View of the Gusen concentration camp after the liberation, Jun 27, 1945. USHMM (83816), courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration.

In the spring of 1944, a group of several hundred Italian prisoners from Gusen was working in a stone quarry in upper Austria.  Aware of the probable death sentence that this assignment entailed, the men spontaneously put down their tools and burst into the chorus of the revolutionary labour song ‘Avanti Popolo’, known to leftist workers all over Europe.  Shocked by this act of resistance, the SS immediately surrounded the men and began to shoot indiscriminately.  Many were killed immediately; the few survivors were distributed among other sub-camps, in an attempt to destroy any sense of solidarity between them.  This dramatic gesture of defiance was rare, but it speaks both to the level of political conviction and the harsh conditions that marked life in the Austrian concentration camp of Gusen, a sub-camp of Mauthausen.  Those sent to the camp were effectively destined for extermination through labour.

Construction on Gusen began in December 1939, and the first inmates arrived in the spring of 1940.  The camp was built because Mauthausen’s population was rapidly expanding, and it was expected that a vast labour camp system could be built around the profitable granite quarries in the region.  Thousands of Poles began to arrive, mainly from the resistance and the intelligentsia; like its model Mauthausen, the camp held primarily political prisoners and Nazi opponents.  The population expanded rapidly, including thousands of Russians, Spaniards, Yugoslavians, French and Hungarians.  As was typical of such camps, Jews were relegated to the bottom of the prisoner hierarchy, allowed no medical treatment, no winter clothing, and occasionally denied food and water. In the winter of 1942, emphasis shifted from destroying prisoners through labour to more efficiently exploiting them for the Nazi war machine.  As a result of this change, from November 1942 prisoners were allowed to receive care packages, which saved many lives.

Because of the vast supply of POWs, prisoners, and slave labourers, the camp proved highly profitable.  In May 1943 a factory was built directly on the camp grounds to speed up the production of finished stone; by the end of the year Gusen produced a substantial portion of German granite.  The camp was also expanded to include an underground factory for the construction of aeroplanes.

Despite the destruction of most records, and the relatively small number of survivors, there is some information about musical life at Gusen.  While Spaniards and Czechs were the driving force behind cultural activity at Mauthausen, at Gusen it was largely Polish prisoners, a highly educated and politically aware group.  Between 1941 and 1945 a small camp orchestra was led by the Bavarian Jehovah’s Witness Heinrich Lutterbach.  Most of the musicians, however, were Polish, and their numbers rose when, in 1944, many members of the Warsaw Philharmonic were deported there.  Although the camp was only a few kilometres from Mauthausen, the orchestras had no contact with one another, nor could they exchange instruments or music.  There are also records of a Polish choir that occasionally performed songs written by the imprisoned Polish composers Grazian Guzinski and Lubomir Szopinski, whose songs include a Gusen hymn and a camp marching song.

At the end of April 1945, most of the SS staff abandoned the camp, and on 5 May a single American tank entered to liberate it.  Almost immediately, the Polish national hymn burst out, and Polish flags were waved.  The prisoners who were still capable of singing burst into the ‘Gusen march’, composed by Szopinski, and then moved on to songs of the French resistance, including the Marseillaise.  Before the last verse of the French song had been completed, a group of Polish and Soviet youth began attacking the mostly German and Austrian kapos. At this time of general chaos, the prisoner revolt resulted in the deaths of several hundred guards – their corpses were burned in mass graves, and some of the surrounding population was forced to watch. These were days of anarchy, and it took several days for the Americans to gain control.

View of the main gate and Appellplatz (inspection square) at the Gusen concentration camp, May 5, 1945. USHMM (11456), courtesy of Hjalmer Lake.

Sources

Kuna, M., 1993. Musik an der Grenze des Lebens: Musikerinnen und Musiker aus Böhmischen Ländern in Nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslagern und Gefängnissen, Frankfurt/M.: Zweitausendeins.  

Langbein, H., 1994. Against All Hope: Resistance in the Nazi Concentration Camps, 1938-45, New York: Paragon House.  

Marsálek, H., 1987. Konzentrationslager Gusen: ein Nebenlager des KZ Mauthausen, Vienna: Österreichische Lagergemeinschaft Mauthausen.  

Stompor, S., 2001. Judisches Musik- und Theaterleben unter dem NS-Staat, Hannover: Europaisches Zentrum fur Judische Musik.  

Weinreich, R. ed., 2002. Verachtet, verfolgt, vergessen:Leiden und Widerstand der Zeugen Jehovas in der Grenzregion am Hochrhein im "Dritten Reich", Hausern: Signum Design.