The Mauthausen concentration camp, located about 20 kilometers east of the city of Linz in Upper Austria, was one of the largest labor camp in the German-controlled part of Europe, and between 1938 and 1945 had a central camp near the village of Mauthausen, and nearly one hundred other subcamps located throughout Austria (and southern Germany). It had the most brutal detention conditions, and was classified “Grade III”, where the most political enemies of the Reich were sent to be exterminated, often after a terrible forced labor. The SS called Mauthausen Knochenmühle, or the bone grinder.
The Mauthausen camp was located on the edge of a granite quarry, where prisoners were sent to work. Several times the day, people were forced to carry blocks of stone, weighing over 50 kilograms, up the 186 stairs of the so called “Stairs of Death”. Often, exhausted, the prisoners would collapse and drop their stone on those following, creating a horrific domino effect with prisoners falling into the next, and so on, all the way down the stairs. The heavy stones would crush their bodies, and lot of people died on these stairs every day. If this wasn’t enought, sometimes, the SS guards would force the already half dead prisoners to race up the stairs carrying blocks of stone.
People who survived the ordeal would then be placed in a line-up at the edge of a cliff, called “The Parachutists Wall”. At gun-point each prisoner had two options: being shot or pushing the prisoner in front of him off the cliff. Some prisoners, unable to bear this tortures, willfully jumped off the cliff, and also this suicides were frequent.
Today, the “Stairs of Death” are part of the Mauthausen Memorial museum, in the preserved buildings of the center camp, where there are three permanent collections. “The Mauthausen Concentration Camp 1938–1945”, located in what was the Krankenrevier (Infirmary), features the history of the concentration camp and the surrounding sub camps. Includes over 100 original objects from the area. “The Crime Scenes of Mauthausen—Searching for Traces” includes the gas chamber, the crematoria, and other execution sites, and the “Room of Names” features over 81,000 names of people killed at Mauthausen and the surrounding sub camps. The outside areas feature sculptures that honor the 190,000 people from over 40 different nations who were imprisoned during the camp’s seven years of terror, and the stairs have been restored and straightened for the tourists who can easily use it, but at that time they were very tilted and slippery.
Christian Bernadac, a French resistance fighter who was imprisoned at Mauthausen, wrote a book titled The 186 Steps. He says:
“Those who visit the Mauthausen quarry today, don’t see the same thing, for since then, the steps have been redone – a real stairway, cemented, and regular. At that time, they were simply cut with a pick into the clay and rock, held in place by logs, unequal in height and tread, and therefore extremely difficult, not only for climbing but also for the descent. Stones rolled under our wooden-soled sandals, and we were forced to keep moving at a very rapid pace. The work consisted of carrying up a stone of considerable size and weight, along the 186 steps, after which there was still a considerable distance to cover. The man who chose a stone found to be too small was out of luck. And all of this went on at the rate of eight to ten trips per day. The pace was infernal, without a second’s rest.”