Austria's 'Forgotten' Concentration Camp in Danger of Being Demolished

Austrian officials say excavations next to Gusen need to prevent collapse of underground tunnels nearby.

If the excavations currently under way on a hill near the Austrian village of St. Georgen continue, within a few weeks little will remain of Gusen, one of the most horrifying of the Nazi concentration camps that was located nearby. Austrian officials say the work is necessary to prevent the collapse of underground tunnels on the site.

An estimated 36,000 to 50,000 inmates, including Jews, Soviet prisoners of war and political prisoners, met their deaths at Gusen, the site of an underground production facility for advanced Messerschmitt fighter jet aircraft and other weaponry. The planes were manufactured for the Nazi Luftwaffe with slave labor from the concentration camp. It has been 64 years since the closure of the aircraft factory, which was codenamed "Bergkristall."

One local resident who has been inside said the place resembles ten deserted soccer fields. Other than the gates to the factory and small memorial plaques, nothing on the outside bears witness to the tens of thousands of inmates who met their deaths as slave laborers there.

A small group of local residents and Holocaust survivors is trying to preserve the Bergkristall installation from demolition.

A few kilometers from the site stood the Mauthausen concentration camp, established in 1938 as a detention site for Jews and political prisoners, and ultimately as an administrative center for a network of affiliated camps established in the area under S.S. sponsorship. One of those camps was Gusen, established in 1940, initially as a quarry and slave labor center for the region's industry and agriculture. The inmates were actually made available for a fee as day laborers in the area. Gusen was expanded significantly in 1944, after Allied bombing of military industrial sites in Bavaria.

Thousands of slave laborers were used to dig underground facilities for the production of weapons and other military hardware. The most ambitious production facility was Bergkristall, built underground in an area estimated at 50,000 square meters, for the production among other weaponry of the Messerschmitt 262 jet fighter, on which Hitler pinned so many hopes.

Fewer than half the 70,000 inmates who went sent to Gusen made it out alive. The others were either executed or died of hunger, cold, disease or industrial accidents. The camp was among the most cruel in the Nazi Reich, and was actually ranked as such by the S.S. For a few weeks before the end of the war, the Bergkristall reached a record production level of 15 aircraft a day, but by that point the Nazis were running out of trains to transport them and fuel to fly them.

Production nonetheless continued at a murderous pace, ending only on May 3, 1945, days before the Nazis' surrender ended the war in Europe. About 20,000 Gusen inmates were liberated at the end of the war by the American army. Some died thereafter of disease, and the rest scattered around the world. Gusen has been called the "forgotten camp."

The Messerschmitt company was reestablished after the war and is now part of the giant EADS aviation firm which manufactures the Airbus airplane. Although the legacy of the Messerschmitt is carefully preserved by the firm, nowhere is the fact that slave labor went into the company's aircraft mentioned.

After the war, the Soviets tried to blow up the underground industrial facilities at Gusen, but the collapse of a residential area led them to simply seal the site. The Austrian government has chosen not to reopen it, although the Austrian interior ministry, which is responsible for historic preservation, did take control of the site in 2001.

When demolition work began at the site last month, the memorial committee mobilized, but the regional and national governments declined to stop the work. In response to an inquiry from Haaretz, the Austrian government said the work at Gusen constitutes "emergency measures" taken "in order to prevent the further decay of the tunnel system," and added that the activity at the site is being monitored by experts.

According to the Austrian government, after the work is complete in October, 1,900 meters of tunnel will be "preserved." The government said there was no alternative since the tunnels are in danger of collapse, adding that it was regrettable that the company carrying out the work did not notify the public or memorial organizations in advance.

"The responsible authorities in Austria," a government spokesman added, "will do their best to ensure that as a result of the above measures, the quality of the Gusen memorial site and accessibility for visitors will be decisively improved."

Despite the government's assurances, some local residents are convinced that the real reason for the work is to prepare the site for residential construction.