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Mauthausen: Gusen I, II, and III Concentration Camps

The KZ Gusen I, II & III Concentration Camp complex was the biggest and most brutal within the Mauthausen system of camps.

Prisoners from Mauthausen were marched daily to the Gusen stone quarry three miles away beginning in 1938. An SS-owned firm, Deutsche Erd- und Steinwerke (DESt-German Earth and Stone Works), managed the site. Because the death of more than 150 prisoners during the winter fo 1938-39, the SS decided to build a sub-camp of Mauthausen at Gusen and used 400 German and Austrian prisoners from Mauthausen to construct it.

During construction, SS Sergeant Anton Streitwieser commanded the Gusen external detachment site. Afterward, both camps (Mauthausen and Gusen) were under the command of the SS-Standartenfuehrer Franz Ziereis. On July 1, 1940, SS-captain Karl Chmielewski came from Sachsenhausen to be commander of the Gusen Camp. He was replaced in late 1942 by SS First Lieutenant Fritz Seidler who commanded the camp until liberation.

The Gusen camp opened on May 25, 1940, with the surviving 212 prisoners from the construction detachment incarcerated as its first inmates. That same day, a transport of approximately 1,084 Poles, mostly political prisoners, intellectuals and priests, arrived in Gusen.

Over the next several weeks, the SS transferred some 8,000 Polish prisoners to Gusen from other concentration camps, including Dachau and Sachsenhausen. More than 1,522 of them died in 1940 due to the heavy work in the stone quarries of Gusen and the brick-production plant at Lungitz (which later became Gusen III). The first prisoners to be gassed were Soviet prisoners of war in 1942. Several Spanish republican prisoners were also sent also sent to Gusen and exterminated. More than 2,000 of them had to work in the stone-quarries and very few survived. In December 1940, the SS contracted with the German firm Topf and Sons to construct a crematorium inside Gusen to handle the disposal of the bodies of the dead.

More than half of Gusen's prisoners died from mistreatment, starvation, exposure, disease and murder. Atrocities were committed by the SS and the kapos at Gusen. One of the specialities of this camp was called Todebadeaktionen (death bath action). This method of murder was the idea of SS Sergeant Jentzsch. Inmates unable to work or ill were selected during roll call for the bath. They were then sent to the bath room and forced to stand naked under icy high pressure showers. As their body temperature dropped, the bathers suffered long, agonizing and painful deaths. Some died after only a half-hour. SS physicians also experimented on prisoners and provided cadavers for the SS Medical Academy in Graz. The chemical conglomerate I.G. Farben financed a program using prisoners to test vaccines for various diseases.

In late 1942, Heinrich Himmler ordered the establishment of a bordello in Gusen, in which the SS forced some eight to ten female prisoners from Ravensbrück to provide sexual services for privileged Gusen prisoners. In 1943, the Steyr-Daimler-Puch Aktengesellschaft relocated a rifle production plant to Gusen, where the DESt constructed eight factory barracks with the expectation that prisoners would produce 10,000 rifles a month. By the end of 1944, some 6,000 prisoners worked in 18 factory halls in Gusen producing rifles, machine pistols and aircraft motors. In August 1943, the aircraft industry giant Messerschmitt relocated its bombed out plant in Regensburg to Gusen, where prisoners produced parts for the Me-109 fighters. As Allied bombing intensified in 1944, armaments production moved underground in tunnels built by prisoners.

In 1942, the SS staff selected prisoners unfit for work and transported them to the so-called euthanasia killing center at Hartheim, near Linz. More than 1,100 Gusen prisoners were sent to the gas chambers during 1942 and several hundred in 1944.

During 1942 and 1943, the SS murdered several hundred more prisoners in gas wagons on route between Gusen and Mauthausen. Dozens more, primarily Soviet POWs, were killed in a makeshift gas chamber. In March 1943, more than 100 Soviet prisoners of war were murdered in retaliation for the German surrender at Stalingrad.

Thousands of prisoners, mostly Jews, were sent to Gusen from Auschwitz, Gross-Rosen, and Sachsenhausen. By 1944, the Gusen camps had more than twice as many inmates (25,000) as Mauthausen (12,000). More than 10,000 prisoners died in Gusen between January and May 1945, including 4,500 prisoners who were transferred to die in Mauthausen. During April 1945, kapos beat hundreds of prisoners to death and, at the end of that month, in one of the last gassing operations in the Third Reich, the SS murdered 650 sick prisoners.

The increase of inmates was also due to the creation of the Gusen II a few hundred meters west to house some 16,000 inmates who were deported there for the construction and operation of the huge underground plant at St. Georgen/Gusen (BERGKRISTALL) and Langenstein (KELLERBAU). Since the BERGKRISTALL Project had strategic importance (it was used for the serial final-assembly of the Me 262 jet-plane that was the first in world-history to be produced serially), working-conditions were so bad that death rates in those specific camps reached 70 to 90% (depending on the weather conditions). The inmates called Gusen II, The hell of the hells.

U.S. soldiers assigned to the 26th Infantry Division and the 11th Armored Division liberated some 20,000 prisoners from the three camps at Gusen on May 5, 1945. Some of the survivors seeking revenge for the murder of their fellow prisoners killed kapos and others who had collaborated with the Nazis.

More people died at the Gusen I, II & III camps than at Mauthausen. Nearly 80% of all the Germans and Austrians that were sent to Mauthausen actually died at Gusen. The 40,000 people who perished in the Gusen camps represent the largest group of victims within the Mauthausen system of more than 40 camps. These victims represent nearly one-third of all the concentration camp victims on Austrian territory.

Some of the SS personnel who served at Gusen were tried after the war. During his trial, SS captain Chmielewski declared that the life of ill inmates and Jews had absolutely no value for him. He was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1961.

Unlike Mauthausen, the Allies tore down Gusen. In 1965, former Italian prisoners were instrumental in erecting a memorial to the victims of Gusen. In 2005, Austrian authorities established a visitor and educational center adjacent to the memorial.

Sources: Gusen Memorial Committee;
U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
Photo credit: Gusen Memorial Committee