The 81-year-old Dutch Resistance survivor, Bert Schapelhouman, was the subject of an article by Jaime O’Neill in the Sacramento News & Review tabloid newspaper, published on August 2, 2007. The article featured Schapelhouman’s memories of the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. I have saved the article all these years because Schapelhouman’s stories are unique.
Lubertus (Bert) Schapelhouman was a Dutch Resistance fighter who was 19 years old at the time of his liberation from Mauthausen on May 5, 1945. Bert told the reporter that he had entered the camp in November 1944 weighing 160 pounds, but had wasted away to 78 pounds in only six months and was near death.
This quote about the liberation of Mauthausen is from the 2007 article by Jaime O’Neill:
There were others near him, all filthy, all emaciated, all confused. An American soldier approached him and the cluster of wretches nearby. He was the first black man any of them had ever seen. The soldier said something unintelligible. Next to Lubertus, two Hungarian Jews began to shout and gesticulate toward a guard tower. The American soldier took out his pistol and fired several rounds. A German guard who had been hiding in the tower tumbled to the ground.
“I can still see him falling through the air,” Bert says, and then he chuckles. “That’s terrible,” he says, “I shouldn’t laugh. It was a human life.” He shakes his head. And then he chuckles again.
According to Louis Haefliger, a Red Cross representative in the Mauthausen camp, 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 remained to help in guarding the camp.
The US Army was segregated during World War II with African-American and Japanese-American soldiers fighting in separate units. Mauthausen was liberated by white soldiers in the 11th Armored Division of the US Third Army, led by Staff Sgt. Albert J. Kosiek, who arrived on May 5, 1945.
Schapelhouman was not the only survivor of Mauthausen who claimed to have been liberated by black soldiers. 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.
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.” In Frister’s version of the liberation of Mauthausen, the black soldier did not shoot a guard in the tower.
In his August 2007 article, Jaime O’Neill wrote the following story about a Mauthausen inmate who died on Christmas Day in 1944, as told to him by Schapelhouman:
He was a Hungarian Jew, and both of his parents had been executed in the months preceding his own death. He was in bad shape. A Belgian priest, also an inmate at the camp, took pity on him because his suffering was notable even in this place of great suffering. Seeking solace, the boy told the priest he wanted to convert to Catholicism and so, secretly, the priest nurtured the boy in his faith, though all religious practices were forbidden in that camp. The inmates — political prisoners, gypsies, and Jews — were referred to by their keepers as nacht und nebel, “night and fog,” the forces of darkness and the underworld, and because they were seen as subhuman in all respects — the enemies of the Aryan light — they were not worthy of religious practices.
On Christmas Eve 1944, at this place of horror, while the German guards partied with girls from the nearby town, the priest held a clandestine baptismal mass for the boy, and for 28 other camp prisoners. Lubertus Schapelhouman was in that number.
The boy was weak, but he spoke of his desire to go to heaven. At the moment the boy was baptized, the Germans and their camp Kapos burst into the room and began to beat everyone, a storm of blows and curses, a pandemonium of pummeling and kicking and the heavy thudding of rubber-sheathed truncheons breaking bones. A kick or a punch — he would never know the source — threw Schapelhouman’s hip out of joint.
They were taken outside — the priest, the boy, and all the attendees of the forbidden Mass. It was 14 degrees below zero. The priest and the boy were made to strip naked and told to embrace, and then the guards drenched them with a hose. They froze in that position, died in that position, and the next day — Christmas — the entire camp was marched out to look at them — the frozen statuary of blasphemous baptism. “Augen raus.” Eyes right (sic). That was the command the Germans shouted as they marched the prisoners past the boy and the priest.
(“Eyes right” would be “Augen Recht” in German.)
The Nacht und Nebel prisoners at Mauthausen were resistance fighters who had been condemned to death for acts of sabotage, but were allowed to live; they disappeared into the “night and fog” and their relatives were made to believe that they had been executed.
There were few Jews and no Gypsies among the N.N. prisoners; the N.N. prisoners were not considered to be “subhuman.” All of the Nacht und Nebel prisoners in the concentration camps were illegal combatants, or spies who had been caught behind enemy lines in civilian clothes; they had violated the Geneva Convention and could have been legally shot.
After the Catholic Church complained about the treatment of priests in the concentration camps, Hitler ordered that all priests should be sent to Dachau, which was considered the mildest camp. Mauthausen was a Class III camp where prisoners, who were considered dangerous and beyond rehabilitation, were treated more severely. At Dachau, the priests were allowed to say Mass every day and to baptize anyone who wanted to be baptized.
