A Former Nazi Labor Camp in Austria, Now Billed as a Tourist Site

Novelist Raphaela Edelbauer has been exploring the history of the camp at a former gypsum mine. It reflects a culture of denial

The Seegrotte cave system in Austria – first a gypsum mine, then a forced-labor camp, now a tourist site.
Michal Levertov

Seegrotte, a gypsum mine in the Austrian town of Hinterbrühl, was accidentally flooded and then abandoned in 1912, becoming a tourist attraction in the ‘30s. Half an hour into a guided tour I took at the site came the highlight, a boat ride on what’s considered the largest underground lake in Europe.

The guide, a jovial man wearing period mining gear, kept touting the commercial aspects of the site, considered the area’s top tourist attraction – “It’s romantic! ... We hold weddings down here! ... Details in our office!” He then fell quiet for a few minutes, letting the two dozen jammed-in tourists on the boat take in the view of the cave’s arches and the clear water now bathed in ornate lighting.

Less than 10 minutes were left and it was no longer possible; it had to be asked: What was the fate of the laborers who, during the last year of the war, were forced to assemble the Heinkel He-162, one of the world’s first jet planes? It was made for the Luftwaffe in one of Nazi Germany’s last-ditch attempts to change the course of the war.

Earlier in the tour, when covering the history of the site at its upper, dry level, the guide enthusiastically described the He-162 as the “first jet plane.” It was built for the “German army,” he related, noting that the mine was expropriated from its owners to build those jets. The forced laborers were mentioned, but only very briefly.

The tour, which was stopped as expected beside the props for the 1993 Disney movie “The Three Musketeers,” was hurried along near a sign in memory of the camp’s prisoners.

So it wasn’t surprising that now, upon hearing the question about the fate of the planes’ builders – all the more so at this poetic, scenic phase of the tour – the guide got impatient.

“After the war they went back home,” he said. “Most of them were from Italy.” Did they survive? “Yes,” he said, and moved on, ignoring my next question about the accuracy of these statements.

Next to me in the boat, author Raphaela Edelbauer, who kept quiet during the tour, now glanced at me with a look that said “now you understand what I’m talking about?”

Austrian author Raphaela Edelbauer, April 2019.
Michal Levertov

The largest and most infamous of the Mauthausen concentration camp system, placed underground to hide from Allied planes, was at Gusen near Mauthausen. These sites took the lives of tens of thousands of forced laborers, but the smaller satellite camps were no less cruel. Seegrotte at Hinterbrühl, 20 kilometers (12 miles) southwest of Vienna and 150 kilometers east of Mauthausen, was one of them.

According to the research center at Mauthausen, there were 800 forced laborers at Hinterbrühl. In the summer of 1944, water was pumped out of the caves, clearing the way for production. The number of prisoners who died there due to the harsh conditions is unknown.

What is known, as detailed on the website of another Austrian research and commemoration body, the Mauthausen Committee, is that Hinterbrühl was the launching point of death marches. Some 3,500 people were sent from the camp, most of them Polish, Italian and Soviet prisoners. The last march, on April 1, 1945, included 1,884 people. Of these, 1,624 reached Mauthausen. Even before the march, 52 forced laborers, identified by the Nazis as “too ill to march,” were murdered by benzene injections.

Of course, the incident with the Seegrotte guide, as irksome as it is, is anecdotal. The issue isn’t the guide, who was probably following a script echoing the place’s website. The crucial thing, says Edelbauer, 28, is that narratives like the one at the mine have such a place throughout Austria.

The changes by Austria in recent decades have been substantial; this followed the country’s entry into the European Union in 1995, and before that, the Kurt Waldheim affair in the ‘80s, when it was learned that the former UN secretary-general had been an intelligence officer in Hitler’s army in Greece and Yugoslavia. Unlike earlier generations, notes Edelbauer, “we learned about the Holocaust at school, and about Austria’s responsibility and accountability.” Still, she adds, “Our own region’s history, and the concentration camp that existed right here, were never mentioned.”

A sinister change in climate

In her novel “The Liquid Land,” to be released in September, Edelbauer points to this gap as one reason Austria is part of Europe’s resurgent ultra-nationalism. She considers the preservation of this denial the thing that enabled, with the migrant wave to Austria this decade, young people’s embracing of sinister promises reminiscent of the past.

“People my age suddenly fell back into phrases that were exactly taken from the Third Reich,” she told me in February when she was in Israel for a month to visit her girlfriend, a Tel Aviv dentist. Edelbauer was also here to write a radio play for Austrian radio. “Something has flipped,” she said. “Values my generation had previously considered outdated have taken on a modern shape, suddenly perceived as hip and cool.”

