In January 1944, a Mauthausen subcamp was established in the abandoned Wehrmacht Freiherr-von-Birago pioneer barracks in the lower Austrian city of Melk (until 1945: Reichsgau Niederdonau), about 100 kilometers (62 miles) to the east of Linz. An advance detachment of around 500 prisoners arrived at the camp on April 11, 1944. They were to prepare part of the barracks for around 7,000 prisoners. The camp was then opened on April 20–21, 1944. The prisoners were accommodated in 18 blocks, which, in part, were furnished with Wehrmacht equipment. The company, Quarz GmbH, which used the prisoners, supplied beds, sacks of straw, and blankets. The camp was better equipped than most concentration camps; however, this was soon to change as a result of the overcrowding and catastrophic hygienic conditions.
Altogether there were 14,390 prisoners from at least 26 countries held in Melk. It was only in the middle of September that the planned prison capacity of 7,000 inmates was reached. From September 1944, prisoners evacuated from the Natzweiler main camp began to arrive in Melk and, from January 1945, prisoners from Auschwitz. According to historian Hans Maršálek, the camp reached its maximum capacity on January 30, 1945, with 10,352 prisoners. The larger national groups included Poles, Hungarians, French, Soviet citizens, Germans, Italians, Greeks, and Yugo slavs. However, there were also in Melk prisoners from Albania, Egypt, Denmark, Portugal, Turkey, the United States, and other countries. Around 30 percent of the prisoners in Melk were Jews. The last prisoner transport reached the camp on January 29, 1945: among the 2,000 prisoners from Auschwitz were 119 children between ages 9 and 15.
A camp crematorium had been erected in the autumn of 1944. Between December 1944 and April 1945, more than 3,500 deceased prisoners were cremated in it. According to transport reports, 1,440 sick and injured prisoners were returned to Mauthausen as “unable to work” (arbeitsunfähig). The Standortarzt (garrison doctor) recorded in the register of deaths 4,802 prisoners who died in Melk, including 1,019 in January 1945, or more than 30 per day. One-third of the prisoners who were brought to Melk died within the first six months of the camp’s existence. SS statistics list the nationalities of the dead: 1,575 Poles; 1,432 Hungarians; 546 French; 388 Soviet citizens; 302 Italians; 174 Yugo slavs; 150 Germans and Austrians; 101 Greeks; 36 Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians; 26 Dutch; 22 Czechs; 17 Norwegians; 12 Spaniards; 9 Belgians; 3 Swiss; 4 Luxembourgers; 2 Turks; 1 Portuguese; 1 Albanian; and 1 stateless person.
According to statements by Jean Varnoux, a former prisoner, there were fewer than 10 SS members in the camp. The remaining guards consisted of around 500 Luftwaffe soldiers who had been put under the command of the SS. The first camp leader, Hauptsturmführer Anton Streitwieser, was replaced in May 1944 by Obersturmbannführer Julius Ludolph. The Rapportführer was SS-Oberscharführer Curt Jansen, and the Arbeitsdienstführer was Oberscharführer Ernst Schindler. Hauptscharführer Otto Striegel was in charge of food transports.
A barracks for the sick was established in June 1944 in the camp; a second was established in September 1944. First, SS-Unterscharführer und Sanitäter Gottlieb Muzikant was in charge of medical care. The prisoners have described him as brutal and without feeling. He is responsible for countless cases of prisoner mistreatment and deaths. It was only months later that a Luftwaffestabsarzt, Medizinalrat Dr. Josef Sora, was to take up duties in the camp. French camp doctor Guy Lemordant stated that from January 1945 there were 2,000 seriously ill prisoners in the infirmary, which had a capacity for only 100 prisoners.
Quarz GmbH, a subsidiary of the armaments company Steyr-Daimler-Puch (SDP), employed the prisoners. As part of the program of the SS-Sonderstab Kammler, Quarz GmbH excavated in Roggendorf near Lossdorf underground caverns to be used as sites for the production of ball bearings. The prisoners worked three shifts around the clock, excavating six caverns in the mountain, each several hundred meters long. They also laid rails, poured concrete for the approaches to the cavern, constructed barracks for equipment and machines, laid cables and water pipes, and transported building equipment and machines from the Lossdorf railway station to the construction site. Despite the enormous effort, by the winter of 1944–1945, only a fraction of the planned cavern could commence production. Two-thirds of the planned cavern of 65,000 square meters (700,000 square feet) was not complete when the camp was dissolved in April 1945.