Jaime O’Neill’s article continues with the following quote:
Then, the following spring, when the war was nearly over, new prisoners arrived at Mauthausen each day, driven there in forced marches from other concentration camps as allied forces closed in. On one such day, 600 women straggled into the camp, stumbling before the guns of the SS, a pitiful remnant of a group that had numbered 4,800 when their march began. The inmates of Mauthausen were assembled to greet them, to witness their degradation as the new arrivals were made to strip before the assemblage, were told that 200 of them would be chosen to serve as prostitutes to the Kapos, the camp guards. SS officers moved among the huddled women, using swagger sticks to lift a breast here, or stroke a thigh, gesturing to the slavering Kapos who were to make the selections. “What do you think of this?” in German, or “how about this one?”
Tears well up in Schapelhouman’s eyes as he stands to continue his story. “And then,” he says, “I heard a sound, a guttural growl of uncontainable rage, and a man charged out of our midst, ran toward the SS in a fury.” Bert tries to reproduce the sound the man made in his last moments on earth, the inchoate rage that drove him, and though the sound he makes is frightening as he tells the tale more than 60 years on, it is clearly restrained, a facsimile of hell itself, brought to life in a tidy suburban home far from where it happened.
They shot him, that berserk and enraged man, as he charged forward, and the story later went around the camp that he had become unhinged at the sight of his own daughter among the women.
Their fun over, the SS marched the women into the gas chambers, gassed all of them, and then cremated them. That 200 of them would be “spared” to become prostitutes had just been a joke, a way of taunting the Kapos.
Smoke from their cremation hung in the air for days. “I smell them all the time,” Bert says, “to this very day.” And sometimes, deep in the night, he smells them on his own flesh and goes from his bed to shower the phantom odor from his aging body before returning to his clean sheets and tortured sleep.
The Kapos were not “the most swinish and brutal of the camp guards,” but rather German criminals who were prisoners assigned to assist the guards in the camp.
All of the Nazi concentration camps had brothels for the use of the non-Jewish prisoners. In the fall of 1942, around ten women were brought from the Ravensbrück camp to staff a brothel at Mauthausen.
Even before he was sent to Mauthausen, Schapelhouman claimed that he had been subjected to the most brutal torture by the German Gestapo.
The following quote is from Jaime O’Neill’s article:
When he was 18, in 1944, the SS came to the family farm and took Lubertus and his brother away for interrogation. On the first day, the interrogators feigned kindness, offered him a cigarette, spoke in soft tones. But the second day, different men came into the room, and the soft interrogation was over.
On the second day of interrogation, they put his left hand in a vise and pulled out all of his fingernails. On the third day, they did the same to his right hand, and on the fourth day to his right foot, and on the fifth day, his left foot. On the sixth day, they knocked out all of his upper teeth.
“And you know what?” he asks, rhetorically; “they were drunk, those men. Always drunk. I could smell it on them.”
They wanted names of people in the Dutch resistance. They wanted to know who was hiding Jews. Lubertus had such information, but he gave them none of it.
Most interrogators would have given up after pulling out two or three fingernails and toenails, but not the Gestapo. They kept on, until the last toenail was removed and then knocked out all his upper teeth for good measure. But still the drunken Gestapo men continued to interrogate Schapelhouman.
O’Neill wrote the following story, which he had heard from Schapelhouman:
“After those days,” he says, “I have no idea how long I was there. They would bring me back for interrogation and I would faint before they ever struck a blow.” He shakes his head in puzzlement. “Isn’t that something? That we have such a saving mechanism built into us.”
Back in his cell, his body trembled all over with shock and pain. He couldn’t eat. “There are millions of nerves that jump, all over your body.” He couldn’t hold things, and he couldn’t walk. Not long after that, he was transferred to Mauthausen, a politische haftlung (sic), or political prisoner.
The story of how the Mauthausen Commandant, Franz Ziereis, allowed his son to kill 50 prisoners on his birthday has been told many times, and there are several variations of the story.
