Die letzten Wochen im Lager Ebensee
Arrival from St. Valentin camp
I arrived to Ebensee from the Sankt Valentin camp at the end of February 1945; my prisoner number was 85729 (assigned to me in Mauthausen). The conditions in the camp in March and April of 1945 were unbearable beyond description. Scores of prisoners were dying daily, from starvation, sickness and cold. We were fed three times a day -- in the morning, there was the Ersatz (coffee substitute), at noon a soup containing few potato peels and few pieces of cabbage, and in the evening a small piece of dark bread made of bran. No human being could have survived on such diet for long. There were thousands of people in the final stages of exhaustion who were unable to walk or to take care of themselves. They were housed in several barracks in one corner of the camp, next to the crematorium. In the morning, they were chased out from the barracks and just sat on the ground, naked wrapped in blankets. They were called Muselmãnner (Moslems). They were dying at such a rate that the crematorium couldn’t burn all the bodies, so they were placed on a big pile next to the fence of the crematorium. At liberation, there were some 1,500 bodies in that pile, some still alive among them.
My barrack was located at the edge of the camp next to the fence and to the Appellplatz. Adjacent to it was another structure where they slaughtered horses for meat. The meat was then taken out of the camp -- we did not know why this operation was performed there. Horsemeat was normally sold in butcher shops in Austria and Ger-many. Next to this wooden struc-ture that looked like a tall barrack there was a pile of straw and horse manure. My bunk was next to a window that faced that pile.
Once in the middle of the night, I woke up to some noise. I saw Rus-sians climbing in through a window on the opposite side of the barrack and getting out through the window next to my bunk. The barracks were dimly lit during the night with a couple of electric bulbs, so one could see where to go. A few minutes later they returned the same way, carrying coagulated horse blood mixed with horse manure, their hands and faces smeared with the stuff. The scene was worthy of a description from Dante’s Inferno, and it showed to what lengths starvation could drive certain people.
Work in Attnang-Puchheim
My next assignment after being dismissed from the work in the tunnels was work at the railroad station in Attnang-Puchheim. That was an important central station where several lines converged, and it became a favored bombing target for the Allies. The Germans tried at all costs to keep the station in operation. About 1,500 prisoners were dragged out at 5 a.m. every morning and marched down to the station in Ebensee. There a cattle train was waiting, and we traveled some 25 miles north for an hour along the lake Traunsee to Attnang-Puchheim. The station was a mess of bomb craters, twisted rails, and thousands of wooden rail ties scattered around a large railroad yard. We were so weak that it took dozens of people to lift one rail. We had to fill the bomb craters, remove all debris, and restore the railroad tracks. Even under the best conditions, this was very hard work. We toiled there every day until dark and then went back by train and marched up to the camp. On many nights the station was bombed again.
The work was exhausting, and I was losing strength. It was then that I started to give up hope that I would survive. But I decided that I would not die in the camp like a Muselmann. When I felt that I didn’t have any more strength I would just remain in one of the bomb craters, hoping that the Germans would find me there and shoot me on the spot. I wouldn’t have survived even a few more weeks of this ordeal. I think the reason that I was still able to move and to work was probably that I was young -- I was just 18 years old and had a strong disposition. People in their twenties and thirties were dying much faster than youngsters like me.
Several days before the liberation, they stopped taking us to Attnang-Puchheim -- just in time for me. Apparently, the Allies were getting closer and there was no use in continuing to repair the station, be-cause the Germans couldn’t run the trains anyway. No other prisoners were going to work outside the camp, either.
Piles of dead bodies
Usually everybody in the camp got up at five in the morning and as-sembled on the Appellplatz in groups. After counting, the various groups were marched off to their work. We were doing absolutely nothing, just sitting in the sun and wondering what would happen next. Many emaciated prisoners were dying and there was nothing that could be done for them. So the pile of dead bodies near the crema-torium was growing. After almost continuing rain and fog the weather turned fair -- it was getting warm. We didn’t know what was happening outside the camp but we felt that the war was coming to an end.
Last speech of Anton Ganz
The next day the camp commandant Anton Ganz (a sadistic SS of-ficer and a murderer) called every-one to the Appellplatz. He was sur-rounded by SS guards armed with submachine guns. This was very unusual -- normally he came by himself with only the dog. He spoke through a loudspeaker, telling us that the Allies were coming and he had orders to turn us over to them when they arrive. But to ensure our safety he proposed that we go to the tunnels and wait there. He said that the camp was not safe, because the Al-lies might think that it was an army installation and bomb it. He would bring all the food to the tunnels. His speech was translated into several languages so everybody would understand. A rumor was circulating that the tunnels were mined. In response to the speech, everybody was screaming “No!” Ganz was taken aback by this reac-tion and consulted for a minute with his guard. After that he said, “All right, if you don’t want to go you can stay here at your own risk,” and he turned around and the group left the camp. The fact was that the previous night many of the SS guards deserted and Ganz was left with half a crew. He was afraid to take 18,000 people out of the camp by force and bring them to the tunnels. We thought that the rumor was spread by German prisoners who somehow found out about it.
SS guards had disappeared
The next morning when I got up, I looked through the window and saw that the guards in the watch-towers were not SS anymore. They were civilians, old people above the draft age, armed with rifles (no machine guns). They belonged to the Volkssturm, an organization of old veterans doing guard duty. A few hours later, the Lagerältester (camp elder) called everyone to the Appellplatz and told us that the SS had disappeared and had been replaced by the Volkssturm. The man in charge of the Volkssturm came over to the gate and talked to the camp elder. He told him that the Allies were very close, and in a matter of days would be here. He asked him to calm the prisoners to avoid any problems, and let everyone know not to attempt to leave the camp.