In addition to working underground and producing armaments, the prisoners built houses for Luftwaffe members as well as barracks for SDP employees and laborers. They worked in a munitions factory in Merkendorf, constructed a high-water barrier, and worked for the company Hopferwieser in Amstetten, preparing timber and posts to support the cavern. The prisoners were often leased to local construction companies including Braun & Boveri; Czernilofsky; Himmelstoss & Sittner; Hofmann & Maculan; Philipp Holzmann AG; Lang & Manhoffer; Latzel & Kutscha; Mahal & Co.; Mayreder, Kraus & Co.; Bau AG Negrelli; Rella, Stigler & Rous; Strassenbauunternehmen AG (STUAG); Schachtbau Wayss & Freytag; and Überland AG.
Maršálek stated that there were several prisoner executions in Melk. For example, on May 11, 1944, a prisoner was shot while “trying to escape.” During an air raid on July 8, 1944, 250 camp inmates were killed and 197 were injured—the injured were probably murdered in the next few days with injections into the heart. A similar event occurred on February 19, 1945, when a transport of 250 Slovakian prisoners from Melk was attacked by Allied fighters; 7 prisoners managed to escape, and 20 died; 49 injured prisoners were murdered in Melk. Prisoners in the labor detachments in the “Quarz” construction area often tried to escape: according to the SS, there were 29 escape attempts; it is known that 9 of these attempts failed and 1 was successful.
According to Maršálek, there was an international prisoners’ organization in Melk whose members had contact with civilian workers and individual members of the guards. At the beginning of 1945, Hungarian Jewish prisoners, with the assistance of civilian workers, smuggled seven pistols into the camp from the construction site. The camp doctor at Melk, Dr. Josef Sora, also had close connections with the prisoners. He passed on news from the BBC to specific camp inmates, boycotted the order by the camp commandant to allow 50 prisoners suffering from tuberculosis to starve to death, and in April 1945 negotiated with the Melk district president (Landrat) and Niederdonau Gauleiter Dr. Hugo Jury to prevent the planned murder of the camp inmates at the Roggendorf cavern.
Production ceased on April 1, 1945, as a result of the advance by Soviet troops. At this time, there were around 7,500 prisoners in the camp. On March 12, 1945, a group of 34 Scandinavian prisoners were transferred by the Red Cross back to their home countries via Mauthausen and Neuengamme. The remaining camp prisoners were then evacuated to Ebensee, Mauthausen, and Gusen. On April 11, a transport to Mauthausen of 1,500 youths and sick prisoners was put together, and Muzikant murdered 30 to 40 seriously ill prisoners in the infirmary. Two more transports left Melk on April 13, with 1,440 prisoners in total sent to Ebensee. They went by goods train and barge. The last transport of 1,500 prisoners left the camp on April 15 in the direction of Ebensee. According to documents from the Mauthausen main camp, the Melk subcamp existed officially until April 19, 1945.
Members of the Melk guards were convicted after the war in the Dachau military trials. Camp leader Julius Ludolph was executed in July 1947. The head of the infirmary, Muzikant, was sentenced by the Fulda Landgericht (regional court) in 1960 to life imprisonment in a penitentiary for the murder of 90 seriously ill prisoners by phenol injections and for strangling at least another 100 prisoners. Streitwieser, the first camp commandant, who at first escaped successfully, was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1967 and died in prison in 1972. Leading members and employees of the SDP were never brought before the court.
For detailed information on the sources used for this article, please refer to the print version or request to download Volume 1.
Critical Thinking Questions
- Was the Austrian population aware of the existence and role of Mauthausen and its many subcamps? How would you begin to research this question?
- Where were camps located?
- How did the functions of the camp system expand after World War II began?
- Did the outside world have any knowledge about these camps? If so, what, if any, actions were taken by other governments and their officials?
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933-1945. Vol 1, Early Camps, Youth Camps, and Concentration Camps and Subcamps under the SS-Business Administration Main Office (WVHA), ed. Geoffrey Megargee. Bloomington: Indiana University Press in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2009.