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May 7, 2010

The liberation of Mauthausen, May 5, 1945

The Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria was liberated by the 11th Armored Division of the US Third Army on May 5, 1945. On the orders of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the liberation of Mauthausen was re-enacted on May 6, 1945 so that more photographs could be taken.

Americans enter Mauthausen, May 5, 1945    Photo Credit: USHMM

The liberation of Mauthausen was re-enacted on May 6, 1945

The photograph above was taken on May 6, 1945, the day after the official liberation of the Mauthausen main camp. It shows prisoners surrounding an M8 Greyhound armored car. The Nazi eagle over the gate had already been removed by the prisoners and a banner, written in Spanish, had been put up by the Spanish political prisoners. The English translation reads “The Spanish Anti-Fascists Salute the Liberating Forces.”

These prisoners were soldiers in the army of the Spanish Republicans, who had fought against General Francisco Franco’s Fascist forces in the Spanish Civil War, and had escaped to France when the Republicans lost the war. The Spanish Republicans were interned by the French and later, when the Germans defeated France in 1940, they were incarcerated as political prisoners because they were opposed to the Nazis. Germany had fought on the side of Franco in the Spanish Civil War, which was a war between the Fascists and the Communists. For the anti-Fascist Spanish Republicans, Mauthausen has the same significance as Auschwitz does for the Jews.

Spanish Republican prisoners re-enact the pulling down of the sign over the gate

On May 5, 1945, the date usually given for the official liberation of the Mauthausen main concentration camp, a platoon of 23 men from the 11th Armored Division of the US Third Army, led by Staff Sgt. Albert J. Kosiek, arrived at the main camp near the town of Mauthausen. They were guided there by Louis Haefliger, a Red Cross representative in the camp, and two German soldiers, after first liberating the Gusen sub-camp, 6 kilometers to the west.

Haefliger had taken it upon himself to go out and find American soldiers fighting in the area. He brought them first to the Gusen sub-camp because of the rumors that Hitler had instructed Ernst Kaltenbrunner to give the order to kill all the prisoners by blowing them up in the underground tunnels of the munitions factories there.

After the prisoners in the Gusen sub-camp were released by the American liberators, fighting broke out among the inmates and over 500 of the prisoners were brutally killed by their fellow inmates, according to Sgt. Kosiek. The platoon of American soldiers was unable to control the released prisoners, so they left the Gusen camp and proceeded to the main camp, where the Communist prisoners were already organized into an International Committee that was ready to take control.

According to Manuel Razola and Mariano Constante, two Spanish inmates at Mauthausen who wrote a book called Triangle Blue, in the last days of the war, the prisoners had formed an International Committee, which took over the camp as soon as the American liberators arrived on May 5, 1945. Razola and Constante are quoted by Christian Bernadac in his book The 186 Steps. According to their story, “The international committee had taken the decision to execute the most criminal SS and common-law elements.” On the night that the camp was liberated, the international committee killed 8 of the Kapos in the camp and 6 of the SS officers.

Posed photo of survivors, May 6, 1945   Photo Credit: USHMM

In the photo above, crippled survivors of the main camp at Mauthausen pose in front of an M8 Greyhound armored car of the US Army 41st Calvary Reconnaissance Squadron of the 11th Armored Division of the US Third Army. The crippled prisoners had had their feet amputated after suffering severe frostbite. This photo was a reenactment, taken on May 6, 1945, of the liberation the day before. Note the warm coats they are wearing; Mauthausen is located in the mountains of Austria where it can still be cold in the first week of May.  Note that the prisoners have been fitted with devices which allow them to walk.

On May 5, 1945, the day of the official liberation of the Mauthausen Concentration Camp by American troops, there were approximately 60,000 survivors in the main camp and all the sub-camps, according to Christian Bernadac. This was approximately half as many prisoners as had been registered during the period that the camp was in existence from August 1938 to May 1945. There were approximately 20,000 prisoners in the main camp, but some of them had arrived only weeks before the Americans arrived.

According to Louis Haefliger, 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 had remained to help in guarding the camp.

