Over 122,000 People Died Climbing The 'Stairs Of Death' In This Lesser-Known Concentration Camp
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Over 122,000 People Died Climbing The 'Stairs Of Death' In This Lesser-Known Concentration Camp

When World War II began in 1939, more than 1.5 million Jewish children lived in the areas German armies occupied. When WWII ended in 1945, more than 1 million of those children had perished. Concentration camps like the infamous Auschwitz forced people to endure inhumane treatment and poor living conditions. The Mauthausen camp was lesser known but equally horrific.

Built in 1938, Mauthausen was one of the first concentration camps erected and the last to be liberated. It was an incredibly volatile institution; terrible medical experiments took place there, and guards humiliated inhabitants. Mauthausen's Stairs of Death were especially tragic because prisoners were forced to climb to their demise. Nazi Party members even dubbed the camp "the Bone Grinder."

Allied soldiers liberated the Austria-based camp at the end of WWII, but the terror that was daily life in Mauthausen will never be forgotten.

  • Prisoners Had To Climb Steep Stairs While Carrying Heavy Rocks

    Prisoners Had To Climb Steep Stairs While Carrying Heavy Rocks
    Photo: Bundesarchiv / Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

    Mauthausen was one of the largest, most deadly concentration camps. It contained the Stairs of Death. This 186-step structure was brutal for prisoners. They had to carry stones weighing more than 100 pounds from the bottom of the quarry to the top of the stairs. Climbers often collapsed beneath the stones' weight.

    Exhausted prisoners slid down the steps, knocking over other prisoners while the stones crushed their limbs.

  • Prisoners Were Sometimes Forced To Execute One Another

    Some prisoners at the Mauthausen concentration camp were forced to make terrible decisions if they didn't perish while climbing the treacherous stairs. German guards lined up those who survived the trek, then forced them to choose between either pushing a fellow prisoner off the cliff or being executed.

    Many prisoners opted to jump off the cliff. German officers called these acts "parachute jumps."

  • Mauthausen's Lead Doctor Kept Prisoners' Heads As Trophies

    Dr. Aribert Heim performed horrific experiments on Mauthausen prisoners. In 1941, Heim started working at Mauthausen, where he disfigured people indiscriminately. During Heim's first year of employment there, guards brought in an 18-year-old Jewish athlete with a foot infection. Heim put the teen under anesthesia, cut him open, removed his kidney, and castrated him.

    Finally, the doctor removed the athlete's head, then boiled the skull to remove all the flesh. He kept the severed body part as a trophy.

  • Wet Prisoners Were Forced Outside During The Cold Winter Months

    Winters in Austria are brutal. Temperatures drop to around -10 degrees Celsius. Guards at Mauthausen used those frigid temperatures to torment and execute inmates. They took groups outside, forced them to strip naked, then sprayed them with water.

    Prisoners were left to freeze and many succumbed to hypothermia.

  • Prisoners Who Accepted Relief Were Executed

    Concentration camp guards physically and mentally abused their prisoners. Former inmate and French resistance fighter Christian Bernadac said Mauthausen was "infernal, without a second's rest." Officers offered prisoners breaks from the grueling work, but then executed those who accepted.

    Mauthausen survivor Aba Lewitt recalled a man who met that fate:

    The guard said [to the man], "Well, then, sit over there" - then he shot him. [He] said the inmate tried to escape the camp. That happened umpteen times every day.

  • The Staircase Was Extremely Difficult To Navigate

    The Staircase Was Extremely Difficult To Navigate
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Tourists can climb the stairs during regular tours of the Mauthausen concentration camp. The incline underwent a major remodel, though. There are now sturdy cement steps instead of the original crumbling ones.

    Before the stairs were redone and preserved for visitors, they were crudely cut into clay and rock, and logs held everything in place. The incline was uneven with varying levels of tread. It was extremely difficult to navigate on the way up and on the descent. Stones often slipped as guards forced prisoners to move briskly.