Mauthausen Liberation

Prisoners cheer 11th Armored Division on May 6, 1945

The photograph above was taken on May 6, 1945, the day after the official liberation of the Mauthausen main camp. It shows prisoners surrounding an M8 Greyhound armored car. According to Pierre Serge Choumoff, the liberation of Mauthausen, as shown in the photo above, was reenacted for photographers at the request of General Dwight D. Eisenhower. The Nazi eagle over the gate had already been removed by the prisoners and a banner, written in Spanish, had been put up by the Spanish political prisoners. The English translation reads "The Spanish Anti-Fascists Salute the Liberating Forces."

These prisoners were Spanish Republicans who had fought against General Francisco Franco's Fascist forces in the Spanish Civil War and had escaped to France when the Republicans lost the war. The Spanish Republicans were interned by the French and later, when the Germans defeated France in 1940, they were incarcerated as political prisoners because they were opposed to the Nazis. Germany had fought on the side of Franco in the Spanish Civil War, which was a war between the Fascists and the Communists. For the anti-Fascist Spanish Republicans, Mauthausen has the same significance as Auschwitz does for the Jews.

On May 5, 1945, the date usually given for the official liberation of the Mauthausen main concentration camp, a platoon of 23 men from the 11th Armored Division of the US Third Army, led by Staff Sgt. Albert J. Kosiek, arrived at the main camp near the town of Mauthausen. They were guided there by Louis Haefliger, a Red Cross representative in the camp, and two German soldiers, after first liberating the Gusen sub-camp, 6 kilometers to the west.

Haefliger had taken it upon himself to go out and find American soldiers fighting in the area. He brought them first to the Gusen sub-camp because of the rumors that Hitler had instructed Ernst Kaltenbrunner to give the order to kill all the prisoners by blowing them up in the underground tunnels of the munitions factories there.

After the prisoners in the Gusen sub-camp were released by the American liberators, fighting broke out among the inmates and over 500 of the prisoners were brutally killed by their fellow inmates, according to Sgt. Kosiek. The platoon of American soldiers was unable to control the released prisoners, so they left the Gusen camp and proceeded to the main camp, where the Communist prisoners were already organized into an International Committee that was ready to take control.

According to Manuel Razola and Mariano Constante, two Spanish inmates at Mauthausen who wrote a book called "Triangle Blue," in the last days of the war, the prisoners had formed an International Committee, which took over the camp as soon as the American liberators arrived on May 5, 1945. Razola and Constante are quoted by Christian Bernadac in his book "The 186 Steps." According to their story, "The international committee had taken the decision to execute the most criminal SS and common-law elements." On the night that the camp was liberated, the international committee killed 8 of the Kapos in the camp and 6 of the SS officers.

The photograph below shows the anti-Fascist political prisoners pulling down the hated Nazi symbol on May 6, 1945. The privileged political prisoners at Mauthausen and the other camps were allowed to wear civilian clothes and "workers' caps" which identified them as Communists. This photo was also a reenactment.

Nazi eagle being pulled down by Mauthausen survivors, May 6, 1945

According to Louis Haefliger, most of the regular SS guards had left before the Americans arrived and Captain Kern of the Schutzpolizei (protection police) of Vienna had replaced Commandant Franz Ziereis on the night of May 2-3, 1945. The Vienna police occupied the guard posts, assisted by a few old men and young boys of the Volksstrum; most of the SS men had escaped to an island on the Danube river and only a few of them had remained to help in guarding the camp.

The following account, written by Louis Haefliger, the Red Cross representative, is quoted in a book entitled "The 186 Steps," by Christian Bernadac:

During the following days I talked with Ziereis about the exact situation prevailing in the camp: lack of bread, clothing, shoes and a dreadful shortage of linens. The camp at Mauthausen was overcrowded, and the camps of Gusen I and II filled beyond human limits. There were as many as five sick men to a narrow camp bed. There were sixty thousand human beings - men, women and children. Ziereis no longer knew where to turn...He speeded up the work of annihilation as much as he could. The Krematorium chimney smoked day and night. The sanitary conditions were at the lowest imaginable level. They were dying of hunger. Ziereis made believe that he was touched by this himself. He put on a self-pitying air, this man with whom I had to take my meals, this monster who once had a truck full of cadavers driven in front of his wife's window, to boast about his work.

[...]

At the stroke of noon, May 5, 1945, all the SS had been disarmed, as well as the Volksstrum militia and the reinforcements of Vienna firemen. Chaos prevailed in the camp. The prisoners invaded the kitchens and pillaged the Kommandantur. The men rigged themselves out in several pairs of pants and fought over the tins of food. There was an unimaginable turbulence. Suddenly freed, these prisoners behaved like a horde of savages. It took some time to get the camp to calm down a bit. I thought about my own belongings in my room. Everything had disappeared: trunk, clothing, linens.