The following account, written by Louis Haefliger, the Red Cross representative, is quoted in a book entitled The 186 Steps, by Christian Bernadac:

During the following days I talked with Ziereis about the exact situation prevailing in the camp: lack of bread, clothing, shoes and a dreadful shortage of linens. The camp at Mauthausen was overcrowded, and the camps of Gusen I and II filled beyond human limits. There were as many as five sick men to a narrow camp bed. There were sixty thousand human beings – men, women and children. Ziereis no longer knew where to turn…He speeded up the work of annihilation as much as he could. The Krematorium chimney smoked day and night. The sanitary conditions were at the lowest imaginable level. They were dying of hunger. Ziereis made believe that he was touched by this himself. He put on a self-pitying air, this man with whom I had to take my meals, this monster who once had a truck full of cadavers driven in front of his wife’s window, to boast about his work.


At the stroke of noon, May 5, 1945, all the SS had been disarmed, as well as the Volksstrum militia and the reinforcements of Vienna firemen. Chaos prevailed in the camp. The prisoners invaded the kitchens and pillaged the Kommandantur. The men rigged themselves out in several pairs of pants and fought over the tins of food. There was an unimaginable turbulence. Suddenly freed, these prisoners behaved like a horde of savages. It took some time to get the camp to calm down a bit. I thought about my own belongings in my room. Everything had disappeared: trunk, clothing, linens.

Robert Abzug wrote in his book, Inside the Vicious Heart, that after Commandant Franz Ziereis handed over the administration of the camp on May 2, 1945 to a captain in the Vienna Police, leaving only a small group of SS men to help guard the camp, the prisoners organized resistance operations and began to sabotage the factories. But there was nothing the resistance movement in Mauthausen and the Gusen sub-camp could do about the lack of food, medicine and clothing in the camps. In the chaos of the final days of the war, the transportation system had broken down and everything was in short supply.

Abzug wrote that, until the American liberators arrived, “the camps festered in dirt and disease. Thousands of prisoners died. Conditions were especially appalling among the latest transported prisoners. These men and women had survived Auschwitz, Dachau and forced marches – only to perish at Mauthausen in the final week of the war.”

According to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Mauthausen main camp, and a few of its largest sub-camps, were actually liberated in several stages by the US Third Army in late April and early May, 1945. Col. Richard R. Seibel was appointed to take command of the Mauthausen camp for 35 days, after an American patrol found the camp in April 1945, before the official liberation of the camp on May 5, 1945. In an interview in 1990, Seibel described how the Americans found some stored potatoes and began feeding the starved prisoners a very thin potato soup. There was no wheat flour or yeast in the camp kitchens, so the Americans made unleavened bread out of oats and dried it before giving it to the starving prisoners.

In the weeks just before the official liberation, most of the smaller sub-camps had been evacuated and the prisoners brought to the larger camps. 20,000 prisoners were crowded into the Mauthausen main camp which had a normal capacity of 12,000. Food was scarce and there were typhus epidemics in all the camps; around 300 prisoners were dying from typhus each day in the main Mauthausen camp shortly before the Americans arrived.

A movie that was being shown in the Museum at the Mauthausen Memorial Site in May 2003 featured an American soldier who was among the liberators of the camp. He became very emotional as he said that “we must have buried 12,000 bodies.” He explained that 1,200 bodies had been buried in mass graves the first day and 300 per day thereafter, as a film clip of Austrian civilians loading naked bodies onto carts was shown.

Mass graves at Mauthausen Photo credit: USHMM

There were rumors circulating among the prisoners in the Mauthausen camp that Ernst Kaltenbrunner, who had the supreme authority over all the Nazi camps, had issued orders that all the prisoners should be killed before they could be liberated. This order had supposedly come from Hitler himself before he committed suicide in his bunker on April 30, 1945. Patton’s Third Army had liberated the Buchenwald concentration camp on April 11, 1945 and Hitler had reportedly become enraged when he heard about how the Americans had given guns and jeeps to the liberated prisoners so that they could go to the nearby city of Weimar and randomly attack civilians.

Prisoners line up for soup after Mauthausen was liberated

Mauthausen was primarily a concentration camp for Communist political prisoners and German criminals, but near the end of the war, it was also an “end destination” for Jews who had been evacuated from the death camps in what is now Poland. According to Yehuda Bauer, the author of The Death Marches, January – May 1945, there were 700,000 prisoners of all categories in all the Nazi concentration camps in January 1945, and between 250,000 and 350,000 of them died on the death marches in the last weeks of the war, or after their arrival in the German camps, or after the liberation. At least half of those that died after January 1945 were Jews, according to Bauer.

