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Death register returns to Mauthausen, Austria

Today’s post comes from exhibits conservator Terry Boone and senior registrar James Zeender.

May marks the surrender of the Nazi forces to the Allies—and the liberation of the Mauthausen concentration camp in 1945.

Last year in April, we traveled to the Mauthausen National Memorial, about 100 miles west of Vienna, with one of the original death registers created at the Mauthausen concentration camp. This camp was a part of the Nazi killing machine responsible for 6 million deaths—almost 100,000 at Mauthausen alone.

The register would be part of a new exhibition, “The Concentration Camp Mauthausen 1938–1945,” on display in the infirmary building where the registers were originally kept. The infirmary is within walking distance of the quarry where thousands of prisoners were worked to death, deaths that would be recorded for history by the prison clerks. Prisoners carried stones weighing 50 pounds or more up hundreds of steps eight or more times a day. The exhibition marks the first time that a piece of original Holocaust evidence from the National Archives had returned to its place of origin for public display.

 The front cover of the first volume of the Mauthausen death books. National Archives.

The front cover of the first volume of the Mauthausen death register. National Archives Collection of World War II War Crimes Records, RG 238).

In Austria, our first stop was the Interior Ministry in downtown Vienna, where we met Mauthausen Memorial Archive Director Christian Duerr and photo archivist Ute Bauer-Wassmann. We learned about the origins of the Archive and its development.

Hans Maršálek, a camp survivor, had compiled about 20 cubic feet of records from various sources into binders. After the war, he served as a special investigator for the Austrian Interior Ministry and helped investigate war criminals. From 1964 to 1976, he was the head of the Memorial. He died in 2011. In the last 12 years, through the efforts of the Mauthausen Memorial Archive staff, the collection has grown substantially. Memorial contract researchers working at the National Archives at College Park are also digitizing thousands of records  that will eventually be available on their website.

Mauthausen was a complex of more than 40 labor camps spread over the eastern half of Austria and southeast Germany. At Mauthausen,  political and ideological prisoners and Jews died by “extermination through labor,” gas, shooting, starving, and beating. They came from Albania, Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, and the Soviet Union. American POWs were also held captive there.

The Memorial was first organized by camp survivors and established by the Austrian government in 1949. Today, it is administered under the direction of the Austrian Interior Ministry. The Mauthausen Committee, a non-governmental organization, organizes the annual liberation ceremonies, educational programs, and other activities. The site receives close to 200,000 visitors a year.

When German SS troops evacuated the Mauthausen Concentration Camp on May 3, 1945, ahead of advancing Allied troops, elderly militia, police, and firemen were left in control of the camp.  Two days later, the 41st Reconnaissance Squadron of the US 11th Armored Division, 3rd U.S. Army approached from the west, disarmed the militia and police, and left. More U.S. Army units arrived on May 6 and occupied the area for several weeks. Among those freed at Mauthausen was Simon Wiesenthal, who dedicated his life to tracking down Nazis who had committed war crimes.

Germany surrendered to the Allies on May 7, 1945. Mauthausen was put under the jurisdiction of the Soviet Union’s Red Army in July 1945. In the weeks before the Red Army took over, U.S. Army investigators swept up the death books and other camp records for use at the Nuremburg Tribunal and other war crimes trials. Eventually, the records were transferred to the National Archives.

Totenbuch Mauthausen (Volume 1) is one of seven registers in the National Archives and covers the period from January 1939 to December 1939. The six other death books span the years up to the liberation of May 1945.

The first volume of the Mauthausen Deathbooks shown open. National Archives.

Entries 1838 to 1864 in the first volume of the Mauthausen death register. National Archives Collection of World War II War Crimes Records, RG 238.

From 1941 to 1942, prisoner Ernst Martin recorded the entries in the books. In 1943, prisoner Josef Ulbrecht from Czechoslovakia followed him as the clerk in the office of the head doctor until liberation. Martin would be especially helpful to the investigators in compiling the camp records that would be most useful at trial.

Tomaz Jardim writes in The Mauthausen Trial: “Although Martin was ordered not to record the true causes of death, the books clearly reflect mass murder. On March 19, 1945, for instance, 275 Jewish prisoners are listed to have died of heart trouble at Mauthausen between 1:15 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. They died alphabetically, one after another, from Ackerman to Zyskind.”

