Monday, 6 April 2015


Living outside the gates of Mauthausen        

In the Shadow of Death: Living Outside the Gates of ... › Books › History › Military History › War Crime
In the Shadow of Death: Living Outside the Gates of Mauthausen 
by Gordon J.Horwitz (ISBN: 9781850433392) from Amazon's Book 

Over the years since World War 2, there has been silence on the matter of the response of German people to the cruel annihilation of the Jews at the hands of the German SS.

We read that the German people did not know of the genocide taking place just outside their towns and villages. We have heard of the concentration camps of Auschwitz, Dachau, Treblinka and more but never the camp at Mauthausen, described by the author as the worst of all extermination camps.

Townsfolk across Germany and Austria  did not understand the smoke billowing from chimney stacks and had no idea that these were crematoria burning daily for thousands of dead Jews, Slavs and politicals. They did not see the columns of starving, ragged inmates straggling though their town to slave in tunnels, mines and buildings under construction.

They did not see the cruel bashings by capo and SS guards beating prisoners fallen dying by the side of the road. We are all tempted to judge the lack of morality of the German and Austrian people. There were no hospital facilities for inmates as they were meant to die. They were not to be given water or food if they cried out for help.

But I have just read a book by Horwitz entitled In the Shadow of Death, the detailed account of the the concentration camp built with Jewish and other slave labour just outside the town of Mauthausen, a lovely Austrian village on the Danube River, blessed by a Benedictine Abbey with a history going back centuries.

The site for a concentration camp was chosen by Heinrich Himmler for the deep quarry outside the town that could produce hundreds of thousands of granite blocks to be chiselled by inmates and carried to the waiting transport. The townsfolk saw nothing.

But the horror of this camp was in the several dozen pages in this book devoted to the cruelty of the capos and SS guards towards the inmates who were there to die. They were starved, unwashed, freezing in the winter cold, and died in the hundreds each week. A person dying on the work site was not helped but bashed or shot.

I spent the first hundred pages feeling contempt for the towns people who saw nothing. But as the book wore on, it was obvious that these folk were horrified and afraid that they would suffer the same fate. They were under constant watch by the SS guards and warned not to look to left or right but straight ahead.

They were not to ask questions of anyone. There was to be no discussion of any kind. Those who breached this rule found themselves arrested and imprisoned in the camp to die the same fate. After the war, the people knew nothing, still traumatised by the horror forced on their town. They did not trust anyone.

There were people in the town who quietly gave help by leaving food or water by the side of the road. Few others hid escaped inmates in their homes, knowing at all times that a knock on the door by SS officers and a troop of guards would spell the end of their family, death and the loss of their home and possessions.

The final report on the Mauthausen camp came with the arrival of American soldiers after the D-Day invasion. They were horrified and revolted by the dying, filthy, starving, stinking and disease ridden masses of humanity who flooded through the gates begging for food, water and cigarettes. The camp stank of death.

The town people shrank away from liberation by the allies. They wanted only for the horror to go away and for them to go back to their normal lives if they could. So many town people saw nothing even though the camp employed hundreds as typists, cooks, drivers and capos.

They saw nothing but their own narrow field of view that came from looking straight ahead. I was too busy repairing shoes to notice anything. I saw nothing as a busy tailor. You see, I had so many orders for suits.

The reality was pointed out that the Third Reich set up concentration camps and surrounded the site with factories to support the war effort. Munitions factories were set up in the vicinity of camps to take advantage of the slave labour.

I am glad that Mr Horwitz did not place full blame on the town people. Why should they sacrifice their lives and those of their families when they could do nothing to help the humanity locked away to death? Towns people were helpless bystanders suffering a death machine that had descended on their town.

But he did report on villagers who found escaped inmates in their houses and shot them while they begged for their lives. The painter boasted in the local inn of his killing of six inmates hiding in his house.

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