- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Tadeusz (Tadek) Korfanty, Edmund, Maria, Hilda, Ryszard, Kurt, Wanda, Adas Korfanty
- Location of story:
- Mauthausen-Gusen Concentration Camp (Austria), Italy, England
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 18 December 2005
Letters were allowed but dictated or censored and words were often blacked out
The Korfanty Family Story - Part 3
Mauthausen-Gusen 1 Polish Political Prisoner No 6734 and later
Mauthausen-Gusen 2 Polish Political Prisoner No 48938.
As a child I discovered my father’s photo album on a bookshelf at home and saw pictures of piles of emaciated bodies, gas ovens and quarry works, photographs of the recovering victims at the Red Cross hospital in Italy and pictures of members of my family I would only ever know from the stories my father told and these old photographs.
I can only tell the story of one family, my family, from these photographs, memories and the old documents I inherited on my fathers death and try to show a single families pain, suffering, courage, guilt, anger, hurt, love and compassion. This is one family story from the millions of stories and lives affected by oppression and prejudice, and the result of mans inhumanity to man. This behaviour was not unique to Nazi Germany. Cambodia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda and Kosova all demonstrate the capacity of human beings to murder en masse. It still goes on.
My father, my Uncle Ryszard and grandfather Edmund were tried in Berlin for treason against the German state. ‘The Peoples Court of the 2nd Senate as a result of the main hearing of 27 February 1942’ sentenced them as follows :- ‘Richard Korfanty — eight years, Taddaus Korfanty — four years’ and the ‘co-operator in the aforementioned crimes, the accused Edmund Korfanty is to be sentenced to twelve years.’ My grandfather died not long after in Rawitsch prison, Wilhelmstrasse 28 on 20 June 1942.
Ryszard and my father were force marched to Mauthausen concentration camp. On route, with the other prisoners, they were required to dig a large deep trench. Once dug, the prisoners were stood in it and the guards pointed guns at them all as if to shoot them. At the point they all believed they were to be killed they where told to get out. A group of civilians of all ages were marched in, my father believed these to be Jews, where then forced into the trenches and shot where they stood. The prisoners were then instructed to cover the bodies over with the piles of soil and bury them. Ryszard and my father five times more stood in trenches they dug and five times more were required to bury others shot while standing in the trench.
The march to the camp was hard. The prisoners had to keep pace. If they fell through tiredness or hunger they were shot by the Nazi soldiers guarding them. One man fell down near my father. My father reached to pick the fallen man up and the row my father was marching in helped support and carry the man along. My father’s row was then wider than the others. A soldier came along and hit my father on the nose with the butt of a rifle to push him back in line. My fathers nose was broken with the blow. Both Ryszard and my father arrived alive at Mauthausen.
I cannot even begin in such a short space to unfold the horrors that took place at Mauthausen and the adjoining camps, including Gusen. Of a place so desperate that weak emaciated inmates would throw themselves onto the barbed wire fences to free themselves by suicide. The poor desperate inmates would then hang there for days as they slowly died. Of a place where daily beatings and torture were inevitable. Where prisoners received a starvation diet and were usually dead within three months. Of a place where my Uncle Ryszard, at the age of 25 and close to death from starvation on 20th January 1943, was injected in the heart with petrol and taken to the Gusen camp ovens to be incinerated. Of a place where my father, so close to death himself was thrown onto a pile of corpses to die. Yet, even in a place such as this, compassion could be found in those inmates who recognised my father, lifted his body from the pile and nursed him back to life by sharing their meagre food rations with him. He was 21 years old. During his time in Gusen, he lost his memory completely soon after the brother he was so close to was incinerated and once again, those who knew him helped him to regain it. He then vowed not to be defeated by the oppressive nature of the place to which he’d been sent and with tremendous courage he learnt to survive this dreadful life for three years.
Many nationalities were interned in the camps and many religions. Homosexuals and Gypsies, those with disabilities, any group of people or life style that the Nazi regime disliked were likely candidates for the concentration camps. In the hierarchy of prisoners sent for internment Germans and Austrians were at the top and the Russians, Poles and Jews at the bottom with virtually no hope of survival. Political prisoners had only a slightly better chance of survival than any others.
Prisoners were first taken to Mauthausen, the mother camp. Inmates were sometimes woken during the night in the middle of winter and hosed down for long periods of time with cold water and left standing and shivering. The dogs would bark and strain on their leads and guards would often beat and intimidate inmates. Torture would take place by tying a persons hands behind their backs, standing them on a stool and hanging them from a hook in the ceiling. Once their hands were tied, the stool was kicked away from under them. This was a cruel place no-one expected to get out of alive.
