While the Nazis loudly proclaimed the campaigns to demonize and isolate Jews and “Gypsies” (the name Germans gave to two ethnic groups known as the Sinti and Roma) in newspapers and magazines, on billboards, and over the radio, they attempted to keep secret the program to murder mentally and physically disabled “Aryans.” And yet by the end of 1940, most Germans were aware of some if not all aspects of the killings (see reading, "Unworthy to Live").1 As historian Gordon J. Horwitz investigated the history of Mauthausen, a small Austrian town 90 miles from Vienna, he uncovered evidence of what the residents of a nearby village had known about the “euthanasia,” or medical killing, program taking place there.

Soon after Austria became part of the Third Reich in 1938, the Germans built a labor camp for political prisoners in Mauthausen. As the camp expanded, German officials took over buildings in a number of nearby villages. One of those buildings was Hartheim Castle, which was a home for mentally handicapped children. In researching the history of Hartheim Castle, Horwitz discovered a letter written by a man he identified as “Karl S.” The letter recalls events in 1939.

[The] house of my parents was one of the few houses in Hartheim from which one could observe several occurrences. After Castle Hartheim was cleared of its inhabitants (around 180 to 200 patients) in the year 1939, mysterious renovations began which, to an outsider, however, one could hardly divine, since no [local] labor was used for it, and the approaches to the castle were hermetically sealed. Following completion of the renovation work, we saw the first transports come and we could even recognize some of the earlier residents who showed joy at returning to their former home.

Karl S. watched the buses arrive from a window in his father’s barn. He recalled that groups of two or three buses came as frequently as twice a day. Soon after they arrived, “enormous black clouds of smoke streamed out of a certain chimney and spread a penetrating stench. This stench was so disgusting that sometimes when we returned home from work in the fields we couldn’t hold down a single bite.”2

A woman called Sister Felicitas, who had formerly worked with children kept in the castle, had similar memories:

My brother Michael, who at the time was at home, came to me very quickly and confidentially informed me that in the castle the former patients were burned. The frightful facts which the people of the vicinity had to experience first hand, and the terrible stench of the burning gases, robbed them of speech. The people suffered dreadfully from the stench. My own father collapsed unconscious several times, since in the night he had forgotten to seal up the windows completely tight.3

Horwitz notes, “It was not just the smoke and stench that drew the attention of bystanders. At times human remains littered parts of the vicinity. In the words of Sister Felicitas, ‘when there was intense activity, it smoked day and night. Tufts of hair flew through the chimney onto the street. The remains of bones were stored on the east side of the castle and in ton trucks driven first to the Danube [River], later also to the Traun.’”4

As evidence of mass murders mounted, Christian Wirth, the director of the operation, met with local residents. He told them that his men were burning shoes and other “belongings.” When they asked about the strong smell, he told them it came from a device that turned old oil and oil byproducts into a water-clear, oily fluid that was of “great importance” to German submarines. Wirth ended the meeting by threatening to send anyone who spread “absurd rumors of burning persons” to a concentration camp.5 The townspeople took him at his word. They did not break their silence.

The castle at Hartheim was one of six facilities, most of which were hospitals, that the Nazis outfitted with gas chambers and ovens in 1940 and 1941 in order to murder physically and mentally disabled people and burn their remains. Between May 1940 and May 1941, 18,269 patients were murdered at Hartheim.6

Citations

  • 1 : Carol Poore, Disability in Twentieth-Century German Culture (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007), 87.
  • 2 : Quoted in Gordon J. Horwitz, In the Shadow of Death: Living Outside the Gates of Mauthausen (New York: Free Press, 1990), 59.
  • 3 : Quoted in Gordon J. Horwitz, In the Shadow of Death: Living Outside the Gates of Mauthausen (New York: Free Press, 1990), 60.
  • 4 : Quoted in Gordon J. Horwitz, In the Shadow of Death: Living Outside the Gates of Mauthausen (New York: Free Press, 1990), 60–61.
  • 5 : Quoted in Gordon J. Horwitz, In the Shadow of Death: Living Outside the Gates of Mauthausen (New York: Free Press, 1990), 61–62.
  • 6 : Robert N. Proctor, “Culling the German Volk,” in How Was It Possible? A Holocaust Reader, ed. Peter Hayes (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015), 267.
  • 7 : Ervin Staub, The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 86–87.

Espectadores del Castillo de Hartheim

Mientras los nazis proclamaban en voz alta las campañas para demonizar y aislar a los judíos y “gitanos” (el nombre que los alemanes les dieron a los dos grupos étnicos conocidos como Sinti y Roma) en los periódicos y revistas, en vallas publicitarias y en la radio, estos intentaban mantener en secreto el programa para asesinar a los “arios” discapacitados tanto física como mentalmente. Aun así, a finales de 1940, la mayoría de los alemanes estaban al tanto de algunos, si no de todos, los aspectos de los asesinatos.1 Cuando el historiador Gordon J. Horwitz investigaba la historia de Mauthausen, un pequeño pueblo de Austria a 90 millas de Viena, descubrió pruebas de que los residentes de una aldea cercana sabían sobre el programa de “eutanasia” o asesinato por razones médicas que sucedía allí.

