Die Presse (01/26/05)

Wolfgang Greber (Vienna), Susanne Knaul (Jerusalem), and Ewald König (Berlin)

Sixty years ago the concentration camp of Auschwitz was liberated by Soviet troops. Three survivors among the mass murders recall those times.

His eyes are blue and water easily; they have seen many roses and carnations when he was young. Franz Danimann, today at the age of eighty-five, was learning to be a gardener during the 1930s in Schwechat. Later, when his eyes witnessed needles injected into hearts and emaciated bodies hanging from the gallows, these memories saved him. Danimann was in Auschwitz. He survived. Since then he tells his story again and again.

In 1935 he was drawn to the "illegal leftists," admits the man born in 1919, while turning his marriage ring. "Those were the revolutionary socialists, communists, and free union workers." One fought Fascism in Austria with pamphlets, sensing the evil to come. "Just before the invasion of Austria we demonstrated against the NS party, together with those from the Christian camps: 'Red-White-Red until death,'" was the rallying cry near Stephansplatz. That attracted attention. Soon after, he found himself in prison until the beginning of 1942. As the end of our prison term approached, it was clear to us that "release from prison was improbable; it was much more the case that they would be forced into a correctional division of the Armed Forces, the 'Division 999,' a commando for "missions impossible." But it all worked out differently."

"They were tall and elegant"
Lena Nozyce from Lodz was fourteen when the German soldiers marched into the city in 1939. "They were tall and elegant. They impressed us," recalled the woman standing on her balcony in Jerusalem. Some days later, all the teenager’s romanticizing disappeared. In its place came the awareness of the first Poles hanging on the gallows. Her father was no longer able to work and the family of seven earned their money by transporting garbage out of the ghetto.

The Nozyces were Jews and that was their "mistake." Until the summer of 1944, Lena lived in the ghetto; her father and brothers and sisters were already dead, having suffered from typhus and starvation and finally carted away. Lena held on another two years, together with her mother, until it was their turn.

"I am Jew, German and Communist," says Kurst Goldstein in his warm Berlin apartment. For the past fifty-five years he has been married to his wife, Margot. "I swore: Goldstein, they’ll never destroy you! If you survive, you will put so many children into the world to replace those that were murdered." The marriage produced five sons.

One can’t believe he is ninety years old. At the time of Hitler’s rise to power, the anti-Fascist had graduated from his studies, was arrested and escaped. Via France and Palestine, he landed in Spain where he fought on the side of the Republicans during the civil war. After Franco’s victory, he was arrested and held prisoner in France. In 1942, one handed him over to the Germans. Auschwitz was waiting for him.

Franz Danimann was already there: "On April 24, 1942, I received the number 32635. And because my identity card stated that I was a gardner, I was deployed to work in the garden of the camp commander, Höss. There were vegetables and flowers to tend to."

He was again lucky in being forced to work as an orderly, and therefore got more to eat and didn’t have to work outside. Thus, he was able to avoid the fate of thousands who fell victim to death waiting in line to call out their number. "It could take hours. Who collapsed was given an injection of poison into the heart."

Luck appeared again, in the form of a cell mate: "In August of 1942 there was gossip circulating that in the camp of Birkenau were 'places of recuperation.' Those who were sick, who weren’t confined to bed but still couldn’t work, could go there. I had typhus and wanted to go. A Polish man warned me: 'Franz, those are gas chambers!' That was something I had heard for the first time. On August 29, 1942, the ambulance left to transport the patients: Seven hundred and forty-six people, among them Alois Sindl from St. Pölten, Franz Riegler from Mürzzuschlag and Pep Nagl from Vienna."

When the train finally arrived in Auschwitz, Lena Nozyce was confronted with hell: "Mother had disappeared. Before our eyes, women half naked were running around with shaven heads crying: ‘Bread, bread!’ One of the women had a cane and hit the women. We thought that it was a mental institution."

Those who were new had to undress and had their heads shaven. Off to the showers. "We didn’t recognize ourselves any longer, naked and shaven." Each person was allowed to take a piece of clothing. "Everything had to go fast." In the barracks were thousands of women lying like sardines. After the final selection was made at the end of 1944, they got shoes. One of the Jewish wardens said: "Do you see the furnace? That is where your families were burned." I asked: "That is not true. Why do you say things like that?" She answered: "Because you, too, are being sent, and we want the world to know about it."

Kurt Goldstein arrived in Auschwitz in a train, whereupon was written: "Holds eight horses or twelve persons maximum." Hundreds were inside. Women were separated from the men. They disappeared. The number "58866" was burned onto his arm. One worker recognized him as a resistance fighter in Spain and gave him the tip as to how he could work in a coal mine.

The worst was when newcomers who were at the same time fathers of a family would ask him whether he could deliver news to their wife and children - they were namely told to go to the other side upon arrival. He then had to tell them: "They were no longer because they had been gassed. The men wept on my shoulder."

"Death March"
When the Russians approached, the SS wanted to do away with all traces. One tried to bring about 100,000 prisoners into another camp. Many died during the "death march." On December 30, 1943, three Austrians were hanged. "Good friends of mine," said Danimann, with watering eyes. On January 27, 1945, the remaining forty-five Austrians painted a red-white-red flag on the wall of the barrack. Until the very end one was afraid that German bombers would attack, killing all of the survivors. "There were planes circling overhead, but then left again."

At some point he fled from the camp into a barn. Some called out, "Schto?" which means "what?" in Russian. At that moment he realized it was a Russian soldier, a middle-aged man, whose face he no longer can remember. He embraced him, calling "Bratje, Bratje" (little brother). In May, he returned to Vienna.

Lena Nozyce survived "her" death march and was placed in a concentration camp in Magdeburg. "It was a paradise with three meals per day." After 1945, she studied law and went to Israel where she became a judge. Kurt Goldmann survived the march to the concetration camp of Buchenwald from which only 500 out of 3,000 inmates managed to stay alive. Goldmann, the Berliner, later lived for a long time in Vienna where he was the Secretary of the Federation of Resistance Fighters.

Franz Danimann became a lawyer and directed the Labor Bureau of Lower Austria. Despite all, the man trained as gardener, who oversaw the garden of Auschwitz, has also some good memories of the hell at that time: It was there that he heard classical music for the first time. On Sundays the camp’s orchestra played Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi. "I discovered for the first time what strength music can give."

To this day he has the music of "Fidelio" or that of "Nabucco" sung by the choir of inmates still in his head. Later he bought records of these pieces. Upon mentioning this, his eyes regained their brightness.