The stairway of death at Mauthausen would see 100 inmates, fed on a starvation diet carrying large rocks on their backs to the top of the quarry cliff. One slip or fall from a prisoner would send others cascading down the stairway to their death. Lines of Jewish prisoners were set one behind the other at this same cliff and forced to push each one in front over the edge to their death one at a time.
Mauthausen soon became too small for all the inmates and new camps were built around the mother camp. My father and uncle found their first winter in the camp was particularly cold and severe. My uncle suffered badly from the cold, starvation diet and the beatings he had received. He became so ill through starvation and was taken to the camp hospital where he received a lethal injection to the heart and was cremated in the Gusen ovens. My father found it very hard to survive after the death of his brother Ryszard who he’d always adored. My father was moved from Gusen 1 to Gusen 2. Gusen 2 was known as the worst of the camps. He did, however, learn to survive with the help of other inmates. He survived three years in the camps where most only survived three months.
My father told us they were fed on a starvation diet and so used what initiative they had to catch and eat anything that moved. Any wild bird that landed in the camp area was caught and eaten. Any hens that wandered near the fencing would have its neck hooked and then pulled through the mesh. Potatoes were stolen from the heap they were stored in and boiled in a bucket by wiring up the lights to a piece of metal which was held in the bucket of water while the electric continuity was made to the base of the bucket. If a guard came the bucket was quickly set into the seat area of the toilet and someone would sit on it as if the toilet was in use. To be caught carrying out these sorts of activities was punishable by death but death by starvation was the alternative. As inmates died they would be thrown on to a pile in the camp grounds. My father was on one occasion so ill and emaciated he was mistaken for dead and thrown on this pile. His friends saw him and lifted him off revived him and brought him back from the dead.
My father called Gusen Hell on earth and said there is no worse place. He would say the stench of burning bodies or the smell of rotting bodies never leaves you. He would talk with disgust at other things that happened in the camp which can’t be repeated within this writing. He saw many inmates very young and old die horribly and the nightmares of this never left him.
Red Cross parcels and parcels from inmates families would arrive at the camp and the guards and capos first sorted them to take out anything of value. My father was sometimes given the job of distributing the remains of the opened mostly empty parcels to inmates. My father told us on one occasion a parcel contained fish, which by the time it had reached the camp was inedible and mouldy. The inmate it was intended for took the parcel and ate the mouldy fish he was so gripped with hunger. He died 2 hours later.
My father was asked by a friend to save a small piece of bread for him for later. He hid it under his pillow. When my father was asked for the bread it was gone. My father was accused of stealing it. The internal code said he should be drowned in the barrel butt for stealing. As this was about to happen someone owned up to having taken the morsel of bread. My father was reprieved and offered the honour of carrying out justice to the other inmate. He couldn’t do it so others did it instead.
He learnt to stay alive in the camp by hiding potatoes in his camp trousers by tying string round his ankles. He traded the lard and dried fruit that arrived in the parcels from his mother for cigarettes to bribe the local villagers that were brought in to the camp to work. He traded the cigarettes with those capos and guard that could be bribed for lighter treatment for those in the group that needed it. He never accused or blamed the local people for not standing up against what they saw what went on the in the camp. He always said their lives were very hard and they would be shot if they spoke out or resisted. You didn’t try to escape from the camp because if you did 30, 40, 50 other inmates would be taken out and shot because of your action. In the days before liberation my father was sent to Linz to clear rubble following allied bombings.
The camp Gusen was finally liberated on the 5th May 1945. When the Allies arrived and saw the starving inmates they threw chocolate from their pockets down to hungry prisoner faces. My fathers companions stopped him from picking up the chocolate. Those who did pick it up and eat it died as a result of their inability to digest anything solid and emaciated state.
The capos and guards tried to disguise themselves in civilian or internee clothing but inmates knew and recognised them. The inmates hung or killed the guards and capos they could get their hands on. Then those inmates who could walk left the camp and tried to find their way home. My fathers group tried to cross the river, not strong enough to do so himself the group helped him getting him to hold onto a tree and swimming across the river together.
They hid in the nearby woods and covered themselves with leaves for warmth and disguise. Soldiers came and the group jumped up to defend themselves. The soldiers weren’t Nazis but partisans who then helped them to safe houses.
