Lackenbach (Roma internment and transit camp)

The Lackenbach Roma internment and transit camp was the largest such camp for so-called gypsies on Austrian territory, holding over 2,000 inmates in October 1941.

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  • Pre-1938: Bezirk Oberpullendorf, Land Burgenland, Österreich
  • 1938-1945: Gau Niederdonau, Ostmark, Deutsches Reich
  • Post-1945: Bezirk Oberpullendorf, Bundesland Burgenland, Republik Österreich

The Lackenbach Roma internment and transit camp was the largest such camp for so-called gypsies on Austrian territory, holding over 2,000 inmates in October 1941. The Vienna criminal police established the camp in November 1940 at an unused estate in Lackenbach, around 9 miles (15 kilometers) west of the town of Deutschkreuz. The town lies on the far eastern border of Burgenland. Lackenbach served not only as an internment and forced labor camp for Sinti and Roma but also a departure point for deportations of prisoners to the Litzmannstadt (Łódź) ghetto and the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp.

In October 1940 the Reich Interior Ministry sent out a letter announcing that the relocation of the Ostmark’s gypsies to the Generalgouvernement was postponed until further notice. However, the representatives of several counties (Bezirke), including Eisenstadt, Oberpullendorf, St. Pölten, and the Vienna province, decided in conjuntion with the Vienna criminal police to establish an internment camp for Sinti and Roma in what had been eastern Austria. Financed by an association formed by the districts but under the administration of the criminal police, an estate in Lackenbach belonging to the Esterhazy family – the Schafflerhof – was chosen as a suitable spot.1

The camp opened on November 23, 1940, under the supervision of the Staatliche Kriminalpolizei, Kriminalpolizeileitstelle Wien, Department II B, with Hans Kollross, an officer with the criminal police, as camp commandant.2  “The camp command and admissions of gypsies were exclusively under the control of the criminal police headquarters in Vienna," according to a former employee of the criminal police and camp commander, Julius Brunner.3 Despite previous mass arrests of gypsies by the criminal police, the prisoner population of Lackenbach only consisted of 180 people at the end of 1940. New prisoner admissions peaked in 1941. Starting with mass arrests of whole families and groups in April, the prisoner number rose to approximately 2,300 in October of that year, which quickly resulted in overcrowding. The number of prisoners in Lackenbach again began to drop after 1941 due to a typhus epidemic that halted new admissions, as well as deportations to the Litzmannstadt (Łódź) ghetto in November 1941 and Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1943.4

Excluding the period from the mass arrests in August 1941 to the beginning of the deportations to Litzmannstadt/Łódź in November 1941, prisoner file cards from the camp indicate that children made up the majority of prisoners at this camp. Individuals aged 15 and younger made up 42 percent of the prisoner population, while 80 percent of prisoners were under age 40.5

Alongside its function as a place to imprison people deemed “antisocial gypsies” by the Nazi regime, the Lackenbach camp served as a reservoir for forced labor in the region. When representatives of the various counties agreed to set up the camp, they had decreed that the camp should be financially self-sufficient. It fell to the camp administration to put all the male inmates of Lackenbach to work outside the camp, while the women and smaller children worked inside the camp.6 At the beginning these tasks consisted of outfitting and maintenance of the camp itself and work on the roads that led into the camp. With prisoner numbers rising and the demand for labor in the Reich becoming more and more pressing, the criminal police started “leasing” its prisoners to nearby municipal administrations as well as to larger projects, for instance, construction of a dam in Kobersdorf. Other work consisted of road construction, river maintenance, and labor in the nearby brickworks of Julius Lautner and Josef Heinz or in the Stoob ceramics factory. Other businesses that profited from the forced labor of the Lackenbach inmates included the millworks in Drassmarkt and Thies, nearby estates such as the one owned by Baron Rohonczy in Oberpullendorf, and a number of smaller private firms, inns, and farmers.7

A typical workday for the prisoners in the Lackenbach camps lasted between eight and eleven hours. Most of the assignments such as road construction or forestry work were very physically strenuous and took place under the close supervision of camp guards. While conditions varied depending on where prisoners had to work, the guards enforced strict work discipline. The camp logbook, for instance, records the case of a woman who talked during work and was punished with six hours in solitary confinement without food.8 All inmates capable of work were given tasks, including children as young as ten. While some survivors remember that the children were spared from more taxing duties, even those under 10 who were allowed to remain in the camp were often subjected to inhumane treatment. According to Anton Schneeberger, representative of the Sinti community in Austria and a camp inmate, “In winter […] barefoot children had to fetch bundles of wood for heating.”9 Inmates received little or no pay for all their labor. Although employers paid full wages, the inmates only received a small monthly allowance; the majority of their wages went into the pockets of camp authorities.10