A diorama of the Seegrotte gypsum mine at the Austrian town of Hinterbrühl, April 2019.
Michal Levertov

“The Liquid Land” revolves around a female physicist hired by an Austrian town to find a way of preventing the place from collapsing into sinkholes that keep opening on its streets. The sinkholes aren’t only part of the allegory, they come from real-life events. For three years now, Hinterbrühl, one of the most desirable real estate locations in Austria, has been suffering sinkholes.

In “The Liquid Land,” also inspired by historical events in other Austrian towns, the sinkholes stem from ecological damage caused by humans. They’re a continuation of the negligence that led to the flooding of the mine, a derivative of the racism that led to the establishing of the concentration camp above the mine, the forced labor, the benzene injections, the death marches, and the denial and complacence still lingering in Austria today.

The novel’s protagonist exposes the townspeople’s role in the torture and death of the forced laborers, revealing how the destruction belowground, with its human, geological and ecological layers, continue to erode the earth. It becomes clear that the damage is irreversible; nothing can prevent the implosion into the sinkhole of historical disavowal.

Edelbauer isn’t the first Austrian writer to lambaste the country’s repudiation of its past. Others include Ingeborg Bachmann (1926-1973); Edelbauer was a 2018 winner of the prestigious Ingeborg Bachmann Prize for literature. Other severe critics have included Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989), 2004 Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek and Robert Schindel, who taught Eldelbauer at the University of Applied Arts Vienna.

But Edelbauer is among the first in the younger generation to tackle the complicity of her generation in the revival of a proto-Nazi discourse. The role of her generation, she says, lies not merely in the anti-Semitic and Islamophobic student fraternities, whose members have formed much of the base for the re-rising of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party. It’s also in the role of the Austrian branch of the racist Identitarian movement in the country’s nationalist and nativist surge.

In Tel Aviv in February, Edelbauer said she decided to write the novel in the spring of 2016, when Austria’s brief openness toward refugees from Syria and North Africa was replaced by a tidal wave of Islamophobia and racism. Edelbauer was taking a philosophy seminar at the University of Vienna and found herself studying alongside a chief instigator of that wave, Martin Sellner, the head of the Austrian branch of the Identitarian movement, the European counterpart of the alt-right in the United States.

Austrian laws prohibit the use of Nazi slogans, but Sellner, who has been injecting far-right and misogynist ideas with a hipster vibe, had no problem in 2016 echoing the same “replacement theory” that was heard at Charlottesville: “Jews will not replace us.” The same theory was also cited in the recent attacks against Jews and Muslims in Pittsburgh, Christchurch, New Zealand, and Poway, California.

“He did not hesitate to talk about the ‘replacement of blue-eyed people,’” Edelbauer told me in February. “And it works. People listen to him.” Last month in Vienna, newspaper headlines blared that last year Sellner accepted a 1,500-euro donation from the man arrested in the Christchurch shootings.

A salt mine near Engels, Germany, where troops of the U.S. Ninth Army found these nearly completed Heinkel jet planes at the end of World War II.
Bundesarchiv

Edelbauer says it’s clear that the accommodating climate for hate discourse contributed significantly to the attack. “The line between actual violence and theoretical ideology is very thin,” she says.

A confusing mission

In 2004, a tourist boat capsized in the Seegrotte mine, and five people drowned. Edelbauer was 13 at the time. Upset by the apparent mismanagement, she started taking an interest in the history of the mine. Like many young Austrians, she had only thought of the place as a tourist attraction, but she found out about the concentration camp and the memorial site above the mine.

The memorial was put up in the ‘80s after students from the town of Baden asked about its role during the war. The students, says Hinterbrühl Mayor Erich Moser, pushed the local church to collect money and buy some of the land on which the concentration camp was located. The church put up a memorial site and set up a research group to find out more details about the camp.

When Edelbauer began writing her new novel, she tried comparing these details with the official record. This was a confusing mission. As Moser admits, the local group’s and others’ findings were never put in an accessible database. “I’m not a historian and I don’t have the tools needed for historical research,” Edelbauer says. “And in any case, the novel is fictional, dealing also with the history of other places in Austria.”

She focuses most of her criticism on the way history has been ignored in Austria. During our trip together from her current hometown, Vienna, to Hinterbrühl, where she lived with her parents until leaving for university at 17, she was still shaken by what she described as “the worst quarrel I’ve ever had.” The argument, “during which I started shouting,” had occurred a few days earlier, at a workshop in Klagenfurt, the bastion of Austrian conservatism. Two young artists tried to convince her that “the Austrians didn’t know what was happening to the Jews” during the war.

Her frequent visits to Israel, and the experiences of her girlfriend, an Israeli Arab, have gained her insights into Israeli denial. On her last visit to Israel, she says, “we went on a trip to some cave, next to which was a sign saying there had been an Arab village there in the past. Nothing else, no details.”

This expression, with its tone of disavowal, she says, looked familiar to her. I told her that in Israel even a meager sign like that is progress, compared to the almost total silence about the Palestinian villages destroyed in the 1947-49 war, over which Jewish towns have been built.