Bert Schapelhouman told the story to O’Neill, who wrote the following in his August 2, 2007 article in the SN&R:
The Kommandant at Mauthausen was a man named Ziereis. Bert spells the name carefully-”Z-I-E-R-E-I-S,” then pronounces it again. “When his son turned 14, Ziereis brought him into the camp, down among the prisoners. He told the boy to pick out 50 of the inmates, then handed him his long-barreled Luger and told him to kill those he’d chosen, those he’d counted off. The first time the boy tried, he flinched, and only managed to blow off a man’s ear, but soon he was proficient in the killing, and in 3 1/2 hours, he had killed all 50. His father hugged his son then and said for all to hear: ‘Now I know he is a man.’ “
Franz Ziereis was a mild-mannered man whose nickname among the prisoners was “Baby face.”
In a previous article in the SN&R weekly paper in 2006, Jaime O’Neill wrote the following information which he got from Bert Schapelhouman:
Each day the prisoners would walk 4 kilometers to a sub camp known as Gusen Zwei where they were made to work each day. They worked through that winter of 1944-45 in bitter cold, and dozens died each day, of exposure, exhaustion, malnutrition or brutalization. At the end of those work days–from dark to dark–the survivors would carry their dead back to the camp for cremation. Exhausted, stumbling in darkness, with the dead weight of a corpse on his back, Bert carried dead men from that Gusen Zwei sub camp back to the main camps (sic) on seven or eight occasions. Other nights he was luckier and all the corpses had been taken by prisoners ahead of him.
The Gusen II camp had 19 barracks buildings and the prisoners did not walk to the “Gusen Zwei” sub-camp from the main camp. For the Gusen II camp, the closest cremation ovens were at the nearby Gusen I sub-camp. The Gusen prisoners were not evacuated to the main Mauthausen camp before the American liberators arrived. The Gusen camps and the main camp were all liberated on the same day, May 5, 1945.
In his previous article in 2006, Jaime O’Neill wrote the following:
Bert remembers one German officer, a remarkable specimen — handsome, tall, radiant with good health. The first time Bert saw him, he thought he’d never seen a more perfect man, and something in the man’s appearance and demeanor gave Bert a faint hope of kindness or mercy. The officer walked past the assembled inmates, smiling, chatting with an aide. Then he singled out a prisoner, took out his Luger and shot the man dead. He did this each day for two months, picking a man at random and shooting him, the assembled prisoners shuddering fearfully before him waiting to see which of them he’d choose.
There were 200 cases of cruelty and corruption in the concentration camps which were tried by Dr. Georg Konrad Morgen, a German judge who was a member of the SS. Morgen testified at the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal that he had examined 800 documents which resulted in 200 indictments of SS men who were staff members of the concentration camps. Dr. Morgen put five camp Commandants on trial, including Hermann Florstedt and Karl Otto Koch, both of whom were executed by the Nazis after being convicted in Morgen’s court.
The Commandant of a Nazi concentration camp could not order the death of a prisoner on his own authority. All execution orders had to come from the main office in Oranienburg which controlled everything that was done in the camps. If a German officer had selected a prisoner at random to shoot each day for two months, he would have been put on trial in Morgen’s court and sentenced to death if convicted.
Schapelhouman’s story of the handsome German officer shooting prisoners at random is reminiscent of Amon Goeth, the Commandant of the Plaszow camp, who is shown in the movie Schindler’s List shooting prisoners at random from the balcony of his house. Amon Goeth was awaiting trial in Morgen’s court when the war ended.
Every survivor’s story has one “good German.” He is the exception that proves the rule.
In Jaime O’Neill’s 2006 article in the SN&R, he tells the following anecdote, as related to him by Bert Schapelhouman:
In fact, the first German soldier he ever saw saved his life. He and two of his brothers were at a soccer game. It was 1943, three years after the occupation of his country had begun, more than a year since he’d become an onderduicker, but no Germans had yet found their way to Bert’s remote village. It was a Sunday afternoon when the rumor went through the spectators that the Germans were coming. And then they heard the sound of the vehicles approaching. Bert and his brothers took off running. Bert hid in a dry ditch thinking he’d keep quiet and wait until everyone went away. “All of a sudden,” he says, “there was a German with his rifle. Our eyes met, but he pretended he didn’t see me and just kept on walking.”
As Schapelhouman explained to Jaime O’Neill in his 2006 interview, “onderduicker” was a Dutch word which was used to describe a young person who had gone into hiding after being ordered to report for conscripted labor by the Nazis during the war-time occupation of Holland. Anne Frank’s sister Margo also received a notice to report to a labor camp, and that is the reason that the Frank family went into hiding. Schapelhouman was able to hide until October 1944 when he was arrested by the Gestapo.