Living conditions in the camp were very difficult. In its initial phase in November 1940, the camp consisted of little more than sheep-pens in which the prisoners were housed and forced to sleep on straw beds. With the massive influx of new inmates in August 1941, overcrowding became a serious problem: a typhus epidemic broke out in the camp, and 250 inmates as well as camp Commandant Kollross succumbed to the illness.11 Kollross's successor, Franz Langmüller, subsequently ordered construction of barracks and more sanitary facilities, fearing another epidemic, but conditions only improved marginally. Under Langmüller’s command, physical punishments were harsh, and meted out frequently. At Langmüller’s trial in 1947, former inmates as well as policemen testified that beatings were an almost daily occurrence, prisoners were frequently put into isolation without food, and prisoners' faces had been pushed into excrement on Langmüller's orders.12

While camp regulations relaxed after Langmüller was transferred to Poland and replaced by Fritz Eckschlager in September 1942, the food situation in particular remained perilous. The poor quality and insufficient supply of provisions was not only recalled by numerous survivors, but also featured in the camp logbook: “Wednesday, May 28, 1941: Today we could only cook a clear broth for lunch, since there were no more provisions.”13 Surviving ration cards of the camp administration indicate that meals consisted of ersatz coffee for breakfast, soup, turnips or potatoes at midday, and a soup made of flour and water in the evening. These provisions not only proved insufficient (especially for prisoners performing physically demanding work), but also led to digestive ailments for which the camp medical facilities were not prepared.14 According to surviving camp records, 250 to 300 inmates died during the camp’s existence.15

 After Eckschlager, who took up his post as camp commandant in September 1941, Lackenbach had one further camp commander, Julius Brunner, who had previously served as a guard. He assumed control in September 1943 and remained in that post until March 1945. Like Brunner, the vast majority of guards either came from the criminal police or were deputized policemen drafted from the segment of the male population too old or physically unfit to serve in the Wehrmacht. Some had come from the local police station in Lackenbach, while others were sent from the criminal police in Vienna.16

In November 1941, 2,000 prisoners from the Lackenbach camp were deported to the Litzmannstadt/Łódź ghetto, where they either perished from diseases or were sent on to the Chełmno death camp in January 1942. A second wave of deportations of inmates occurred at the end of March 1943: on March 30 several transports left for the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp.17

The Lackenbach camp was dissolved in March 1945 as the Red Army approached, and the remaining inmates were simply released. While much of the Austrian population continued to view those identified as "gypsies" with suspicion after the war, at least one postwar trial concerning persecution of the Roma took place. In 1947 the Austrian people's court (Volksgericht) in Vienna tried Franz Langmüller and sentenced him to one year in prison in 1948 for inflicting cruelty and abuse on prisoners (under Paragraph 3 of the war crimes law); he only served two months of that sentence.

Sources

Erika Thurner has published the wide-ranging National Socialism and Gypsies in Austria (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1998, orig. German, 1983). Two works focused on this camp in detail include Erika Thurner's Kurzgeschichte des nationalsozialistischen Zigeunerlagers in Lackenbach (1940 bis 1945) (Eisenstadt: Amt der Bgld. Landesregierung, 1984), and Gerada Wanger’s "Die Lage der 'Zigeuner' im Burgenland in den Jahren 1938 bis 1945, mit besonderer Berücksichtigung des Lagers Lackenbach" (unpub. M.A. thesis, University of Vienna, 1999).

Archival sources include records from the Austrian Federal Ministry of the Interior's investigation into the history of Roma camps in Austria in the 1950s to determine whether their conditions qualified former internees for survivors' benefits. These contain various reports and witness testimony and are held in the Österreichisches Staatsarchiv, Archiv der Republik (Austrian State Archive, Archive of the Republic, or ÖStA, AdR), files Zl. 47.558-2/53, Zl 178.401-2/56. The Documentation Centre of Austrian Resistance (DÖW) in Vienna also holds several files concerning Lackenbach, including camp diaries (no. 11340) and the records of the postwar Austrian people's court trial against former camp commandant Langmüller (no. 9626).

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