As early as 1940, prisoners began arriving at the small train station at Mauthausen, where nestled in the hills was a hidden concentration camp. A full two years before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, this once peaceful community was already experiencing the horrors of war.
By January 1941, the Mauthausen-Gusen camps became the only ‘Category I’ camps in Third Reich history, meaning “camp of no return.” Prisoners were used as slave labor in quarries and munitions factories. These men and women were worked to death or killed not long after their arrival. The estimated number of people killed in the Mauthausen camp system is between 120,000 and 300,000. Most who entered the large gates never exited.
In May 1945 everything changed. American troops had fought through France, Belgium and Germany and had now crossed the Austrian border. They were headed toward the camp, though they didn’t know it yet.
The first American U.S. GIs at the camp were the 41st Recon Squadron, 11th Armored Division, Patton’s 3rd Army. The men opened the gates and brought the prisoners what they never expected — freedom — followed by food, clothes and the care of medics.
When the camp’s historian, Martha, told me about these men, I knew I wanted to meet them and to hear their stories. What was it like to grant these prisoners their freedom? How did it affect these men? When I arrived home, I researched their experiences and contacted their division’s veteran organization to ask if it would be possible to interview any of the men. I was overwhelmed with the response. The men invited me to their annual reunion in Kalamazoo, Mich.
Those I’d connected with through letters were waiting with their photos, stories and tears. After all these years they have not forgotten. I talked to Arthur and Charlie first. They’d been best friends during the war and 55 years later still finished each other’s sentences. Thomas, LeRoy, and Tarmo were next, telling me their stories. Many more men, each with their own personal experiences, poured out their hearts to me. During the week they had a special ceremony to honor their friends who’d died and to remember the people they liberated. Even after all these years they knew what they did had mattered.
I’d been a Christian since I was a small child, but I had even greater faith after feeling the protection of the Lord pressing upon me. I’m still a strong Christian today because of that experience. Many people can deny the fact that God exists, but not me. I’ve felt His hand . . . and heard His whisper in the midst of war. LeRoy Petersohn
On our way to Austria, there is one thing I will never forget. The image of what I spotted from my perch on that tank still brings tears to my eyes nearly 60 years later. “Major,” I says.“I believe the whole German army must be down there. The road is full of people. Just a black line.” I couldn’t distinguish what kind of people they were, but I could see that black line stretched out for miles. I said again, “The whole German army must be down there waiting for us.” He answered very quietly. “No, son, that’s the prisoners from Flossenberg concentration camp. The Germans wanted to clear them out before we got there.”The prisoners reminded me of walking skeletons. Yes, from the top of that tank I’d seen it all — the battles, the barbarity of men, and the joy of liberation. From my perch I witnessed what I’ll never forget — the fight against good and evil. And I was thankful I was part of bringing in the good.” Tarmo Holma
I was just a young kid straight out of high school: a replacement for killed or injured troops. Nothing had prepared me for the sight of thin arms and legs poking out of striped uniforms, their distorted faces staring at us, reminding us we were too late. Charles Torluccio
I attended two more reunions during the years in Buffalo and St. Louis and interviewed hundreds of veterans. I wrote two historical novels about their experiences, From Dust and Ashes and Night Song,and now Remembering You, but it was the relationship with the men that forever changed my life. I will never forget their stories.
Many people walk out of Mauthausen concentration camp with a sadness of what took place. I experienced that, but as I sought the men who opened the gates I’ve found so much more.
So much more.
I found friendship. I found truth. I discovered God calls us to events we don’t understand, yet in the process we are changed. God was with those veterans then, and for those who are still around, He’s with them now. Their steps are shaky, but their hearts are as noble as ever.
And for those men who I interviewed who are gone: I’ll always have their words and their stories, and I will continue to share them so others know and understand, too.
It’s the least I can do for what they’ve done. The least any of us can do.