by lyle e davis
Last week we celebrated D-Day. The invasion of Europe.
With all the tv networks and major news media talking about Iraq, Afghanistan and other places of war or warlike activities, one tends to think all this horrible coverage of blood and guts and gore is something new.
It ain’t, McGee.
There are lots of military veterans in and around North San Diego County who can tell you stories that will make your blood curdle and your toes curl. But, often, the memories are so terrible they’ve shut them away in the back of their minds.
We have former Prisoners of War living amongst us; we have combat veterans who saw the horrible spillage of blood and bones on the battlefields; we have military veterans who saw the horrible concentration camps of World War II. The pain of war hangs around for a long time.
One of our drivers for The Paper, one of those gentle souls who delivers the papers to nearly 500 businesses in North County was there toward the end of World War II. Art Marx was stationed just outside a place called Mauthausen, Austria. It was there and at several neighboring camps, that just some of the many tragic discoveries and liberation of wretched human beings happened.
It’s about 20 kilometers from the city of Linz, Austria. The camp was established on August 8, 1938, when Heinrich Himmler ordered a couple hundred prisoners from the Dachau camp to be transported to the little town of Mauthausen. It was liberated on May 5, 1945, by the US 11th Armour Division. There were an estimated 150,000 victims.
There are two parts to this chilling story. Here’s just one part:
Mauthausen was classified as a so-called “category three camp.” This was the fiercest category, and for the prisoners it mean “Ruckkehr unerwunscht” (return not desired) and “Vernichtung durch arbeit” (extermination by work).
In the summer they were awakened at 4:45 am (5:15 in winter) and the workday ended at 7pm. The prisoners would hack away at granite all day and then another group would carry the slabs up the 186 steep steps to the top of the quarry.
Just one event shows the brutality of this camp. One day, eighty-seven Dutch Jews were sent to the quarries . . . separated from all the other prisoners. Two SS men, both with pick handles, flailed into the pathetic group who were digging into the mountainside. By eleven-thirty, 47 of the 87 lay dead on the ground. They were butchered, one after the other, before the eyes of the fellow prisoners, who were unable to do anything. That afternoon, four more were killed.
Another means of killing, which the SS members clearly enjoyed, was to gather a group of prisoners in the garage yard, during the middle of winter, and order them to undress. A guard then sprayed water on the group which was then left to freeze to death. In Austria, the winter temperature often is around minus 10 degrees Celsius.
One nearby complex, the Gusen complex, had two terrible barracks. Stube A, Stube B. The sick, wounded, or those too weak to work were thrown in here. Covered with their own excrement and those of other prisoners, they lay on the ground or upon others . . . and left to die. No food or water reached the Stube B barrack.
In some prisoner complexes the food was so low that cannibalism began to be reported.
On May 5, 1945, units of the American 11th Armor Division liberated the main Mauthausen camp. 15,000 bodies were buried in mass graves. 3,000 additional prisoners would soon die in the weeks that followed liberation. For them, liberation came too late. Way too late.
From 1939 to 1945, more than 10,000 SS guards served in the Mauthausen complex. 818 of these are known by name. In the trial at Dachau on March 7, 1946, 58 were sentenced to death and three to life imprisonment. The commandant, Franz Ziereis, was shot by American soldiers in the camp while hiding dressed in civilian clothes.
You’ll forgive me if I shed no tears for Franz Ziereis.
Who Was Franz Ziereis?
Kamp Kommandant Franz Ziereis before the fall of his Camp
Franz Ziereis was the Camp Commandant . . . SS Standartenfuehrer Ziereis. He was shot and seriously wounded by pursuing American soldiers while he tried to escape. Before he died . . he made his confession before the burgomaster (Mayor) Feichtinger and Edelbauer, commanding officer of the rural police in St. Valentin. He was interrogated by American authorities. The confession is a chilling one:
“My name is Franz Ziereis, born 1903 in Munich, where my brothers and sisters are still living. I, myself, am not a wicked man and I have risen through work. I was a merchant by profession and, during the period of unemployment, I worked as a carpenter. In 1924 I joined the eleventh Bavarian Infantry Regiment. Later I was transferred to the training department and then to Mauthausen as commanding officer. The garrison of the camp Mauthausen numbered 5,000 SS men. The highest number of inmates in Mauthausen was 19,800. On the order of SS-Hauptsturmfuehrer Dr. Krebsbach, a gas chamber was built in the form of a bathroom. The inmates were gassed in this gas chamber. All executions were carried out on the order of the Reichsfuehrer SS and Chief of the German Police Himmler, the SS Obergruppenfuehrer Kaltenbrunner, or the SS Gruppenfuehrer Mueller.
