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July 16, 2011

Stairs of Death (Todesstiege) — the 186 steps at Mauthausen

Filed under: Holocaust — Tags: , , , — furtherglory @ 1:20 pm

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.

Old photo shows prisoners carrying granite boulders up the Stairs of Death at Mauthausen

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.

My photo of the stairs of death, May 2003

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.

3. Jews, fit for extermination.

Wooden back-carrier used at Mauthausen

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.

The Mauthausen camp 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.

Himmler visited Mauthausen quarry on April 27, 1941

Mauthausen stairs, 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.

Resting place at the top of the Mauthausen stairs

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 road to the top at the Mauthausen quarry

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.

Old photo of quarry shows the long road to the top

The same road out of the quarry, May 2003

The quarry when it was in operation

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, because it could be hauled out on the trains.  The trains carried the granite stones to the Danube river which was nearby; the stones were then put on barges and taken to Vienna where they were used for roads and buildings.

Granite was hauled out of Mauthausen on barges

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.

Shoes in Mauthausen Museum

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.

Soviet honor guard at the Stairs of Death

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.

July 13, 2011

Christian Bernadac reconstructed the life of an inmate when he wrote his book about Mauthausen

Filed under: Holocaust — Tags: , , — furtherglory @ 10:20 am

Thanks to a French-speaking e-mail correspondent, who wishes to remain anonymous, I have learned that French author Christian Bernadac “was able to reconstruct the life of an inmate, that he is a famous journalist investigator, on various subjects and wars…”  This description of Bernadac’s book The 186 Steps comes from a web site that is written in French.

I bought Bernadac’s book from an online used book seller in 2003. I don’t read French so it was not possible for me to read an online description of Bernadac’s book before I purchased it. I assumed that Bernadac’s book was the true story of his time in the Mauthausen concentration camp.

In my defense, I would like to point out that nowhere in Bernadac’s book does it state that the book is a reconstruction of the life of an inmate.  The entire book is written in the first person.  Chapter One is entitled “The Scene is Set.”  The Scene in the title refers to the author’s detailed description of how the prisoners were forced to carry heavy granite boulders up the 186 steps from the Mauthausen quarry.

This quote is from the second page in the first chapter of The 186 Steps:

For two months and six days I performed the acrobatics required to keep from plunging into either of these pitfalls.  I was lucky to be young.

How was I supposed to know that this first person account of the life of a Mauthausen prisoner was a “reconstruction of the life of an inmate”?   How was I supposed to know that he was only 7 years old when Mauthausen was liberated in May 1945?  In his book, Bernadac wrote that he was 30 years old when he was sent to Mauthausen after he was captured as a French Resistance fighter.

Before I went to see the Treblinka memorial site in 1998, I purchased a book about the camp in a local book store.  The book was written by Jean-Francois Steiner and entitled Treblinka. The sub-title is “The inspiring story of the 600 Jews who revolted against their murderers and burned a Nazi death camp to the ground.”

On the very first page, on the inside of the front cover of Steiner’s book, it is made clear that Steiner was not a prisoner at Treblinka himself.

This quote is at the bottom of the first page:

JEAN-FRANCOIS STEINER was two years old when his father and other relatives died in concentration camps. Out of his compelling urge to know what happened and why the Jews went to their deaths apparently without resistance has come this overpowering book. By tracking down and interviewing the scattered survivors of Treblinka, he has created the true story that shook the world.

I don’t know if Bernadac’s book is still in print. My copy was published in 1974.  I don’t know if there are later editions.  If this book is ever reprinted, it should have a paragraph on the first page, similar to the paragraph about Steiner’s book.  The first paragraph in the book should mention that Bernadac was seven years old when Mauthausen was liberated, and out of his “compelling urge” to lie about what happened at Mauthausen has come this “overpowering book.” It should be pointed out that  Bernadac tracked down the real survivors of Mauthausen and incorporated their lies into his “true story that shook the world.”

There are many other books which I now believe are “reconstructions of the life of an inmate.”  Among these books are Dr. Miklos Nyiszli’s book about his time at Auschwitz and Elie Wiesel’s book Night.  Filip Müller’s book Three Years in a Gas Chamber at Auschwitz is pure fiction, although Müller was actually a prisoner at Auschwitz.

July 7, 2011

Was Christian Bernadac a prisoner at Mauthausen?

Filed under: World War II — Tags: , , , — furtherglory @ 9:05 am

Christian Bernadac is the author of The 186 Steps, a book about the Mauthausen concentration camp, which was published in 1974.  According to a French Wikipedia page about Bernadac, he was born in August 1937 and died in 2003.  He was only 7 years old in the last year that Mauthausen was open, which means that he was probably not a prisoner at Mauthausen, which was mainly a camp for adult men. So how did he gain first-hand knowledge about the camp?  Is this book a fake, like so many other books about the Holocaust?

