Austria has had a complicated history regarding its participation in World War II. After their defeat in World War I, popular opinion in Austria, now solely the small German-speaking part without the rest of its empire to rely on, felt it necessary to join another country, the obvious choice being Germany, to survive. However, such a union was banned under the Treaty of Versailles.
In 1938, Austria voted in favour of joining with Germany under the direction of Hitler; during this time the Chancellor of Austria, Kurt Schuschnigg, was forced resign. On March 12, Hitler crossed the border into Austria and made his way to Vienna, completing the Anschluss. All along the way he was met by celebratory crowds. Not long after, the process of Aryanisation began and concentration camps constructed, including that of Mauthausen, which we visited as a class excursion (I will talk about this more in a few paragraphs).
This participation is often forgotten in Austrian history. Looking at it from an American viewpoint, the Austria of World War II most people are exposed to is that from Sound of Music. Here the true Austrians are those who resist while only the young and comically evil support the Nazis. Another reason for this lack of responsibility is due to the Moscow Declaration of 1943. Here, it was written that “Austria, the first free country to fall a victim to Hitlerite aggression, shall be liberated from German domination.” Though the agreement also includes that “Austria is reminded, however that she has a responsibility, which she cannot evade, for participation in the war on the side of Hitlerite Germany, and that in the final settlement account will inevitably be taken of her own contribution to her liberation,” only the first quote is often remembered. It was not until the 1970s that all of the above, especially Austria’s history of concentration camps, began to be taught in schools.
The hub of a large group of concentration camps in Austria, Mauthausen was built a few miles outside of Linz in the late 1930s following the Anschluss. The site was chosen due to its granite quarry (much of the stone from here ended up in Vienna due to an agreement the city had with the Nazis). To get the stone out of the quarry, prisoners were forced to carry the stones, often weighing over 100 pounds, up 186 stairs (“Stairs of Death), one right after another; if one collapsed there was a domino effect.
Today, the camp features memorials from many different countries and organizations who had people imprisoned here. In the former gas chambers, written in stone, are the names of everyone who was recorded as being killed here along with pictures and other pieces of identification or memories that families brought.
The following Monday after the visit, we went to the local Synagogue to speak with Marko Feingold, a 103-year-old Holocaust survivor. He told his life story in German, which was then translated into English by Lukas, our teacher for Understanding Austria.
Originally from Vienna, Mr. Feingold spent a few years working with his brother in Italy, becoming pretty fluent in the language. When their passports were close to expiring, however, they were required to return to Vienna. While they were in the city, the Anschluss occurred. The brothers were arrested for being Jewish and tortured for a week to try to get information about where their father was. At the end of the ordeal, the police had them write a letter to their father, who was away on business. They were told no one would look at what the brothers wrote, the assumption being they had been tortured enough to answer truthfully. Instead, the brothers wrote a warning to stay away and were released under the condition they leave the country within 24 hours. The father would later die during the bombings in Poland.
The brothers fled to the Czech Republic where they worked for a while before getting kicked out for having invalid passports. They then bought forged Polish papers and crossed the border. These were realistic enough, however, for the Polish military to come and recruit them for the war. Not knowing any Polish, they told the military to come back in about three months when they would know more of the language and be of some use to the military. The military accepted this and left while the brothers promptly fled back to the Czech Republic.
It was here the brothers were arrested and sent to a series of concentration camps including Dachau, Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Neuengamme. Mr. Feingold showed pictures other survivors had drawn of their time in the camps, along with telling of his own experience. Once selected for a skin transplant experiment due to the sores on his feet, it was total luck these wounds ended up shrinking the night before, leaving them too small for the doctor to bother working on. The other nine prisoners chosen all died from this experiment. Mr. Feingold’s brother also died in one of these camps.
After the camp was liberated, Austria did not want to claim the survivors. Mr. Feingold and a number of other survivors rented a bus and drove it to Vienna; the city denied them entrance, however, and the buses were sent back to the camp. On the way back, Mr. Feingold decided to get off in Salzburg and start anew.
Here, he began to rebuild the Jewish community. He spent the first few years working with refugees to get them across the border to Italy where they could take a boat to Israel. This walk is carried out every year in memory. Though over 100 years old, he still works actively within the community to share the history of anti-Semitism in Austria in the hopes the past will not repeat itself.