Robert Abzug wrote in his book, "Inside the Vicious Heart," that after Commandant Franz Ziereis handed over the administration of the camp on May 2, 1945 to a captain in the Vienna Police, leaving only a small group of SS men to help guard the camp, the prisoners organized resistance operations and began to sabotage the factories. But there was nothing the resistance movement in Mauthausen and the Gusen sub-camp could do about the lack of food, medicine and clothing in the camps. In the chaos of the final days of the war, the transportation system had broken down and everything was in short supply.

Abzug wrote that, until the American liberators arrived, "the camps festered in dirt and disease. Thousands of prisoners died. Conditions were especially appalling among the latest transported prisoners. These men and women had survived Auschwitz, Dachau and forced marches - only to perish at Mauthausen in the final week of the war."

According to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Mauthausen main camp, and a few of its largest sub-camps, were actually liberated in several stages by the US Third Army in late April and early May, 1945. Col. Richard R. Seibel was appointed to take command of the Mauthausen camp for 35 days, after an American patrol found the camp in April 1945, before the official liberation of the camp on May 5, 1945. In an interview in 1990, Seibel described how the Americans found some stored potatoes and began feeding the starved prisoners a very thin potato soup. There was no wheat flour or yeast in the camp kitchens, so the Americans made unleavened bread out of oats and dried it before giving it to the starving prisoners.

In the weeks just before the official liberation, most of the smaller sub-camps had been evacuated and the prisoners brought to the larger camps. 20,000 prisoners were crowded into the Mauthausen main camp which had a normal capacity of 12,000. Food was scarce and there were typhus epidemics in all the camps; around 300 prisoners were dying from typhus each day in the main Mauthausen camp shortly before the Americans arrived.

A movie that was being shown in the Museum at the Mauthausen Memorial Site in May 2003 featured an American soldier who was among the liberators of the camp. He became very emotional as he said that "we must have buried 12,000 bodies." He explained that 1,200 bodies had been buried in mass graves the first day and 300 per day thereafter, as a film clip of Austrian civilians loading naked bodies onto carts was shown.

In the last week of World War II, before the German Army surrendered unconditionally to the Allies on May 7th and the war ended on May 8th, 1945, there was heavy fighting in the area near the city of Linz in Upper Austria where the Mauthausen main camp and the sub-camps of Gusen, Ebensee and Gunskirchen were located. The Soviet forces, advancing from the east, and the American Third Army, coming from the west, were closing in on the Germans.

By this time, Hitler was dead and Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS and all the concentration camps, was frantically trying to negotiate a surrender to the Americans, but not to the Soviet Union, so that Germany could be saved from Communism. Linz was being bombed daily by the Americans and there was chaos everywhere as the infrastructure of the country collapsed. Thousands of German Wehrmacht soldiers were trying to surrender to the Americans in order to escape capture by the brutal Russians.

The elite forces of the Waffen-SS were still fanatically fighting to the last man; SS men were shooting the German regular Army soldiers who were deserting and trying to reach the Americans to surrender. Boys as young as 14 and men as old as 60 had been pressed into service in the Volksstrum, as the Nazis prepared to fight to the last man to save "the Fatherland" from Communism.

The highways in Germany and Austria were clogged by thousands of civilian women and children trying to escape the Russians who had a reputation for raping every woman from 8 to 80; bodies of dead and dying Jews filled the ditches along the roads after they were shot because they couldn't keep up on the marches as prisoners were evacuated from the war zone.

There were rumors circulating among the prisoners in the Mauthausen camp that Ernst Kaltenbrunner, who had the supreme authority over all the Nazi camps, had issued orders that all the prisoners should be killed before they could be liberated. This order had supposedly come from Hitler himself before he committed suicide in his bunker on April 30, 1945. Patton's Third Army had liberated the Buchenwald concentration camp on April 11, 1945 and Hitler had reportedly become enraged when he heard about how the Americans had given guns and jeeps to the liberated prisoners so that they could go to the nearby city of Weimar and randomly attack civilians.

Mauthausen survivors reenact the liberation, May 6, 1945

Photo Credit: USHMM

Anti-Fascist Resistance fighters greet US liberators, May 5, 1945

Photo Credit: USHMM

Mauthausen was primarily a concentration camp for Communist political prisoners and German criminals, but near the end of the war, it was also an "end destination" for Jews who had been evacuated from the death camps in what is now Poland. According to Yehuda Bauer, the author of "The Death Marches, January - May 1945," there were 700,000 prisoners of all categories in all the Nazi concentration camps in January 1945, and between 250,000 and 350,000 of them died on the death marches in the last weeks of the war, or after their arrival in the German camps, or after the liberation. At least half of those that died after January 1945 were Jews, according to Bauer.

At the time of the liberation there were also Hungarian Jews in Mauthausen who had been sent directly from Auschwitz to Mauthausen and the Gusen sub-camp in 1944 to work in the munitions factories.