Dr. Kiesewetter killed the inmates through benzine(gasoline) injections. SS Untersturmfuehrer Dr. Richter, while operating on inmates regardless whether they were ill or healthy extirpated a piece of the brain and thus caused their death. This happened to about 1000 inmates. SS Obergruppenfuehrer Pohl sent weak and sick inmates into the woods and let them starve to death. The sick tried to stay alive by eating grass and bark but all died miserably of hunger. Pohl furthermore halved the food rations of the inmates and had all sick and weak inmates murdered through gas. This gas chamber was situated in Hartheim, ten kilometers distant from Linz. About 1,500,000 inmates were gassed in it. In Mauthausen all gassed inmates were reported as having died of natural causes.
Pohl sent me 6,000 women and children who, without any food and during very cold weather, had been in transit in open freight cars for about ten days. I was ordered to send the children away. I believe that they all died. Thereupon I became very nervous. The inmates, occupied in the crematory, were to be relieved at least every three weeks and to be killed through shots in the neck because they know too much. Furthermore it was ordered that all physicians and the nursing personnel were to be sent to an alleged labour camp in order to be killed.
Himmler gave the order to load a 45 kilo stone on an inmate's back and make him run around with it until he fell dead. Himmler ordered us to establish a penal labor company according to this system. The inmates had to haul stones until they collapsed, then they were shot and their record was annotated "Trying to escape". Others were driven into a fence made of charged high-tension wire. Others were literally torn to pieces by the dog named "Lord" belonging to the camp commander Bachmeyer who sicced it on the inmates. On 30 April 33, inmates of the camp office were ordered to assemble the court yard. There they were shot like wild animals by SS Oberscharfuehrer Niedermeyer and the Gestapoagent Polaska. Altogether, as far as I know, 65,000 inmates were murdered in Mauthausen. In most cases, I myself took part in the executions.
Frequently I joined in the shooting with a small calibre weapon. SS men were trained on the rifle ranges where inmates were used as targets. Reichsminister Himmler and SS Obergruppenfuehrer (Lt. General) Kaltenbrunner ordered me to kill all inmates if the frontlines approached Mauthausen. I had orders from Berlin to blow up Mauthausen and Gusen including all the inmates. All inmates were to be brought into the Gusen mine and blown up. The blasting was to be carried out by SS Obergruppenfuehrers Wolfram and Ackermann. Pohl issued the order. "
Ziereis died shortly after the interrogation.
Kamp Kommandant Franz Ziereis making his deathbed confession as to the atrocities committed by him and his staff.
The above copy is a correct excerpt from the Austrian court files in the trial of Dr. Guido Schmidt et al as published in the Wiener Arbeiterzeitung from September 20, 1945.
It was decided in December 1939 to establish another camp at nearby Gusen, Austria.
Hence, some four hundred German and Austrian prisoners of Mauthausen-Wienergraben marched every day from Mauthausen-Wienergraben to construct Gusen I. Three prisoners barracks, a few SS barracks and an electric fence were built by March 1940.
The first group of inmates were primarily priests and offenders of the NAZI regime from Germany and Austria.
All three Gusen camps and the Mauthausen camp were liberated on May 5, 1945, by S/Sgt. Albert J. Kosiek and his twenty-three men of 41st Recon Squad, 11th Ard Div, 3rd US Army. Kosiek´s platoon was halted by the Swiss Red Cross Delegate Louis Haefliger, who asked Kosiek to prevent the murder of 25,000 Gusen inmates. The SS planned to blast all of them up with high-explosives in the Gusen I and II tunnels.
