The event began with an audio recording of of a man named Klaus W., from Hippach (deep in the Ziller Valley), recounting the day the recruiters came to family’s home in the 1940s and said, “one (of you) must go” into labor service. He was chosen, to spare his parents and his sister. A simple story to give light to how these things had been done.
On a recent evening in January, the Wagnersche Bookstore (now owned by Thalia) hosted a presentation by Matthias Breit about Innsbruck’s concentration camp, in a part of the city called Reichenau. The main part of the evening included audio recordings of the recollections of Walter Winterberg, an Austrian man who had been interned there. What follows is a general summary of what we learned and heard on that evening. If I have made any egregious errors, please blame it on the bad head cold I’d brought along (and feel free to correct me.)
Reichenau was planned and built as a work camp for Italian (mostly) forced laborers who — for whatever reason — were labeled as in breach of their work duties (arbeitsvertagsbrüchig, how’s that word for you?) and in need of a little re-education. Many had probably tried to escape from the farms or factories to which they had been sent. Winterberg came from a Viennese family with some Jewish ancestry. Being a “Mischling“, he was ordered to report for a labor in the Reich’s air defence service. He went, then at some point decided to flee over the Swiss border and into France, in order to aid the French Resistance. (Little did he know that there were Swiss Nazi sympathizers at the borders then.) He was caught while still in Austria and sent to KZ Reichenau for several months before being sent on to Buchenwald.
Winterberg tells of a boy who had been brought from some eastern country, possibly Ukraine, who had suffered a bad work accident and, receiving no treatment, could no longer walk properly. He was then simply written off as unwilling to work, and sent to Reichenau. Another boy from the east, forced to work in southern Bavaria, had been accused of mishandling a child and sent off. This boy underwent the infamous punishment of being forced to strip naked in midwinter and being doused repeatedly with ice cold water until he died. These boys, and many others, were referred to within the camp as piccoli, “the little ones”, all around 12 to 16 years old. There were about 40 of them, and they mostly did maid’s duties: washing up, preparing food, etc.
He tells of Ukrainian inmates, young men, being sent out to clear debris after Innsbruck was repeatedly bombed in 1943. There were strict orders against any kind of looting, but a woman in town came up to one of the inmates and gave him a jar of marmalade. She probably thought she was helping him, and I hope for her sake that, when she died, she still believed that. In fact, when the jar was discovered by the guards, he was hanged.
Others came and went quickly enough to make acquaintance difficult. The average stay was 3 months. Many of the inmates arrived with no idea where they were, little if any idea where they would land next, and did not speak German. On the audiotape, Winterberg wonders aloud what happened to them all after the capitulation.
After the war’s end, the KZ Reichenau became a camp for displaced persons and later on some kind of public housing. It was torn down in the 1970s, to make way for the city’s recycling yard. A stone monument can be found nearby, at the side of the road.
The presentation was followed by an invitation to discussion, and this is where things got a little interesting and awkward. The first to speak, a man who looked to be in his 70s but who must have been older than that, said that he had been in the Wehrmacht and in a POW camp, and that upon returning, found no one interested in what he had gone through, since everyone believed that “all Wehrmacht were criminals”. He tried the “both sides did it” attack, an argument I have heard before, but found no sympathy among the other listeners. A second man said that one cannot look at history this way; this is an chronicle of what happened here in this place. We hear of Mauthausen and Dachau but this is a local story which needs to be heard.
A third man stood to say that he found Winterberg had “prettified” the situation in the camp by not stressing that it was in fact “ein durchgangsstation ins KZ” (“a way station to the concentration camp”, as if it were something not quite so nasty as a concentration camp itself). Breit reiterated several of the points made by Winterberg that the man seemed to have missed, that people were constantly being shipped in and out with little knowledge as to what would happen to them.
At this point my concentration skills were fading, I had a rather bad cold and my head was completely stopped up, but words were spoken to the effect that Winterberg didn’t have anything to complain about, he got through it well enough, he doesn’t mention anything terrible happening to him. Breit reminded the speaker that Winterberg states he was 49 kilos lighter by war’s end (108 pounds lighter ) This is where a woman spoke up and said: these are terrible things. When they are not dramatic enough, when this story, or this story, is not bad enough to make one find it terrible, then…
Breit wrapped things up: If too little horror appears in the reports of Reichenau, think then of the millions who passed through here, headed to their fates. This tale presented here is an historic reconstruction, not a tale of horrors. (This got me thinking of the recent need to make Holocaust stories ever more shocking. Simply being imprisoned and treated badly isn’t enough, the public wants some new godawfulness that they’d never heard of before. I thought until now that this was an American thing, but now I am not so sure.)
As we made to leave, two more listeners chimed in, not with opinions but with requests for their own projects. One man was researching another camp (I did not hear which), the other must have been Herr Muigg, who is gathering information about the Wehrmacht execution site on the Paschberg (de). I have seen his flyers posted there.
Update: thanks to information supplied by, believe it or not, a spammer , I have found that there was apparently another work camp called Reichenau, in the Czech Republic (Rychnov).
It is a very sad story – and as an inhabitant of the area nearby I wonder, why my ancestors were not aware of something happening just 15 minutes walk away (in those days no built up area obstructed the way and sight).
On the other hand today we pass e.g. the Bundespolizeidirektion, off-handedly ingoring that inside people are in custody pending deportation. Of course we are (I hope) more civilized now and despite some hard personal situations the system in general must be just – but it is a walk on a fine line between civilization and barbarism.
I hope you do not feel that you must apologise for your land in any way. These kinds of historical shadows are found all over the world, in every country. You are right to wonder how these things were kept so hidden; I believe that the combination of terror and misinformation led many people to stop being curious about almost anything, lest they bring trouble upon themselves. One could see this in my own country right after 9/11.
A woman wrote to me when I first posted about the KZ Reichenau momument, in 2008, to tell me that she had known a Holocaust survivor who claimed to have been at Reichenau, “in Austria”, but who had been told that she must have been mistaken, it must have been in Poland. The writer thanked me for helping her prove that her friend had been right all along.
And this is the reason why I blog, I suppose!