The Cheek of It All

Three weeks ago I wrote about my late grandmother's life. Now, for the second time in less than a month, my grandparents' past is grabbing my attention again. And I hope it will grab yours as well.

My grandfather, Aron Tenenbaum, was almost 21 when he was brought to the Gusen concentration camp in northern Austria. By that time he was hardened by five years of struggling to survive, starting when the German army crossed the Polish border. During those years, he lost his entire family and was shuttled from camp to camp. The seven months he spent in Gusen were "the worst time of my life, a real hell," he said.

Two and a half years ago I returned to that hell. The winding road between Mauthausen and Gusen was like an old Swiss chocolate wrapper, all green fields and milch cows. I wanted to trace my grandfather's footsteps, but more than anything else, I was fascinated by the story of an airplane: the Messerschmitt 262, the first jet fighter, an aeronautical icon for plane enthusiasts and Germans, a symbol of their nation's technological greatness. Tens of thousands of slave laborers from all over Europe died building the plane in a giant underground hangar, the Bergkristall. My grandfather and a few others survived. Some received compensation decades later, but I was after something else.

The Me 262 is a popular exhibit in aerospace museums in Washington, London and Munich, and flying replicas often appear in airshows. I wanted to ensure that every place the plane is shown, the dark circumstances of its manufacturing would also be remembered.

At the time of my visit to Gusen, El Al was negotiating its first ever purchase of Airbus airliners. Airbus is owned by the aerospace giant EADS, an amalgamation of German, French and Spanish aircraft manufacturers, including Messerschmitt. I hoped to use the purchase to spur a public debate over the company's past.

I was politely received at the EADS headquarters near Munich. The PR executive said all the right things about the importance of confronting the past and how everyone in Germany was committed. But regretfully, most of the company records from the period were destroyed at the end of the war, and the rest was confiscated by the American Army. And besides, he said, the concentration camp was run and managed by the SS; the company had nothing to do with it. This is a standard response that you hear a lot in Germany.

The SS were the criminals, but the rest of the German people were decent. My host also said that he didn't believe that full production ever took place in Gusen, perhaps only some subcontracting.

All the research about the plane's history points to other factories. Since the Germans did everything to keep the existence of the factory secret, for fear of allied bombings, this is hardly surprising. But obviously the testimony of survivors who built the planes doesn't count when the paperwork says otherwise. My grandfather and other prisoners clearly remember the Messerschmitt engineers working underground on the assembly lines. Records collected by the local village historical society show that a school and houses were requisitioned to provide lodging for the engineers.

I came home, wrote a couple of magazine articles and not surprisingly, no debate ensued. El Al bought Boeings again for financial reasons. It will obviously take more than that to make EADS come clean about its corporate history.

Last week I was contacted by the Gusen Memorial Committee, a group of Austrian volunteers, who are working to shed light on those dark years when thousand of slave laborers toiled away at the German war machine beneath their villages. The Bergkristall, kilometers of tunnels and the giant subterranean assembly hall, may be destroyed now. The local authority has begun excavating and filling in the tunnels. An official spokesman sent me a measured and detailed response explaining these were "emergency measures" to prevent the tunnels from decaying further. Local residents believe the real reason for the work is to prepare for new construction projects in the meadows above the Bergkristall. The authorities now are promising to "preserve" 1,900 meters of tunnel but despite the repeated requests of survivors, they are still not going to open up the site, which has remained sealed since the war. The past will remain safely underground.

So much has already been written over the years on Austrian hypocrisy (Waldheim and Haider anyone?). How Adolf Hitler's birthplace, which rapturously received him in 1938 when Germany annexed it, managed to transform itself into "Hitler's first victim."

On a mountain near Gusen stands the meticulously preserved Mauthausen concentration camp, the national monument to that period. Not surprisingly, the brave Austrian political prisoners incarcerated there, a rather small minority at any of the Reich's concentration camps, are given disproportionate display space. The part played by Austrian SS officers and jailors is much harder to locate.

Official Austria would like us to believe that Mauthausen is an alien spaceship that landed out of nowhere among the fields. The evil that runs deep under the pastoral countryside will remain hidden from view. They have been getting away from it for 64 years, and nothing seems to be changing.