Before I visited the Mauthausen memorial site several years ago, I bought Bernadac’s book The 186 Steps and read it very thoroughly.  I had to buy a used copy through Amazon.com and pay a high price for it because the book was no longer in print at that time.  Based on what I read in his book, and my personal observations at the memorial site, I did a section on my web site about Mauthausen, which you can read here.  I mentioned several times that Bernadac had been a prisoner at Mauthausen.

After reading the translation of the French Wikipedia article, I got out Bernadac’s book, The 186 Steps, and read this on page 21:

“In 1944-1945, I was thirty years old. My only involvement was as an infantry lieutenant (in the Resistance, of course) where I executed orders and acted as military instructor of the Maquis forces located in Dordogne, and as liason with a radio operator sending messages to London and Algiers.  I was an obscure, low-ranking officer, carrying out missions which were entrusted to me to the best of my ability.  I never belonged to the clandestine General staff, either in the Resistance, or in Mauthausen, or next in the Melk kommando.  In this way, I was just a typical deportee…”

Did you catch that?  He was thirty years old and just a “typical deportee” meaning a person who was deported to Mauthausen and then to the Melk sub-camp because he was fighting as an illegal combatant in the French Resistance. Specifically, he was fighting with the Maquis.  At the time that I first read his book, I did not yet know anything about the Maquis.

I learned about the Maquis when I went to Oradour-sur-Glane, a French village where the Germans did a reprisal action against the villagers because of atrocities committed by the Maquis.

After the Allied invasion at Normandy on June 6, 1944, the Maquis became particularly active. In preparation for the invasion, the British had dropped a large number of weapons and millions of francs by parachute into rural areas. The weapons were stored in farm houses and villages, ready for the resistance fighters who would play an important part in the liberation of Europe. As a result, the Maquis was very effective in preventing German troops from reaching the Normandy area to fight the invaders.

The Maquis was independent from the other French resistance groups; they operated as guerilla fighters in rural areas and especially in mountainous regions. The name Maquis comes from a word that means bushes that grow along country roads. The Maquis literally hid in the bushes, darting out to kidnap German Army officers and execute them in a barbarous fashion.

One of the well-known victims of the Maquis was Major Helmut Kämpfe, the commander of Der Führer Battalion 3, who was kidnapped on 9 June 1944 and killed the next day. There were rumors that he was burned alive. Innocent French civilians in the village of Oradour-sur-Glane were killed the next day when the village was destroyed in a reprisal action by Waffen-SS soldiers who claimed that they had found weapons stored in the village.

The fighters in the Maquis were politically diverse: Some of them, like the “Red Spaniards” who were former soldiers in the Spanish Civil War, were Communists, but in general, the Communists had their own resistance organizations, such as the FTP. The Mauthausen camp was the main camp where the “Red Spaniards” were sent.

Henri Rosencher was a Jewish medical student and a Communist member of the Maquis. He survived the war and wrote a book entitled Le Sel, la cendre, la flamme (Salt, Ash, Fire) in which he described his work as an explosives expert with the French resistance. He was captured and sent to Natzweiler-Struthof, then later to Dachau, where he was liberated by American troops on April 29, 1945.

The following is a quote from Rosencher’s book, which describes a typical Maquis resistance action which resulted in the death by suffocation of 500 German Wehrmacht soldiers (feldgraus):

On the morning of the 17th of June, I arrived in the area of Lus-la-Croix-Haute, the “maquis” [zone of resistance] under the command of Commander Terrasson. They were waiting for me and took me off by car. The job at hand was mining a tunnel through which the Germans were expected to pass by train. The Rail resistance network had provided all the details. My only role was as advisor on explosives. TNT (Trinitrotoluene – a very powerful explosive) and plastic charges were going to collapse the mountain, sealing off the tunnel at both ends and its air shaft. When I got there, all the ground work was done. I only had to specify how much of the explosive was necessary, and where to put it. I checked the bickfords, primers, detonators, and crayons de mise à feu. We stationed our three teams and made sure that they could communicate with each other. I settled into the bushes with the team for the tunnel’s entrance. And we waited. Toward three p.m., we could hear the train coming. At the front came a platform car, with nothing on it, to be sacrificed to any mines that might be on the tracks, then a car with tools for repairs, and then an armored fortress car. Then came the cars over-stuffed with men in verdi-gris uniforms, and another armored car. The train entered the tunnel and after it had fully disappeared into it, we waited another minute before setting off the charge. Boulders collapsed and cascaded in a thunderous burst; a huge mass completely covered the entrance. Right after that, we heard one, then two huge explosions. The train has been taken prisoner. The 500 “feldgraus” inside weren’t about to leave, and the railway was blocked for a long, long time.

Natzweiler-Struthof was one of the main camps for French Resistance fighters; Buchenwald was also a camp that was filled with French Resistance fighters.  As illegal combatants, these prisoners could have been legally executed by the Germans, but they were allowed to live and write books about the atrocities committed by the Germans.

I am not disputing Wikipedia’s information that Bernadac was born in August 1937.  He could have been working with the French Resistance at the age of 7.  He could have been a 7-year-old hero of the French Resistance, blowing up troop trains and throwing hand grenades at German soldiers in restaurants and movie theaters.  Photos taken at the liberation of Mauthausen show that there were child prisoners there — and they don’t look Jewish.  He could have been a prisoner at the age of 7, even though he wrote in his book that he was 30 years old when he was at Mauthausen.