On March 30, 1945, there was a total of 78,754 men and 2,252 women in the Mauthausen main camp and all its sub-camps, according to a display in the Mauthausen Museum, which I visited in May 2003. Included among the men were 13,701 Jews, and among the women, there were 611 Jews. This was the last census taken by the Nazis in the final chaotic days of the war. The total included 13,852 men and 1,238 women at the main camp at Mauthausen, according to the Museum display. There were 91 Jewish women and 2,257 Jewish men at the main camp on this date.

One of the Jewish survivors of Mauthausen was Meir Pesker from Bielsk, Poland. He had been deported first to the death camp at Majdanek, then transferred to the Plaszow camp, which is shown in the film Schindler's List, and finally sent to Mauthausen. Pesker related the following story which was printed in a memorial book entitled "Bielsk Podliask," as quoted by Martin Gilbert in his book "Holocaust":

We saw that the Americans were coming, and so did the Germans. Suddenly a German Kapo appeared, a bloated primeval beast whose cruelty included the bare-handed murder of dozens of Jews. Suddenly he had become weak and emotional and he began to plead with us not to turn him in because he had "done many favors for the Jews to whom that madman Hitler had sought to do evil." As he finished his pleading three boys overpowered and killed him, there in the same camp where he had been sole ruler.

We killed every one of the German oppressors who fell into our hands, before the arrival of the Americans in the enclosure of the camp. This was our revenge for our loved ones whose blood had been spilled at the hands of these heathen German beasts.

It was only by a stroke of luck - even if tainted luck - that I had survived.

Mike Jacobs, a Jew who now lives in Dallas, Texas, gave a description of the liberation of Mauthausen to Theo Richmond, the author of the book "Konin, One Man's Quest For a Vanished Jewish Community." Mike was born in Konin, Poland and his name was originally Mendel Jakubowicz. He was 19 and a half years old and weighed 70 pounds when the Mauthausen camp was liberated. He had survived the death camp at Auschwitz and had been sent to Mauthausen when Auschwitz was evacuated. Here is his story of the liberation, as quoted in Richmond's book:

I looked out from the barracks and I see tanks coming with white stars. At first I think they are German tanks. I say to my friends, "Hey, look, the Germans have changed from a swastika to a white star. Two hours later I see some more tanks coming. I walk out and I start waving. The guy comes out of the turret. He waves back and throws me something. It was a bar of chocolate. I grabbed it and run into the barracks and say, "Hey, guys, look - I got a bar of chocolate. And can you imagine! The name of the chocolate is Hershel! [Hershel is a common Yiddish name.] I didn't read the wrapper properly, so the first American food I eat is a Hershel bar."

The following account was written by Maurice Lambert and quoted by Christian Bernadac in his book:

From one o'clock in the afternoon on, we knew that the Americans were at the gates of the camp, and we had begun our purging process. It was relatively simple. Ten, fifteen, or sometimes twenty of us went to blocks 6 and 7 (I think), where all of the German scum had taken refuge, those who were Kapos just yesterday, block bosses, room chiefs, etc., who had, over the years been responsible for 150,000 deaths of men of all nationalities. This figure was established after Liberation, for the camp of Mauthausen and its many kommandos (sub-camps) working throughout Austria. Every German brute discovered in one of these blocks was hauled into the roll call yard. They were going to suffer when they died, in the way they had made our comrades suffer and die. Our only weapons were our wooden-soled shoes, but we more than made up in numbers and rage for this rudimentary equipment. Every minute a new group of deportees arrived in the roll call yard, dragging a former torturer. He was stunned and knocked down. Everyone who had a sabot on his foot, or in his hand, leaped on the body and face and stamped and struck until the guts came spilling out, and the head was a flattened shapeless mass of flesh...

Roman Frister, a young Jew who had just arrived at the main camp a few days before the liberation, on a death march from a work camp in Vienna, wrote in his book, "The Cap: The Price of a Life," that one of the liberators who emerged from an American tank was a black soldier. According to Frister's account, the black soldier called to the armed guards in the watch tower "Hitler kaput," and signaled them to come down from the tower.

The American Army was segregated during World War II, so Frister may have been mistaken about the black soldier, although another survivor, Bert Schapelhouman, told a similar story.

According to Frister's account of the liberation, the black soldier ordered the guards to throw down their tommy guns and form a line; then "a group of prisoners darted forward and snatched the guns." The Spanish prisoners shouted "Viva Espana!" as French and Polish prisoners were waving their country's flags and the Soviet POWs sang the Communist anthem, "Internationale."

Frister was in the "Sanitary Camp" as the quarantine camp outside the main camp was called. He wrote that he went back to his barracks after cheering the liberators and saw a naked German soldier hanging from the rafters, wearing the cap of an SS corporal. Soviet POWs were using the soldier for target practice, taking turns throwing a long kitchen knife. Frister wrote that the corpse of the German soldier was left hanging for two days before it was cut down by the Americans. According to Frister, after the liberation, Russian POWs who were mostly political Commissars in the Red Army, "roamed the countryside, terrorizing the local Austrians."

Death of Commandant Ziereis

Louis Haefliger's Report on Gusen

Aftermath of the Liberation

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This page was last updated on July 6, 2008