All in all some 37,000 people died at Gusen I, II and III.
This is several thousand people more than at the Mauthausen Central Camp, nearly one third of all the victims that died in the forty-nine concentration camps all over "Austrian" territory .
The second part of this grisly story tells of just how the camps were liberated.
LIBERATION OF MAUTHAUSEN (and KZ Gusen I, II & III)
by Former Staff Sgt. Albert J. Kosiek
(published in: THUNDERBOLT - The 11th Ard Div Association, Vol. 8, No. 7, May-June 1955, 700 Hill Bldg., Washington 6, D.C.)
Perhaps May 5th, 1945 was just another day to you. We thought it would be for us too but before the sun set that day we had participated in experiences that really taxed our imagination. We were awakened early that morning and the Commanding Officer (CO) gave all the platoon leaders their missions for the day and this is where my story begins.
I was platoon leader. It was my platoon´s mission to check the bridges at St. Georgen for intactness since they were on the route to be used by the combat command. Routes on maps were plotted, ammunition checked and everything else we could think of that goes along with being prepared. The sun was just becoming bright when we started out from the town of Katsdorf in the foothills of the Austrian Alps. A German soldier appeared and started coming toward me. That German soldier was in the sights of more assorted weapons than he had hairs on his head. In English he explained to us that up ahead was an annex of a concentration camp and that the refugee prisoners were Polish and Russian. We then rounded up the forty Germans that consisted of the Guard Personnel and sent them back to Troop Headquarters with two troopers to keep an eye on them.
From the distance suddenly there was a muffled sound of a motor. Through our field glasses we were able to pick up a motorcycle and a white touring car with a red cross on the hood. As they approached we laid all our guns on them because no matter how innocent looking the Germans might appear you could not trust them. Out of the car stepped two SS captains, the driver and a man dressed in civilian clothes. The civilian was an International Red Cross affiliate, and the spokesman for this unholy mob. Fortunately one of my gunners, Rosenthal from Chicago, spoke and understood German. From what we could determine from these people there was a large concentration camp (Gusen I, Gusen II and Mauthausen camps) beyond the bridge that we were supposed to check. The Red Cross man was trying to contact an American general to surrender this camp and 400 SS guards whom he pledged would give up. I made him believe that I was the direct representative of the commanding general of the 11th Armored Division. I then requested permission from my CO by radio to go to the camp and I stressed the fact that 1600 prisoners were depending upon us for fast liberation (in fact he liberated some 25.000 prisoners at Gusen and some 12.000 prisoners at Mauthausen). He finally consented but stressed that we remain in constant communication with him by radio.
The situation was ticklish, for there was no guarantee that the roads to Mauthausen were undefended, in spite of the fact that we were assured we would not run into trouble at the camp. As a persuader we told the occupants of the white car heading the column that even so much as the breaking of a twig would spell their doom. With this understanding we finally reached the town of St. Georgen and continued to the outskirts finding the bridge (over Gusen river) intact. We also found, much to our surprise, German soldiers all over the place. Fortunately they were the peace loving kind and didn't bother us too much. As we approached the camp an SS captain came toward us and gave me an American salute, which I returned. After Rosenthal assured him I was an officer he explained to me that he was the commander of Gusen Camp. With the captain was an old buzzard in a Volkssturm uniform who spoke English perfectly With the old man as my interpreter I explained to the SS captain that we were taking over his camp and expected him and all Germans to surrender. He evidently had the same idea in mind and he was very cooperative. He had quite a number of guards and I explained that I would have to pick them up on our way back from Mauthausen. He agreed to this but insisted that they would have to keep their weapons because he feared that they would not be able to keep order in the camp if they gave up their weapons. Frankly I had no choice but to agree but I warned him that not a shot was to be fired for if it was I would order the tank force forward which was not too far behind.