At the time of the liberation there were also Hungarian Jews in Mauthausen who had been sent directly from Auschwitz to Mauthausen and the Gusen sub-camp in 1944 to work in the munitions factories.

On March 30, 1945, there was a total of 78,754 men and 2,252 women in the Mauthausen main camp and all its sub-camps, according to a display in the Mauthausen Museum, which I visited in May 2003. Included among the men were 13,701 Jews, and among the women, there were 611 Jews. This was the last census taken by the Nazis in the final chaotic days of the war. The total included 13,852 men and 1,238 women at the main camp at Mauthausen, according to the Museum display. There were 91 Jewish women and 2,257 Jewish men at the main camp on this date.

One of the Jewish survivors of Mauthausen was Meir Pesker from Bielsk, Poland. He had been deported first to the death camp at Majdanek, then transferred to the Plaszow camp, which is shown in the film Schindler’s List, and finally sent to Mauthausen. Pesker related the following story which was printed in a memorial book entitled Bielsk Podliask, as quoted by Martin Gilbert in his book Holocaust:

We saw that the Americans were coming, and so did the Germans. Suddenly a German Kapo appeared, a bloated primeval beast whose cruelty included the bare-handed murder of dozens of Jews. Suddenly he had become weak and emotional and he began to plead with us not to turn him in because he had “done many favors for the Jews to whom that madman Hitler had sought to do evil.” As he finished his pleading three boys overpowered and killed him, there in the same camp where he had been sole ruler.

We killed every one of the German oppressors who fell into our hands, before the arrival of the Americans in the enclosure of the camp. This was our revenge for our loved ones whose blood had been spilled at the hands of these heathen German beasts.

It was only by a stroke of luck – even if tainted luck – that I had survived.

Mike Jacobs, a Jew who now lives in Dallas, Texas, gave a description of the liberation of Mauthausen to Theo Richmond, the author of the book Konin, One Man’s Quest For a Vanished Jewish Community. Mike was born in Konin, Poland and his name was originally Mendel Jakubowicz. He was 19 and a half years old and weighed 70 pounds when the Mauthausen camp was liberated. He had survived the death camp at Auschwitz and had been sent to Mauthausen when Auschwitz was evacuated. Here is his story of the liberation, as quoted in Richmond’s book:

I looked out from the barracks and I see tanks coming with white stars. At first I think they are German tanks. I say to my friends, “Hey, look, the Germans have changed from a swastika to a white star. Two hours later I see some more tanks coming. I walk out and I start waving. The guy comes out of the turret. He waves back and throws me something. It was a bar of chocolate. I grabbed it and run into the barracks and say, “Hey, guys, look – I got a bar of chocolate. And can you imagine! The name of the chocolate is Hershel! [Hershel is a common Yiddish name.] I didn’t read the wrapper properly, so the first American food I eat is a Hershel bar.”

The following account was written by Maurice Lambert and quoted by Christian Bernadac in his book:

From one o’clock in the afternoon on, we knew that the Americans were at the gates of the camp, and we had begun our purging process. It was relatively simple. Ten, fifteen, or sometimes twenty of us went to blocks 6 and 7 (I think), where all of the German scum had taken refuge, those who were Kapos just yesterday, block bosses, room chiefs, etc., who had, over the years been responsible for 150,000 deaths of men of all nationalities. This figure was established after Liberation, for the camp of Mauthausen and its many kommandos (sub-camps) working throughout Austria. Every German brute discovered in one of these blocks was hauled into the roll call yard. They were going to suffer when they died, in the way they had made our comrades suffer and die. Our only weapons were our wooden-soled shoes, but we more than made up in numbers and rage for this rudimentary equipment. Every minute a new group of deportees arrived in the roll call yard, dragging a former torturer. He was stunned and knocked down. Everyone who had a sabot on his foot, or in his hand, leaped on the body and face and stamped and struck until the guts came spilling out, and the head was a flattened shapeless mass of flesh…

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.

The American Army was segregated during World War II, so Frister may have been mistaken about the black soldier, although another survivor, Bert Schapelhouman, told a similar story.

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.” The Spanish prisoners shouted “Viva Espana!” as French and Polish prisoners were waving their country’s flags and the Soviet POWs sang the Communist anthem, “Internationale.”

