if a dog would be unleashed from its chain. It starts running wild.” Lech Grześkowiak remembers.

Barracks of Gusen II Camp in flames after liberation

Hospital room in Gusen. Poles save a companion from Italy, who sliced his throat with a razor on the day the camp was liberated. Picture from the archive of Stanisław Dobosiewicz.

“My bed was close to the window, and the windows oversaw the crematorium, where piles of corpses were laying, because they couldn’t keep up with burning them. Suddenly an American tank entered the camp.” Jan Chodakowski recalls.

Rescue and devastation
In the summer of 1945 the premises of the former camp were taken over by Soviet occupiers, who then transported all functioning industrial machinery back to the Soviet Union. Until the Soviet Army left Austria in 1955, the quarries were still being exploited. With time Austrian authorities started selling camp objects to private people. All signs of Gusen would have been gone if prisoners from Poland, France, Italy or Belgium would not have taken action. Their toughness and encouragement made it possible to prevent moving the crematory furnace to Mauthausen and building a housing estate instead. In 1965, thanks to former prisoners the KZ Gusen Memorial was established. The Austrian Ministry of Internal Affairs overtook custody of the Memorial in 1997. Today, Gusen is not only a symbol of tragic history, but also a shocking example of how easy it is to destroy remembrance (photo: A group of former prisoners standing in front of the Jourhaus, before it was sold to a private owner).
Jourhaus or Schuhhaus was the building containing gate to the Gusen camp and its headquaters. Prisoners were tortured and murdered in the basements. In 1965, Austrian authorities sold the Jourhaus to the Langenstein commune. Initially it was supposed to be a kindergarten. At present the Jourhaus is a private villa. By the way, in times of the Third Reich the building around the main gate of Dachau was also called Jourhaus. Today it is the entrance to the Memorial Site.

Already at the time when the camp existed, the characteristic shape of Jourhaus was a symbol of Gusen. This is shown on a postcard made by a prisoner.

Schottersilo, stone grinding mill – right after liberation

Schottersilo, stone grinding mill – contemporary view

Ruins of the crematorium. A photograph taken by Madame Simone Bonnet, daughter of a French prisoner. She received permission from the Soviet authorities to enter the premises of the former camp.

Gusen Memorial – established thanks to funds from former prisoners and their families, contemporary view.

The bodies of those murdered who the SS did not manage to burn, were buried after the liberation of Gusen.

After ten years, the Austrian authorities liquidated the graveyard in Gusen.
The remains were transported to the Mauthausen Memorial Site.

“Building land for sale. Information: Langenstein commune office”. Former prisoners documented what happened to the post-camp premises. A picture from Stanisław Dobosiewicz’s archives, camp prisoner number 166.

In June 2016, representatives of groups and institutions in charge of keeping the remembrance of crimes committed during WWII demanded from Austrian authorities “to stop further devastation of remains of KL Gusen”.

At the beginning we wanted to be far away from all this - from the camp. But no… it all comes back. Now, as I am retired, thoughts about the camp are coming back.
I can’t free myself from it.

Born 1931. Prisoner of Auschwitz, Mauthausen and Gusen

Polish History Museum
Credits: Story

Script and concept of the exhibition:
Marek Zając, Dariusz Pawłoś (Fundacja Polsko-Niemieckie Pojednanie)

Jette Helberg (German, English), Brandon Lewis (English), Witold Milczarek (English), Monika Partyka (English), David Rojkowski (German)

Some of quotes used in the exhibition were collected within the project “The Mauthausen Survivors”. Part of them has been shortened and minor corrections have been applied, always preserving the original meaning.
Jette Helberg, Ingeborga Jaworska-Róg, Brandon Lewis, Monika Partyka, Dariusz Pawłoś

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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