My father later entered a safe house in Italy. Italian soldiers came, asked the Italian lady whose house it was, to give up her son to join the fighting. My father then in hiding there was posing as her son. She told the soldiers they couldn't take him as he was very ill. Being underweight and recently left Gusen this was not difficult to believe so the soldiers left.. Finally the Allies came, my father jumped out of bed and wanted to join the army and fight the Nazis immediately. They said he was too weak it was impossible and took him to the Red Cross hospital.
My father was cared for in a Red Cross hospital in Italy were he was given handfuls of charcoal tablets and burnt toast to eat to help overcome the effects of starvation. He could only digest soups and stocks to begin with and had to gradually work up to eating solid food. Three months after liberation from the concentration camp, he enlisted in the Polish Army in Italy. My fathers Commander was Commander Anders of the 2nd Corps. His Soldiers Service pay book dated 4th August 1945, shows he still only weighed 4stone 1lb (26kgs). My father was then 23 years old. After being cared for in a hospital run by the Red Cross it took him 2 years before he could eat a normal meal. He immigrated to England to start a new life. This began at the Witley Camp in Surrey, where he was discharged from his Army Service after 1 year and 19 days on 21 January 1948.
Survival was not just about waiting for the concentration camp to be liberated. It was very much about getting by from day to day for the rest of his life. His broken nose was repaired, the injuries to his neck and back from the beatings gave him pain and troubled him all his life, and the ripped and broken fingernails on his left hand from the torture never grew back. He preferred the curtains to the windows to be partly closed as it helped him feel safer. No bunk beds and no showers were allowed at home. When my sister not knowing the significance, bought him a pair of striped pyjamas for him at Christmas, the emotional scene was deeply memorable. He was wracked with anger, hate and guilt, yet he was the kindest, most generous and compassionate man I have ever met.
He would laugh when he recounted how he had outwitted the guards and stolen potatoes from them and almost joked of the consequences, certain death, if he was found out, ‘well we would have died of starvation anyway if we hadn’t stolen’ — he’d say. Stealing from the guards was acceptable but not from fellow inmates. There was an internal discipline, which was carried out by prisoners who tried to keep some kind of order and honour amongst themselves. Death by drowning in the water butts was common for anyone betraying this code.
As well as the photograph album, there were two other discoveries I made as a child. Gifts from other inmates to my father in thanks for some kindness. Prisoners who could would try to help others survive. One gift was a beautiful wooden carved cigarette case with the gates of the camp inscribed on the lid, headed Arbeit Macht Frei — ‘work makes you free’. Inside was a delicate bracelet, that today in more normal surroundings, many might find out of place or even offensive, but to me has a strange beauty, a sign of defiance and a sacred article to be held with great reverence. I held the bracelet round my wrist, it looked to be fine ivory beads linked together with a delicate metal chain. On the white beads were inscribed a sequence of numbers. My father’s prisoner number. The bracelet was too small to go round my wrist even as a child. My father wore it with pride in the camp as a symbol of defiance. The white beads were carved from human bone. The catch was broken because it was ripped from my father’s wrist and thrown to the ground by a camp guard in contempt at the symbol. The memory of many souls is treasured in this simple bracelet of symbolic defiance.
I have tried to recount to you just a small part of one family’s story. Remember that there are many thousands of families and stories from the oppression of the Nazi regime. There are many stories from Bosnia, from Rawanda, from Armenia and there will continue to be many more if we don’t learn from the inhumanity of what has and is still happening.
In 1995, I went on a personal pilgrimage, back to the Mauthausen concentration camp and met a wonderful man, a Hungarian Jew and survivor of Mauthausen, Dr Robert Fisch. He wrote a book entitled, Light from the Yellow Star, A lesson of love from the Holocaust. He wrote…………………
They say that one man’s death is a tragedy, 100 a disaster, 1,000 a statistic. At a memorial concentration camp cemetery there are many gravestones. As people walk through it they see one stone that reads, “Here are 10,000”; another reads, “Here are 20,000”: and so on. At the exit is a stone that reads, “Here is one”.
I am lucky, because I have photographs and stories of the close family I never met. As a result of genocide many families have no stories that can be told and no photographs to be remembered by.
My father lived to see and enjoy his grandchildren. The real memorial is in all of us and in our children and our children’s children. Each in their turn, to see and read, to speak, listen to be still and hear the messages. To be awakened and to realise that they are the true memorial, the living, growing and renewing family.
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