Frister was in the “Sanitary Camp” as the quarantine camp outside the main camp was called. He wrote that he went back to his barracks after cheering the liberators and saw a naked German soldier hanging from the rafters, wearing the cap of an SS corporal. Soviet POWs were using the soldier for target practice, taking turns throwing a long kitchen knife. Frister wrote that the corpse of the German soldier was left hanging for two days before it was cut down by the Americans. According to Frister, after the liberation, Russian POWs who were mostly political Commissars in the Red Army, “roamed the countryside, terrorizing the local Austrians.”

The main street of the Mauthausen camp after the liberation

There was also a “sick camp” outside the gates of the Mauthausen camp which was for prisoners who could no longer work. The photo below shows the “sick camp.”  The young boy facing the camera seems to be in remarkably good health, considering that he is with the sick prisoners.  Maybe his mother was sick and he was just staying with her.

American soldiers talk to prisoners in the “sick camp” at Mauthausen

Austrian civilians were forced to bury the bodies after the liberation

The photo above shows Austrian civilians who were brought to the camp to bury the bodies of prisoners who died in the Russian POW camp, which had been converted into a camp for sick prisoners. A typhus epidemic was raging in the camp and as many as 300 prisoners were dying each day. According to Holocaust historian Martin Gilbert, there were 3,000 prisoners who died after the liberation, before the typhus epidemic could be brought under control. The American liberators used DDT to kill the lice in the camp; typhus is spread by body lice.

The civilians were ordered by General Dwight D. Eisenhower to wear their best clothes to bury the dead prisoners and they were forbidden to wear gloves to protect themselves from contracting contagious diseases.  This was done in all the camps as punishment for the civilians who had not stopped the Nazis from putting prisoners in concentration camps.

The SS men who survived the liberation of Mauthausen were forced to work in the quarry as punishment.

SS men forced to work in quarry after the camp was liberated    Photo Credit: USHMM

The Mauthausen concentration camp became a camp for Displaced Persons who were waiting to emigrate to other countries after the war.  After World War II, Austria was divided into occupation zones and Mauthausen was in the Soviet zone, which meant that the Soviet Union was entitled to the spoils of war at Mauthausen. The American military had until July 1945 to illegally remove machinery from the underground munitions factories before the camps had to be turned over to the Soviet Union on July 28, 1945, by prior agreement.

On September 10, 1945, the Soviets began taking equipment from the Gusen underground factory where the Nazis had been building Messerschmitt jet airplanes. The removal of the machinery was completed by December 21, 1946. In July 1947, the final transport of equipment from Gusen to the Soviet Union was completed. On November 15, 1947, the tunnels where the factories were located at Gusen were destroyed by the Soviets.

The Soviet Union also took charge of the quarry at Gusen and continued to take stone from it, operating under a company called Granitewerke Gusen. In 1955, the Allied occupation of Austria ended and the Soviets moved out; the railroad and the station at Gusen were dismantled. The property that remained after the Soviets left was given to the Austrian people. In the late 1950ies, the land in the Gusen area was privatized and private homes were built where the camps used to be.

Dutch heroine Coba Pulskens hid downed Allied flyers in World War II

Today I was searching the news on google, as I do every morning, and I came across the remarkable story of Coba Pulskens, a Dutch woman who was part of the Resistance movement in the Netherlands in World War II.  A monument to Coba Pulskens, who died in the gas chamber at Ravensbrück in February 1945, has been erected to her in Tilberg in the Netherlands.

I previously blogged about the Ravensbrück gas chamber here.

Monument to Dutch heroine Coba Pulskens in Tilberg

The photo above and the following quote is from the web site which you can see here:

The monument for Coba Pulskens in Tilburg, The Netherlands, has been erected in memory of the lady in the resistance movement who perished only a few months before the liberation. Jacoba Pulskens (1884-1945) During the Second World War she offered shelter to Jews, members of the resistance movement and to stranded allied aircrew.

On Sunday 9 July, 1944, a command group of the Gestapo (German Secret State Police) raided the house of Pulskens at the Diepenstraat. Contrary to the rules of engagement, the three hidden airmen were not taken Prisoner of War, but immediately shot in the kitchen and in the backyard. Mrs. Pulskens, 60 years of age, was arrested and deported to Ravensbrück, a concentration camp for women. In February 1945, she died in the gas chamber. According to survivors she voluntarily took the place of a mother with children hoping that to save their lives.

