As the world marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of a swathe of Nazi concentration camps, the hitherto neglected site of the Gusen camp in northern Austria has become a bone of contention, with the Polish government demanding it be better preserved.
A few dilapidated barracks surrounded by weeds is all that remains of the “sub-camp”, where historians say 35,800 detainees — many of them Polish — were worked to death.
Much to the surprise of the Austrian government, the Polish Embassy in Austria said in December it wanted to buy the partly private land that hosted the site.
Austria’s government reacted quickly, announcing in January it wants to refurbish Gusen, indirectly recognising the indifference with which the site had been treated since the end of World War II.
Gusen was part of a larger complex around the main camp of Mauthausen, located three kilometres (two miles) away. Long established as a museum, Mauthausen is the most visited memorial site in Austria.
At Gusen, on the other hand, only the former command house, two barracks and the crematorium are still left, next to a housing estate built in the 1950s.
“It is high time to offer the victims of Gusen a real place in history,” Poland’s ambassador to Austria, Jolanta Roza Kozlowska, told AFP.
– Worked to death –
The Mauthausen complex — comprising about 40 satellite camps in Adolf Hitler’s native Upper Austria state and extending as far as southern Germany — was one of the most brutal work camps in occupied Europe, claiming more than 90,000 lives.
Gusen, in turn, was the deadliest in the complex. Classified as “level III”, prisoners, often deported for political reasons, were worked to death there.
Dedicated to the exploitation of granite and later also to the construction of fighter planes, Gusen quickly surpassed the main Mauthausen camp in size.
Some 71,000 people from 27 countries were interned there, with Poles constituting the biggest group. They included artists, church officials, professors, researchers and politicians.
Among the victims was Father Jacques, who was interned after trying to save Jewish children. Dying of exhaustion shortly after liberation, he inspired the 1987 French film “Au revoir les enfants” (Goodbye Children).
When Mauthausen was liberated in May 1945, the history of its “sub-camps” was concealed, according to Bernhard Muehleder, who leads educational visits to the camp complex.
Austria, which was annexed in 1938 by Nazi Germany, was under allied occupation after the war until 1955. Gusen was in the Soviet zone, and the Soviets “did not force Vienna to conserve the traces” of the site, Muehleder said.
In 1965, victims’ family groups installed a small memorial at Gusen. It was not until 2004 that Austria’s government set up a modest visitor centre.
– Dozens of other sites –
But victims’ families and the Polish government want a more dignified place of remembrance.
Since the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party took power in late 2015, Warsaw has multiplied initiatives to remember Polish victims at the hands of the Nazis. Almost six million Poles died during the conflict.
Anton Helbich-Poschacher, owner of one of the plots on which the former camp was located, told AFP that he “saw half of the Polish government arrive last year”.
The 66-year-old businessman said he was ready to sell his property.
In early January, Austria announced it had earmarked two million euros ($2.2 million) to acquire several plots and erect a memorial.
“We are delighted that this acquisition is finally anchored in the programme of the new Austrian government,” a coalition formed early this month between the conservatives and the Greens, said Polish ambassador Kozlowska.
But aside from Gusen, there are numerous other Nazi sites spread through Austria.
“Does the post-war saying ‘Never forget!’ also apply to dozens of other sites?” the Austrian newspaper Kurier has asked, inviting politicians and historians to weigh in on this delicate topic.