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.
Mauthausen was a central concentration camp, but numerous subcamps surrounded the structure, with everything connected by underground tunnels. One of these smaller areas, the Gusen complex, housed people who were deemed too weak to work. Gusen inmates were thrown on the ground and abandoned. The people there piled on top of each other, often unable to move around and covered in human excrement.
German guards rarely distributed food in Gusen, so detainees starved.
Food was scarce in Mauthausen, and sometimes high-ranking German guards like Oswald Pohl halved rations. To stay alive, some inmates resorted to cannibalism, particularly during the winter months when other sustenance such as grass and sand was scarce. A black market of stolen meat emerged.
Allegedly, it was the flesh of dying inmates. Cannibalism became so rampant that extremely ill prisoners feared sleeping, afraid others might remove chunks of their flesh.
Mauthausen guards thought of many horrible ways to torment inmates. Sometimes they ordered them to pick strawberries in a field and then shot them. Officials claimed these prisoners were trying to escape. Concentration camp leaders also threw detainees' hats near the structure perimeters and shot whoever tried to retrieve their belongings.
Barbed-wire fencing surrounded Mauthausen. Some inmates ended their own lives by throwing themselves against the fence, which didn't instantly end their lives. They would just hang, stuck in the wire, for days until they perished.
Mauthausen was liberated when WWII ended in 1945, but many of the inmates never received justice - they perished before help arrived. The Austrian concentration camp claimed about 100,000 lives and thousands more passed after their release.
When Allied soldiers arrived in Mauthausen, they threw chocolate to the starving inmates. Many of those inmates met their demise because their bodies could no longer digest solids.