The SS directed Martin to destroy the books, but he took great risks to preserve them. About the death registers, Jardim writes:

More than any other piece of  evidence gathered by War Crimes investigators, the death books of both Mauthausen and Gusen proved to be vital in the investigation and ultimate trial of the SS staff.  These books record the deaths of near 72,000 prisoners [and] survived through the efforts of a prisoner clerk named Ernst Martin. . . . By posing as a “dumb and disinterested clerk,” Martin gained the trust of the Nazi overlords and was put in charge of updating the death books on a daily basis.

At the trial, prosecutor Lt. Col. Denson asked Martin questions about entry 2,768 in one of the death books. “Did you make any notation after the place of birth to tell you whether or not that man died an unnatural death?”

Martin responded: “After the birth place, a period.” The cause of death in the book read “shot while trying to escape,” but this was a Polish Jew who was confined to a quarantine block with no opportunity to escape.

During our visit, we asked Duerr, the Mauthausen Memorial Archive Director, about the existence of other death registers and other evidence at Mauthausen. Duerr responded:

In general, the SS ordered the destruction of the most incriminating evidence of their crimes before the camps’ liberation. . . . However, the effort of prisoners saved some of these documents from destruction . . . registers concerning prisoners who died or were murdered are preserved in different archives. Our own archive, for example, holds death registers for the camp Gusen, which were compiled independently from the ones held at the National Archives. Also, there are registers of so-called “unnatural deaths” held at the National Archives in Prague.

When we arrived at the Memorial, Barbara Glück and her staff greeted us outside at the front entrance to the infirmary.

The Totenbuch was one of the last objects to be installed. The Memorial’s contract conservator Bettina Dräxler of Vienna and National Archives conservator Terry Boone made a careful record of the volume’s appearance.

The register is in good condition. It is a quarter-cloth case binding with paper labels on front cover, and section gatherings are held by staples. The machine-made paper has manuscript text entries in red, blue, and black fountain pen ink. Occasionally ink manuscript entries have been scraped off and overlaid with rewritten information. In coming years, the other death books will be rotated into the exhibition as a preservation measure to ensure limited handling and light exposure of each volume.

Conservator Terry Boone installing the Mauthausen Death book at the Mauthausen Memorial, April 2013.  National Archives.

Conservator Terry Boone installing the Mauthausen death register at the Mauthausen Memorial in April 2013. Photo by Ute Bauer-Wassman, archivist at the Mauthausen Memorial.

When they finished with the condition report, Terry and Bettina were ready for installation. We soon realized the mount was too tall. Everyone waited anxiously while the exhibit crew made the necessary adjustments to the mount. Finally, the volume was in its case, and the case was secured. Light readings were taken; alarms and cameras were tested. Our work was done.

The volume was installed open. To protect against damage to the binding, it will be shown closed for the coming year. Next May, another volume from the series will replace it, and the first volume will return to the National Archives.

The National Archives is a center for Holocaust research, with more than 20 million pages of related textual (and many nontextual) records including the Mauthausen death register and other evidence used at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials. The Mauthausen Concentration Camp Complex: World War II and Postwar Records (2008) was compiled by staff archivist Amy Schmidt and intern Gudrun Loehrer with cooperation from the staff at the Mauthausen Memorial Archives. Also, see www.archives.gov/research/guide-fed-records/groups/238.html and www.archives.gov/research/holocaust/finding-aid.  Many of these records can also be found on fold3.com and other sites.

We are most grateful to Dr. Glück, Dr. Duerr, Karin Gschwandtner, Ute Bauer-Wassman, Ralph Lechner, Dr. Dräxler and all the others associated with the Memorial who helped us along the way. We are also grateful for the support we received from the U.S. Embassy in Vienna, specifically Jan Krc, Karin Czerny, Mary-Jo Swinimer, Martin Beck, and John McDaniel. Closer to home, we are grateful for assistance from Amy Schmidt, Ann Cummings, and Netisha Currie from Research Services; Kevin McCoy, Lee Johnson, and Bill Nenichka from Security/Holdings Protection; Alexis Hill, Cathy Farmer, and Chris Smith from Exhibits; MaryLynn Ritzenthaler and Kitty Nicholson from Conservation; and Jim Gardner, head of Legislative Archives, Presidential Libraries, and Museum Services.

Further reading: Tomaz Jardim: The Mauthausen Trial: American Military Justice in Germany (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012)

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