Poco después de que Austria se hiciera parte del Tercer Reich en 1938, los alemanes construyeron un campo de trabajo para prisioneros políticos en Mauthausen. A medida que el campo se extendía, los oficiales alemanes se apoderaban de edificios en algunas aldeas cercanas. Uno de esos edificios fue el castillo de Hartheim, que era una institución para niños con deficiencia mental. Al investigar la historia del castillo de Hartheim, Horwitz encontró una carta escrita por un hombre que identificó como “Karl S.”, dicha carta hace referencia a eventos de 1939.

[La] casa de mis padres era una de las pocas casas en Hartheim desde la cual se podían observar distintos sucesos. Después de que el castillo de Hartheim fue desalojado (cerca de 180 a 200 pacientes) en 1939, empezaron a realizar misteriosas remodelaciones que, sin embargo, a los ojos un forastero, difícilmente podía adivinar, puesto que no estaban usando mano de obra [local] para eso, y no era posible acercarse al castillo porque las entradas estaban cerradas herméticamente. Al terminar el trabajo de remodelación, vimos los primeros transportes que llegaron e incluso pudimos reconocer a algunos de los residentes antiguos quienes estaban alegres de regresar a su antiguo hogar.

Karl S. veía llegar los buses desde la ventana del granero de su padre. Recordó que llegaban grupos de dos o tres buses hasta dos veces al día. Poco tiempo después de llegar, “salían enormes columnas de humo negro de una chimenea y se extendía un hedor penetrante. Este hedor era tan repugnante que, a veces, cuando llegábamos a casa de trabajar en los campos, no podíamos pasar un solo bocado”.2

Una mujer llamada hermana Felicitas, que antes había trabajado con los niños que mantenían en el castillo, tenía recuerdos similares:

Mi hermano Michael, que en ese momento estaba en casa, corrió hacia mí y en secreto me informó que estaban quemando a los antiguos pacientes del castillo. Los espantosos hechos que las personas de los alrededores tuvieron que experimentar de primera mano, y el terrible hedor de los gases de combustión, los dejaron sin habla. Las personas sufrían tremendamente por el hedor. Mi propio padre quedó inconsciente varias veces, cuando en la noche olvidaba cerrar las ventanas herméticamente.3

Horwitz anota: “No fue solo el humo y el hedor lo que llamó la atención de los espectadores. A veces, los restos humanos contaminaban los alrededores. En palabras de la hermana Felicitas: ‘cuando había actividad intensa, salía humo día y noche. Mechones de cabello salían por la chimenea y caían a la calle. Los restos óseos se almacenaban en el lado este del castillo; inicialmente los llevaban en camiones grandes al [río] Danubio y, luego, también al Traun’”.4

Como aumentaban las pruebas de los asesinatos masivos, Christian Wirth, jefe de operaciones, se reunió con los residentes locales. Les dijo que sus hombres estaban quemando zapatos y otras “pertenencias”. Cuando los residentes preguntaron por el fuerte olor, les dijo que se debía a un dispositivo que transformaba el petróleo viejo y derivados del petróleo en un fluido oleoso transparente que era de “gran importancia” para los submarinos alemanes. Wirth terminó la reunión amenazando con enviar a campos de concentración a cualquier persona que difundiera “rumores absurdos de que se estaban quemando personas”.5 Los habitantes confiaron en su palabra. No rompieron su silencio.

El castillo de Hartheim fue una de las seis edificaciones, la mayoría de las cuales eran hospitales, que los nazis acondicionaron con cámaras de gas y hornos en 1940 y 1941 para asesinar a personas discapacitadas tanto física como mentalmente y quemar sus restos. Entre mayo de 1940 y mayo de 1941, fueron asesinados 18.269 pacientes en Hartheim.6

Citations

  • 1 : Carol Poore, Disability in Twentieth-Century German Culture (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007), 87.
  • 2 : Citado en Horwitz, In the Shadow of Death: Living Outside the Gates of Mauthausen, 59.
  • 3 : Citado en Horwitz, In the Shadow of Death: Living Outside the Gates of Mauthausen, 60.
  • 4 : Citado en Horwitz, In the Shadow of Death: Living Outside the Gates of Mauthausen, 60-61.
  • 5 : Citado en Horwitz, In the Shadow of Death: Living Outside the Gates of Mauthausen, 61-62.
  • 6 : Robert N. Proctor, “Culling the German Volk”, en How Was It Possible? A Holocaust Reader, ed. Peter Hayes (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015), 267.

Connection Questions

  1. What did people who lived near Hartheim observe? What did they know about what was happening there? Why did they keep silent about what they knew?
  2. Professor Ervin Staub believes that bystanders play a critical role in society:
    Bystanders, people who witness but are not directly affected by the actions of perpetrators, help shape society by their reactions. . . . Bystanders can exert powerful influences. They can define the meaning of events and move others toward empathy or indifference. They can promote values and norms of caring, or by their passivity of participation in the system, they can affirm the perpetrators.7
    According to Staub, what choices do bystanders have? What choices did people who lived near Hartheim Castle make? What were the consequences?
  3. Who was part of this town’s universe of obligation?

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