The camp elder said that he had taken a survey of all the food left in the camp and had decided to double the rations of food. Even so, there would be enough to last for six more days. He thought that the Allies would come sooner than that.
Russian and Serb prisoners who were mistreated by them killed several German capos and Block-älteste. Two of them were from my previous camp, St. Valentin. One, a capo, was lying in a ditch, and I recognized him because he was wearing a white civilian sweater. He must have been beaten to death because I couldn’t recognize his face. The other was the Blockälteste of barrack 3, where there were many Serbs. The Serbs were recent camp arrivals, strong young men who had been rounded up in mountain villages on suspicion of partisan activities. One of them told me that they were searching the entire camp for that German. Finally, they found him hiding in a barrack under a bunk bed, and they dragged him out screaming and slaughtered him with a bread knife like a pig.
US tanks were coming
On May 6, a Sunday, in the late morning, several prisoners who were laying in the sun on the roof of my barrack screamed that tanks were coming. Because the barrack was close to the fence, they could see the town of Ebensee and part of the lake in the valley below. The only road to town from the north wound along the shore of the lake, right against the mountains. We figured it could only be Americans, because we thought that the Ger-mans wouldn’t have any tanks in the area.
About an hour or so later three tanks came into the camp, knocked down the gate, and rode into the Appellplatz. I never saw a scene like it in my life, a pan-demonium broke out, and it looked like an insane asylum. Thousands of people jammed the tanks. The tank crew was bewil-dered by what they saw. After a short stay, they just turned around and drove out.
The Volkssturm guards climbed down from the towers, dropped their rifles, and went home. Thou-sands of prisoners who were physically capable were mulling around the Appellplatz in frenzied excitement. About an hour or so later, three jeeps came to the camp and one man, a tall husky sergeant with a big mustache and a loudspeaker spoke half in German and half in Yiddish. He said that he was a Jew from Chicago and asked that nobody leave the camp because there were Germans in the area and it was very dangerous -- one could get shot. There was no reason for anybody to leave the camp because the army was going to bring in food so that nobody would be hungry anymore. They would also bring in a field hospital to help all the people who were sick.
We were not used to heavy food
About an hour later, a whole col-umn of GMC trucks arrived and un-loaded food. They selected a few dozen strong men in the camp to work in the kitchen, and they started cooking. One hour later they brought out big cauldrons of soup. People were standing in line, and they were ladling it out. I got in line too. I had a big pot, and they slapped that soup into it. The soup was very heavy, full of meat, beans, and cereal; everything under the sun was in that soup. I took one spoonful and decided that the soup was not good for me. I had enough sense and will power that despite the hunger pangs I spilled the soup onto the ground. Unfortunately, the soup made people sick and even killed many of them, because we were not used to such heavy food, especially in large quantity. Some people just couldn’t help themselves and overate.
The war had ended
I walked out of the camp to the SS barracks in search of food, found a slice of dried-up bread under a cot, covered with dust, and ate it up. Then I lifted a mattress on another bed and found a pistol that I promptly hid under my shirt. Another prisoner saw it and ripped it out from under my belt with a piece of my shirt -- he was much bigger and stronger. Then more prisoners came and I saw someone pulling a box of hand grenades out from under a bed. At that point, I ran out because I feared that the whole thing might explode.
I went to the SS kitchen and saw a pile of potato peels. I dug through it and found some small potatoes. I brought them back to the camp, started a bonfire, and with some friends ate the boiled potatoes. Even with that, I had a loose stomach for a few days.
The following day the American Army came with a field hospital consisting of many tents. The army doctors and nurses tended to all the sick people. There were scores of prisoners that could not be helped and died, but the doctors revived many people that were laying among the dead in the big pile at the crematorium. I have met one
of those revived people several years later in Italy. The second day after the liberation, on May 8, 1945, we learned that the war had ended.
I had a group of three or four friends who were with me in previous camps, and a few days after the liberation, we decided to leave the camp. We walked down to the town. There was a company of American tanks quartered there, and nearby were two empty barracks. We settled in one barrack and went looking for food. When the soldiers were served food, we also got in line and received a portion of that. That was the fist time that I tried American white bread, it tasted like cotton to me. I couldn’t understand why the Americans didn’t have decent bread.
After we ate, a sergeant came and took us into the kitchen to peel potatoes, wash pots, and scrub the floors. We were getting a lot of food and were gaining strength pretty fast. Adjacent to the kitchen was a German Army warehouse, where we got clean underwear, socks, boots, towels, soap, and other things. We were still wearing the striped uniforms because we couldn’t get any civilian clothing. However, after many years, we freed ourselves from lice. The American soldiers used a ma-chine that dispensed DDT powder. We were also “treated” to it. They blew this powder with a hose like a vacuum cleaner under the shirt, pants, and everywhere on the body, and it killed lice and fleas like a miracle. (This powder is no longer produced because it was discovered that it was carci-nogenic.)
Many prisoners had left the camp and come into town and it felt like being in camp again. There were more prisoners than townspeople. I didn’t have any notion what to do or where to go. But after a couple of weeks, we decided to move on and we left Ebensee
I came to Ebensee again in 1990 and 2003 when I visited Austria with my two daughters.
By Solomon J. Salat, March 10, 1998.
Publiziert in: betrifft widerstand Nr. 66, Februar 2004, S. 23-26
Salomon J. Salat lebt in New Jersey (USA).
Im Mai 2003 besuchte er die Gedenkfeier in St. Valentin und E-bensee. Für das Archiv der Gedenkstätte Ebensee wurde eine Videoaufnahme mit seinen Erinnerungen angefertigt.