As we left Gusen the German guards lived up to their end of the bargain and in fact turned their gun barrels to the ground and gave me an American salute. Imagine going through an enemy line and being rendered an American salute! Needless to say we were a bit uneasy. As we continued we soon came upon Mauthausen. It was located on the highest ground in the area we were in and it was flanked on one side by the Danube. It looked like a series of factories from the distance (the barracks). Tremendous cement walls surrounded it (granite walls) with large field cannons poking their ugly noses at us from everywhere. On the other side of a patch of woods was the first entrance to the camp. The white car stopped and the occupants got out. At this section of the camp it was surrounded by a wire fence that was charged with 2.000 volts of electricity (the "Sanitaetslager" where thousands of exhausted Gusen II inmates were brought to die). Behind that fence were hundreds of people who went wild with joy when they first sighted us. It's a sight I'll never forget. Some had just blankets covering them and others were completely nude, men and women combined, making the most emaciated looking mob I have ever had the displeasure to look upon. I still shake my head in disbelief when that picture comes before me, for they hardly resembled human beings. Some couldn't have weighed over forty pounds. The place turned into an uproar and it was evident that if these people weren't stopped shortly bloodshed would be impossible to avoid. With the safety of my men in the back of my mind at all times I knew that the job of restoring order was mine. The platoon was tense, each man looking grimly down the sights of his gun ready for anything. It was too late in the game to be caught off guard, I heard the people yelling in Polish and I raised my hands for them to keep silent. I then told them in the tongue that they understood to go back to their quarters and to cooperate with me so that I could set them free as soon as possible by removing the German guards. They understood and thank God they did cooperate.
After quelling the fracas a young tall English speaking German came to me with the commander of the camp and through his interpreter the commander commended me on my quieting the mob. With the commander by my side we walked to the main part of the camp. We came to a large gate in the cement wall (the Main Entrance to the Schutzhaftlager) and a German opened it. Walking in first I was greeted with the most spectacular ovation ever paid me. Behind that gate hundreds of prisoners were in formation and when I walked in they were so happy to see an American soldier that they all started yelling, screaming, and crying. To these people my appearance meant freedom from all torture and horror surrounding them. Never before have I felt such a sensation running through me as I did at that moment. I felt like some celebrity being cheered at Soldiers Field in Chicago. That was the first time I have had people so overjoyed at seeing me. As I stood there looking out at the mob I realized what this meant to them and I was glad we had made the effort to free the camp. We then walked on through the yard and through another gate and up a small stairway to where the inmates were quartered (the "Schutzhaftlager"). By this time the prisoners were gathered all around me. At this point one of the prisoners stepped forward and introduced himself as Captain Jack Taylor of the United States Navy showing me his dog tags to prove it. Upon inquiring he told me that two other Americans were in the camp and one English flier in the hospital. He talked with me for a few minutes and then he said he would go to get his personal belongings and he said he would see me later.
We then looked for the English speaking German interpreter and upon reaching him he told me that a riot was going on in the kitchen and he wanted me to clear up the situation. When I got to the kitchen the door was blocked and I had to jump in through a window. The refugees were dipping soup out of large pots with their hands and drinking it. Others were stealing chickens and fighting over them among themselves. I yelled at them in Polish but it didn't do any good. Finally I fired a few rounds from my pistol into the ceiling and then they started to move out of the kitchen. Talking to them in Polish I told them that they were only making things more difficult for me and the German guards started pushing and hitting some of them. I felt like socking one of the guards but I couldn't do it at the time and end the riot.
I explained to the inmates that they should stay in their quarters because by doing so it would facilitate my clearing the camp of the German guards and then the camp would be in command of the United States Army. When we finished one of the inmates asked for three cheers for the Americans and the response was thunderous. A hastily formed prisoner’s band then played "The Star Spangled Banner" and my emotions were so great that the song suddenly meant more to me than it ever did before. Many of the refugees were crying as they watched our platoon standing at attention presenting arms. When we dropped our salute we found out that the Navy captain had taught the band our national anthem just the night before. The people cooperated and stayed in the courtyard or returned to their quarters.