When I did research on Mauthausen and then went to see the former camp, I observed two things that were different about this camp:  there were more lies told about this camp than about any other camp and there was more honor given to the survivors of this camp than to the survivors of any other camp.  The site of the former Mauthausen camp is filled with memorials to the survivors.

The general attitude of the prisoners who survived Mauthausen and wrote books or gave interviews is that they were wrongly imprisoned and that they were treated very badly.  Curiously,  SS Judge Georg Konrad Morgen did not do an investigation at Mauthausen, as he did at other camps.  Allegedly, Morgen wanted to investigate the Mauthausen camp, but the Commandant of the camp would not allow him to do it.  I think that the truth is that there were no complaints that needed to be investigated.

February 25, 2011

Who is Pierre-Serge Choumoff and why should we believe anything that he wrote?

Filed under: Holocaust, World War II — Tags: , , , — furtherglory @ 5:27 pm

Pierre-Serge Choumoff was a former prisoner at the Gusen sub-camp of Mauthausen who wrote a book that was intended to prove that there was a gas chamber at Mauthausen.  Choumoff was an engineer who had a post-graduate degree in mathematics; he was the author of numerous scientific articles. During the time that he was a prisoner at Gusen, Choumoff was assigned to work in the arms factories of Rüstung Steyr, Daimler and Puch, which were in the immediate vicinity of the Gusen camp. He also served as an interpreter and a secretary at the Gusen camp. In the last week of World War II, Choumoff was one of the Gusen prisoners who were evacuated to the Mauthausen main camp where a gas chamber was allegedly located.

Choumoff did not use his scientific knowledge to determine that there was a gas chamber at Mauthausen. Nor did he do any tests. He did no research at all.  So on what did he base his book?  His book about the Mauthausen gas chambers is based solely on the testimony of the SS officers at Mauthausen, which he obtained from the trial testimony, given at an American Military Tribunal held in 1946. This testimony was published in Rome in 1970.

I have not read Choumoff’s book, but I have read The 186 Steps by Christian Bernadac which quotes extensively from Choumoff’s book.

Pierre-Serge Choumoff was a “Nacht und Nebel” prisoner which means that his family was not told where he was.  “Nacht and Nebel” prisoners were typically Resistance fighters; with his French name, we can deduce that he was sent to Gusen after he was captured while fighting as an illegal combatant in the French Resistance.  As a member of the French Resistance, he would have had a motive to make the Germans into evil monsters who gassed innocent prisoners, so I don’t consider him to be an objective witness.

In one of his books, Choumoff wrote that the gas chamber at Mauthausen was put into operation in either March or May of 1942 and that 3,455 prisoners were gassed in it. He also wrote that the SS guards had removed the gassing equipment from the chamber on April 29, 1945 the day that Commandant Franz Ziereis turned the camp over to the Vienna police. A sign in the gas chamber confirms that the gassing apparatus was removed on April 29, 1945.

So Choumoff didn’t know when the gas chamber was put into operation, but he knew the exact number of prisoners that were gassed?  He knew the exact date that the gassing apparatus was removed, although he was not at Mauthausen on that date.

Choumoff gave the following statistics for the gassings at Mauthausen and Gusen, as quoted in The 186 Steps by Christian Bernadac:

For the installed gas chamber at Mauthausen: 4000; for the mobile gas chamber (Sauer truck): 1,560; Hartheim: 28,000 to 30,000 of which 4,600 to 8,000 came from Gusen or Mauthausen; finally occasional gassings in Gusen: 800. Total 34,000. At least 11,000 of these 34,000 were registered at Mauthausen or Gusen.

In his book, Christian Bernadac included the statements of several former prisoners which were gathered by Pierre-Serge Choumoff.

I am writing about Choumoff because his name came up in a blog post which you can read here.  The title of the blog post is “The latest effort to combat denial, i.e. Holocaust revisionism.”

This quote is from the blog post:

Lastly, we have the actual Introduction by Messrs. Morsch and Perz. They began by informing us that in 1983, concentration camp survivors Eugen Kogon and Hermann Langbein — along with the head of Ludwigsburg Central Office for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes, Adalbert Rückerl, as well as others — published the book Nationalsozialistische Massentötung durch Giftgas. This was published on the initiative of two Mauthausen survivors, Pierre-Serge Choumoff and Jean Gavard. All of this resulted from a meeting with officials of the centre for political education who discussed the increase in Revisionist debates about NS mass murder in the 1970s.

In my humble opinion, the writings of Pierre-Serge Choumoff should not be used to combat Holocaust denial.  He had no way of knowing what went on at Mauthausen because he was only there for one week. The testimony of the SS men at the proceedings of the American Military Tribunal, which he included in his book, is not believable because it was obviously obtained by torture.

You can read about the trial testimony at the proceedings against the SS men at Mauthausen on my website here and here.

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