It was the Nazi death camp where Hitler sent the most ‘incorrigible political enemies of the Reich’.
Prisoners at Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria were forced to climb 186 steps, while carrying 50-kilogram blocks of granite, ‘without a second’s rest’ for 12 hours a day.
Harrowing images from the German Federal Archive show prisoners undertaking back-breaking labour at the camp, which was built around a working quarry with the mission to work inmates to death.
The Nazis named the camp ‘the bone grinder’ and one of its most punishing features was the brutal steps, roughly carved into the cliff face of the quarry, called the ‘Stairs of Death’.
The photo (left) shows inmates carrying roughly-hewn blocks of stone – often weighing as much as 50 kilograms – up the 186 stairs known as The Stairs of Death. Pictured (right) is the same stairs today, 72 years after the camp was liberated. The stairs have been refitted and straightened so that tourists can easily climb up and down them
Exhausted prisoners would often collapse and topple back on those following them, creating a horrific domino effect.
Christian Bernadac, a French resistance fighter who was imprisoned at Mauthausen, and later wrote a book titled The 186 Steps, recalled how the steps ‘were simply cut with a pick into the clay and rock, held in place by logs, unequal in height and tread, and therefore extremely difficult, not only for climbing but also for the descent.
The prisoners painstakingly carried the stone up the steps while dressed in their striped prison uniform and unsteady sandals.
‘Stones rolled under our wooden-soled sandals, and we were forced to keep moving at a very rapid pace,’ Mr Bernadac said.
‘The work consisted of carrying up a stone of considerable size and weight, along the 186 steps, after which there was still a considerable distance to cover. The man who chose a stone found to be too small was out of luck. And all of this went on at the rate of eight to ten trips per day. The pace was infernal, without a second’s rest.’
Another survivor said a guard would ask prisoners if they wanted to rest for a minute on a ledge – but would execute anyone who accepted the offer.
Former inmate Aba Lewitt recalled the brutal practice as Austria marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Mauthausen in 2015.
The crematorium oven at the Nazi death camp
He said: ‘The guard said, “Well, then, sit over there” – then he shot him. He said the inmate tried to escape the camp. That happened umpteen times every day.’
Other prisons remembered how Hitler’s sadistic SS guards would often force prisoners to race up the stairs carrying the blocks of stone.
Those who survived the ordeal would then be placed in a line-up at the edge of the cliff, called ‘The Parachutists Wall’. The men were held at gun-point and given the impossible choice of choosing whether to be shot or to push the prisoner in front of him off the cliff.
Some prisoners, unable to bear the tortures of the camp, would willfully jump as part of a suicide pact.
Between 122,766 and 320,000 people died at Mauthausen, Austria’s largest concentration camp, in the years between the first railway wagon of inmates arrived in 1938 and the camp’s liberation by American troops in 1945.
If prisoners survived their hard labour shifts in the quarry, the SS and Kapos found other ways to kill them.
Boston University history professor James Schmidt wrote in a 2005 paper that inmates were starved to death in bunkers, hung, thrown at electric barb wire fences and killed in mass shootings.
Some 3,000 inmates died of hypothermia after being forced to take and icy shower and then stay outside, while others were drowned in large barrels of water.
Weakened prisoners were blasted with high pressure jets of ice-cold water with many suffering circulatory collapse and dying on the spot, drowning in water pooling in the concrete basin or perishing afterwards through pneumonia.
Mauthausen, situated about 12.5miles east of the city of Linz in Upper Austria, had some of the most brutal detention conditions of the time.
It was classified Grade III and was a place where ‘incorrigible political enemies of the Reich’ were sent to be exterminated.
Austrian and German criminals, political prisoners, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Roma were first imprisoned in the camp but as time went on Jews, Poles, Spanish civil war refugees and Soviets were also among the tortured.
A platoon of 23 men from the 11th Armored Division of the US Third Army, led by Staff Sgt. Albert J. Kosiek, liberated the camp on May 5, 1945.
Louis Haefliger, the Red Cross representative, who led the US troops to the camp recalled the horrific scenes of the day in the book ‘The 186 Steps’.
‘The camp at Mauthausen was overcrowded, and the camps of Gusen I and II filled beyond human limits. There were as many as five sick men to a narrow camp bed.
‘There were sixty thousand human beings – men, women and children… The Krematorium chimney smoked day and night. The sanitary conditions were at the lowest imaginable level. They were dying of hunger,’ Mr Haefliger said.
Today, the ‘Stairs of Death’ form part of the guided tours at the Mauthausen Memorial. The stairs have been redone and straightened so that tourists can easily climb up and down them.
The Mauthausen quarry is now overgrown with trees and bushes and much of the camp site is also covered by residential areas built after the war.