The book entitled The 186 Steps, written by Christian Bernadac begins with a description of the Stairs of Death at the former Mauthausen concentration camp which is now a Memorial Site, visited mostly by teen-aged students.
The Mauthausen concentration camp was located on a leveled hilltop along the Danube river in Austria, which was part of the Greater German Reich at that time. At the edge of the camp was a granite quarry that was owned by the city of Vienna (Wien). Granite from this quarry had been used for years to pave the streets of Vienna.
This site for the Mauthausen camp was chosen because granite was needed for the buildings that Hitler was planning to build in Linz, a city that is close to Mauthausen. After the city of Vienna leased the quarry to the SS, paving stones continued to be sent to Vienna. Granite from the quarry was also used to build the Mauthausen camp. Because of the war, none of the grandiose buildings that Hitler had planned for Linz and Berlin were ever built.
According to Bernadac’s book, the work commandos at Mauthausen “were composed of three distinct types of deportees.”
1. the Strafkompanie (disciplinary company)
2. exependables — “canon fodder” of various nationalities, but at this period — 1941 -1942, mostly Spanish Republicans.
Bernadac wrote that each worker in the punishment company wore a back-carrier, fastened on by leather straps, somewhat in the style of Tyrolian peasants. But the “cannon fodder” workers and the Jews had no carriers. Bernadac did not make it clear whether the Jews and the “cannon fodder” expendable prisoners had to carry heavy stones in their hands or whether they just climbed out of the quarry at the end of the day without carrying a stone. My guess is the latter, because only the Strafkompanie prisoners, who were criminals sentenced to hard labor, were punished by being forced to carry a heavy stone up the stairs at the end of the work day. Bernadac implied in his book that the only way to get stones out of the quarry was to carry them up the steps, making many trips each day. He was writing about the early days of the camp, in 1941 and 1942 when the stones were being used to complete the building of the camp, which was a stone fortress.
According to Bernadac, “only the Jews were to be exterminated” at Mauthausen. (This was the famous “extermination through work” plan of the Nazis to kill the Jews in the camps.) Most of the prisoners at Mauthausen were political prisoners; this was not a camp specifically for Jews.
Bernadac began his book with an exaggerated story of the 186 steps because this was the unique feature of Mauthausen, the horror that people today want to hear about. He wrote that there were originally 180 steps, but in 1942, a team of quarry masons “slightly improved the regularity of their profile, and brought their number up to 186 steps.”
The old photo below was taken on April 27, 1941 when Heinrich Himmler visited the quarry. Note that the steps look very even, just like the steps in my color photo taken in May, 2003.
When I visited Mauthausen in May 2003, the Stairs of Death were easy to climb. Student visitors were having great fun running up and down the steps. The photo below shows the stairs as they look from the top. In the background, you can see the quarry at the bottom.
After the prisoners had climbed the stairs, there was still a long steep road, about one kilometer long (5/8 of a mile). The road was strewn with rocks and had never been rolled smooth. The road is shown in my 2003 photo below.
The “Stairs of Death” end about one quarter of the way up the long climb out of the quarry; the steep road to the top is covered with tree roots and uneven granite rocks. Note the wire fence on the right which keeps tourists from falling over the cliff into the quarry. According to Bernadac, there was no fence there when the camp was in operation and the Jews were frequently shoved over the cliff.
Note the narrow gauge tracks on the left in the photo above. There was no need to carry the granite out of the quarry with backpacks. Note the train tracks in the photo. The trains carried the granite stones to the Danube river which was nearby; the stones were put on barges and taken to Vienna where they were used for roads and buildings.
Bernadac wrote that the Mauthausen prisoners wore “wooden shoes.” The photo below, which I took in the Mauthausen Museum, shows wooden shoes that look as if they were purchased in a tourist shop in Holland. The other shoes in the photo have wooden soles and cloth or leather uppers. Most likely, the wooden shoes worn at Mauthausen were the shoes with wooden soles, not the clogs worn in Holland.
In the photograph below, a Soviet soldier stands as an honor guard at the “Stairway of Death” (Todesstiege). After the war Austria was divided into zones of occupation and the former Mauthausen camp was in the Soviet zone. This photo appears to have been taken after the former Mauthausen concentration camp was turned into a Memorial Site in 1949.
Note the buildings inside the quarry in the old photo below. There were civilian workers who lived in these buildings. Note the fence in the foreground which prevents onlookers from falling off the cliff at the top of the quarry.
In his book, Bernadac quoted the following from the unpublished manuscript of Lt. Col. Monin written in January 1974:
That was the quarry, as we knew it, with its 186 slippery, rocky, tilting steps. Those who visit the Mauthausen quarry today, don’t see the same thing, for since then, the steps have been redone – a real stairway, cemented, and regular. At that time, they were simply cut with a pick into the clay and rock, held in place by logs, unequal in height and tread, and therefore extremely difficult, not only for climbing but also for the descent. Stones rolled under our wooden-soled sandals, and we were forced to keep moving at a very rapid pace.
The work consisted of carrying up a stone of considerable size and weight, along the 186 steps, after which there was still a considerable distance to cover. The man who chose a stone found to be too small was out of luck. And all of this went on at the rate of eight to ten trips per day. The pace was infernal, without a second’s rest.
By 1943, the quarry had factories where Messerschmitt airplanes were being built, and the prisoners no longer carried stones up the steps.
I previously blogged about the atrocity stories told by a Dutch survivor of Mauthausen here.