Austrian death camp to be ‘filled with trash’

Parts of the Gusen 2 Concentration Camp in Austria, almost forgotten for 64 years, are being turned into a residential development, and a former underground slave-labour factory is being filled in, local residents claim.

Tens of thousands of prisoners toiled and died in the vast underground caverns, building jet planes for the Luftwaffe. The site has remained sealed since the camp’s liberation, but redevelopment work recently began.

A document issued last year by the Task Force for International Co-operation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research, said: “It is our understanding that parts of the former concentration camp (specifically the former Gusen quarry) are slated to become landfills of trash and that other parts (two former Gusen administration buildings) will very soon be torn down. This is not acceptable.”

The Gusen Memorial Committee, which consists of local residents, estimates that at least 70 per cent of the tunnels will be destroyed if the work proceeds and that the land is being prepared for new building projects.

In August 1938, shortly after Nazi Germany annexed Austria, a concentration camp was set up by the picturesque village of Mauthausen. It rapidly became the centre of an SS-owned and controlled industrial complex, with 60 camp-factories throughout Austria providing Germany with steel, tanks, aeroplanes, cannons, machine guns, explosives, missiles and building materials.

The largest of these sub-camps was Gusen, built in May 1940. Originally, slave labourers were meant to operate the local stone quarries, and be hired out to local farmers. But in early 1944, the Germans began transferring their armaments factories, which were being bombed by the British and US air forces, to secret underground locations.

Part of the production of the Messerschmitt BF109, the most famed German warplane of World War Two, was transferred to workshops at Gusen but the most ambitious project was a huge underground hangar codenamed Bergkristall. At its peak it reached an estimated 50,000 square metres, and housed an assembly line for the Messerschmitt 262, the first jet warplane in the world to enter serial production.

Along with the V-1 and V-2 missiles, the Me-262 was one of the “wonder weapons” that Hitler believed would change the course of the war. Some 25,000 prisoners worked in round-the-clock shifts at the height of production.

By April 1945, 15 Me-262s were completed there every day. According to American estimates, 987 planes were built there in less than seven months.

The slave labourers were Jews, Soviet prisoners of wars, captured resistance fighters and political prisoners. Those who had survived Auschwitz called Gusen “the hell of hells”.

The number of deaths is estimated at 36-50,000. They were killed in mass executions, died from exhaustion, starvation, disease and in the accidents that occurred daily in the excavation of Bergkristall and on the assembly line.

On May 3, while German generals were already negotiating unconditional surrender with the Allied High Command, construction was still ongoing underground.

That night, the SS guards escaped, to be replaced by members of the Vienna fire brigade. On May 5, the US 11th Armoured Division liberated the camp.

Of the estimated 70,000 prisoners who had been sent to Gusen, only 20,000 lived to see liberation. Over the decades, survivors referred to the place as “the forgotten camp”.

After the American Army left north Austria, the area came under Soviet rule, then reverted to Austrian control in 1955. New homes were built on most of the Gusen camp site.

A group of survivors bought the plot where the crematorium stood and built a small memorial building. The Bergkristall remained sealed, though the main entrance is still visible on the mountain. Requests by survivors and the local memorial committee to open up the caverns have gone unanswered by the Austrian government.

In recent weeks, construction work has started on the hill above Bergkristall and the authorities have claimed they are filling in part of the tunnels for safety reasons.

Last updated: 4:38pm, July 2 2009