In back of the courtyard were bodies piled up in one mass . You wouldn´t think they were human beings if you did not recognize certain features. They were being chewed up by rats and no one seemed to care. Then we were shown where they gassed the people, and then cremated them in big ovens. We were told they shot Americans because they wanted them to be honored by shooting instead of gassing or other means of death. When they gassed women and children they made them believe they were going for a shower. The Germans would give them a bar of soap and a towel. Once in the shower room they would turn on the water for one minute and then let the gas in through the pipes that were near the base of the wall. I never saw so many dead people lying around in all my life. I saw things that I would never have believed if I hadn't seen them with my own eyes. I never thought that human beings could treat other human beings in this manner. The people that were alive made me wonder what kept them alive. They were only skin and bones.
The food rations for the prisoners was a loaf of bread a week for seven people. They slept on a cot the size of our Army cots. The difference was that we slept alone in one, and they had one for five people. I was talking to an eight year old Polish boy who told me that if he did not take his hat off and stand at attention when a guard passed by he would be shot. An older person verified the story and said there were many people shot because they refused to honor the Germans in this manner.
The English speaking German then asked me what I wanted the German guards to do. I told him to gather all the guards at the main gate and have them put their weapons in wagons that I would have there. Finding the Navy captain we went back to the main gate. We also had the other Americans with us, one a sergeant from the Air Corps, and the other a colored fellow. I told them to wait for me in a jeep until we had all the Germans rounded up. I hated to have them wait because it was raining and they were sickly. All of my platoon was busy keeping the Germans on the road and taking their weapons from them.
After about an hour or so we had all the German guards out of the camp and their weapons in three wagons which we got three refugees to drive. We then started marching the Germans and once again the people in the camp cheered.
I then went ahead with an armored car and a jeep and we proceeded to Gusen Camp where we went through similar experiences as we encountered at Mauthausen. We got the guards out of this camp and restored order among the prisoners and when the column of German guards under our Platoon arrived at Gusen the guards from this second camp joined the column. The trip to Gallneukirchen was very slow because so many German prisoners were in the line of march. When we got to that road block we were surprised to find fifty German soldiers standing there holding a white flag. We told them to join the line of march.
I then told the platoon I would go ahead to Gallneukirchen to let them know about the Germans and find out what to do with them. I went to CCB Headquarters and told them I was bringing in 1.800 Germans and wanted to know what to do with them. They would not believe my story but told me where to go with them. I found a billet for my men to stay for the night and then I went back and joined my men on the march.
It was one-thirty in the morning (May 6,1945) before we got the Germans into their new home, a large open field. The Major in charge of the PW cage said he would not believe the fact that we had brought in so many prisoners if he had not seen it with his own eyes.
My platoon then went to the house I had selected and we brought the Navy captain with us. The other two Americans went to an Infantry CP in town. The boys rustled up some food and the Captain enjoyed his meal. He told us he would never forget our platoon of 23 men as long as he lives. He told us he never expected to see Americans again. He was sentenced to death four times while at the camp but was spared by the refugees. He was to go to the gas chamber on May 6th which was the next day. He told us that 1.100 people a day were killed in Mauthausen. We sat and talked with him until three o'clock in the morning. On May 5th we accomplished our mission and then some!"
Staff Sgt Albert J. Kosiek - The Liberator
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Albert J. Kosiek served with the 11th Armored Division from November 1942 until the division was deactivated. He first served in Rcn. Co., 41st Armored Regiment and then in Troop D, 41st Cavalry after the reorganization. He was platoon sergeant of the first platoon. During combat he was recommended for a field commission but turned it down. When Mr. Kosiek left the 11th he was assigned to the 90th Infantry Division and was acting First Sergeant of a service company stationed at Weiden, Germany. He was discharged from the service at Camp Grant in Rockford, Ill. on December 6, 1945. In civilian life he has been an inspector for Western Electric and chief inspector and then supervisor at Hoof Products, both companies being in Chicago. He was a barber for some time and had a shop of his own at 4811 N. Rockwell Street in Chicago. Mr. Kosiek died on 19 October 1982.