This story got my attention because of this phrase that leaped out at me: “Contrary to the rules of engagement…”

What rules of engagement?  The Geneva Convention and the Hague Convention?  Coba Pulskens was an illegal combatant under the rules of the Geneva Convention, which states that after a country surrenders in a war, the people in that country who take up arms and continue fighting as civilians are illegal combatants who do not have the protection of the Geneva Convention.  By mentioning the “rules of engagement,” whoever wrote this is making a legal case that the killing of the Allied airmen was a war crime; it gives a signal that there might be another side to the story.

I did a little research on this story and the first thing that I learned was that the airmen were wearing civilian clothes when they were found by the German Sicherheitsdienst (Security police) from the town of Den Bosch.  The Netherlands had surrendered and was under German occupation at this point in World War II. If these airmen had turned themselves in, instead of hiding with the Dutch resistance, they would have been treated as POWs and sent to a POW camp where they would have been treated according to the rules of the Geneva Convention.

Michael Rotschopf, the man who shot the airmen at Coba Pulsken’s house on July 9, 1944, was prosecuted by a  British Military Court in Essen, Germany in June 1946, along with nine other Sicherheitsdienst men who were included under the “common design” principle used by the Allies in war crimes trials. Rotschopf, along with three others, was convicted and sentenced to be hanged.

The following quote is from the Law Reports of Trials of War Criminals. Selected and Prepared by the United Nations War Crimes Commission. Volume XI, London: HMSO, 1949:

Mr. Nico Pulskens, whose house was opposite that of Aunt Coba, stated that on the morning of 9th July, 1944, at about 11.0 to 11.15 a.m. he had called on Aunt Coba and seen three English pilots. The latter were carrying no arms and were dressed in civilians clothes. Shortly afterwards he returned to his own house and heard shots and groans from the direction of Aunt Coba’s house. Looking in that direction from his own house, he saw a man in a blue raincoat “threatening with a sten gun,” the shooting continued until the groaning of the victims ceased. He identified Rotschopf as the man who performed the shooting.


Rotschopf claimed that his orders were to arrest persons of a Resistance group but of whom he had received no description. His instructions from Hardegan at Tilburg were to pass through the house and secure the back of it. According to his evidence, while passing through the living room with his sten gun under his overcoat, he saw three persons in civilian clothes at a table. When he reached the yard behind the house, he saw three men running towards him. When they ignored his shouts of  “Halt. Hands up,” he shot at them and they fell immediately. Cremer then came over the wall from the right, Hardegan and possibly Roesener from the left.

Rotschopf admitted that, in his view, the three men died as a result of his firing. He said that he did not know that the three men were members of the Allied Forces and that “ We did not go there to murder them.” He denied backing the men into the yard and there shooting them in accordance with a concerted plan. He admitted that his gun was loaded when he entered the house but he denied that the three pilots surrendered. Rotschopf said : “ I saw no other way out, and I considered myself under pressure.” Hardegan had told him that if he was attacked he should use his gun, as the persons to be arrested might be armed. He said he did not think that if he had merely pointed the gun at the men it would have stopped them. He said that the events all happened suddenly, and his act was done in self-defence.


The Defence argued that no plan to commit murder had been proved. The Prosecution, on the other hand, maintained that “ this was a concerted action to murder three British pilots, three people who were known to be British pilots and that they, having surrendered to the accused Rotschopf, were in fact murdered in accordance with the plan.”

Much of the argument of Counsel concerned the inferences to be drawn from circumstantial evidence. Thus, the Defence pointed out that Rotschopf was a war-wounded person who was subject to fits, and who had been posted to the DienststelIe to perform office work. Schwanz also was primarily an office worker. The Defence drew the conclusion that neither could have been chosen for the task had it been intended to involve killing people. The Prosecution, on the other hand, emphasised that Rotschopf had had considerable experience of street fighting in Russia which would make him a suitable person to send on a killing mission, and that since Schwanz spoke fluent Dutch he could make enquiries without arousing suspicion. Again, the Prosecution produced evidence to show that Rotschopf’s firing had been divided into two bursts, with a short period intervening. This would tend to show that the killing was intended, but the Defence claimed that it was due to spasmodic muscular movements to which Rotschopf was alleged to be subject.

The Defence maintained that it was most unlikely that the victims would be led outside into the open air if the intention were to shoot them, and the Prosecution on their part used the fact that the victims were later cremated as a significant fact.

The complete text about the trial can be read here.

I previously wrote about Allied flyers being sent to Buchenwald which you can read here.