Austrian town strives to keep alive memory of Nazi victims

Austrian town strives to keep alive memory of Nazi victims

14th October 2009, Comments 0 comments

After a recent neo-Nazi incident, the town of Ebensee, where a forced labour camp was located in WWII, is attempting to re-examine its past – and present.

There is not much in the idyllic little Austrian town of Ebensee to remind people of the forced labour camp and the thousands who perished here during World War II.

But its dark history was back under the spotlight after a "shooting" incident at the annual ceremony marking the anniversary of the camp's liberation.

The episode has sent shock waves across a country that is growing increasingly concerned at what it fears is a rise in neo-Nazi activity, and has prompted some serious soul-searching.

"Perhaps it's precisely because of all the work we've done in coming to terms with our past that some people feel prompted to do something like this," said Ebensee Mayor Herwart Loidl.

The far-right made strong gains in Austria's general election last year, becoming the third-strongest force in parliament. And the populist party of late politician Joerg Haider, BZOe, won regional elections in the southern province of Carinthia in March.

Ebensee, in the northwest province of Upper Austria, was a satellite of the notorious Nazi concentration camp at Mauthausen, where around half of the more than 200,000 detainees perished.

In Ebensee alone, some 8,200 people -- slightly more than the town's current population of 8,000 -- died.

At this year's May 9 commemoration, five masked youths between the ages of 14 and 17 made Nazi-style salutes and fired compressed air rifles at visitors, injuring two former internees.

Pupils listen to the story of Ladislaus Zuk (R), an 89-year-old survivor of the Austrian WWII Nazi concentration camp at Ebensee on 28 May 2009

Little sign of the past

Other than a concrete arch and a memorial plaque, there is little hint that tens of thousands of prisoners were forced to labour there between 1943 and 1945, digging tunnels into the mountain as part of an underground factory -- never finished -- for long-range missiles.

The barbed-wire fences and the watchtowers were all pulled down 60 years ago, and the town today looks like a storybook spot on the Traunsee lake, nestled among dramatic mountain vistas.

Regional authorities, however, don't want the camps forgotten and have focussed efforts on schools -- though not all local classes visit Ebensee, said a member of the organisation that maintains the Mauthausen memorial, Wolfgang Quatember.

"It depends on the pupils," he said. In all, around 25,000 pupils have visited over the years.

More education

After the May 9 incident, Loidl and others, including the head of Upper Austria's anti-racism initiative Robert Eiter, feel educational efforts need to be intensified.

"The number of people convicted of far-right activities is high in Upper Austria," said Eiter, alleging there were ties between neo-Nazi organisations in the region and those in nearby Germany.

Overall in Austria, the far-right made strong gains in the general election last year, winning substantial votes from the mainstream Social Democrat and conservative parties.

"If you give people the vote at the age of 16, you have to educate them politically from the age of 12," said Eiter.

Wolfgang Quatember (R) member of the organisation that maintains the Mauthausen memorial of the former Austrian WW II Nazi Concentration Camp at Ebensee speaks to a group of pupils

Some of the most vivid lessons at Ebensee are said to come from 89-year-old former internee Ladislaus Zuk, a Pole who was imprisoned from February 1944 to the town's liberation in May 1945. Emaciated on his release, he was taken in by a local resident and eventually married her daughter.

"You are my therapy," he tells a group of pupils. "I was born a second time. I want to stay here always."

Young visitors like Julia, 19, say Zuk makes the history lessons "all the more real."

But what will happen when the survivors have all gone?

"That's a problem,” said Quatember. “A film doesn't give you the same emotions. But it's not only up to the schools. The parents have to do their bit as well."

Luc Andre/AFP/Expatica

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