Simon Wiesenthal   Letter 09   17-Dec-1994   Forced march to Mauthausen

December 17, 1994

Simon Wiesenthal
Jewish Documentation Center
Vienna, Austria

Dear Mr. Wiesenthal:

Here is your story of the forced march to Mauthausen in early February, 1945:

When the convoy arrived at the railroad station at Mauthausen in Upper Austria on a cold, clear Friday night, only 1200 of the original 3000 passengers were still alive.  Another 180 died on the four-mile uphill hike they were forced to make from the station to the camp.

Wiesenthal was almost one of the casualties.  Trudging over frozen snow, with each man's steps crackling thunderously like drums of doom in the silence of the night, he linked arms with a Polish prince named Radziwill, a relative of the one who later married Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' sister Lee Bouvier.  For a while, Wiesenthal and Radziwill kept each other up, but when they couldn't go any farther, they simply sank into the snow.

"Are you alive?" a voice barked in German and, to remedy this condition, its owner fired at them.  But the SS guard's hands were cold and his shot landed in the snow between Wiesenthal and Radziwill.  Then the two men drifted into sleep as life and death passed them by.

Well before dawn, the camp authorities sent trucks down to collect corpses and spare the sensibilities of villagers going to work in the morning.  Frozen stiff, Wiesenthal and Radziwill were taken for dead and flung aboard with a pile of bodies.  Simon doesn't know whether it was the motion or the warmth of the other bodies that revived them a little, but when the truck delivered them to the camp crematorium, the prisoners working there noticed that both men weren't quite dead.  (Alan Levy, The Wiesenthal File, 1993, pp. 63-64)

And here are a few questions that spring from this story:

(1) The convoy that arrives is a convoy of trucks why then does it stop at the railway station?

(2) This convoy of trucks has been carrying its load of prisoners for six days.  The train station where the prisoners are dumped is a mere four miles from the final destination of the Mauthausen camp.  If the trucks were able to travel at only thirty miles per hour, that would mean a mere eight additional minutes of driving to bring all the prisoners and all the guards right to the camp.  Why then did the truck convoy not take the prisoners all the way to the camp?

There are many reasons why the Germans should have preferred to drive all the way: the guards would not have wanted to walk four miles in the bitter cold when they could ride; those 180 fallen prisoners wouldn't have had to be shot and then later picked up; it was already dark, and with 1200 prisoners being marched along a country road, escape attempts would have been anticipated.

(3) You say of the trip in the truck convoy that "during the six-day trip, there was no food or water" (p. 63).  Now recollecting that all the prisoners must have been in a state of inanition even before that trip began, and that in all likelihood they were inadequately clothed possibly in sockless shoes rather than winter boots, for example then at the end of this six-day trip, it seems incredible that a single one of them could have managed to trudge four miles uphill through the snow.

(4) Isn't it a strange coincidence that your strength and prince Radziwill's strength gave out at exactly the same instant?  You say (p. 62) that "Those who faltered or fell were shot on the spot," so that I must imagine that if either of you had the least iota of strength left, then that one would have continued on without the other.  In the given situation, the stronger member of the pair would not be assisting the weaker by remaining with him rather, by staying he would only purposelessly be giving up his own life.

(5) You fall down in the snow with prince Radziwill and are unable to continue, and so the German guard is obligated to kill the two of you.  How is it that the guard thought that he could kill both of you with a single bullet?  If you were one behind the other with respect to the guard, then such a thing might be possible, but in this case, the two of you are lying in the snow side by side we know this because you say yourself that the single bullet passed between you.  How, then, could this German guard have imagined that a single bullet would be able to kill two people that with respect to him were side by side?

(6) I would have thought that cold hands would not affect the German guard's aim after all, at point-blank range, one can tell quite accurately where a rifle bullet is going to go, and if for any reason the rifle is not pointed properly, a fraction of a second is all that it takes to readjust the direction of the barrel.

(7) In any case, if because of cold the German guard pulls the trigger prematurely, he would be able to see where the rifle was pointed when it went off, and so would know that he missed his intended target, and would be able to try again.

(8) I would have expected the guard to verify his shot by noting a movement at the point of impact of the bullet, by noting the appearance of a bullet hole, by seeing blood, by seeing the expression on the face of the victim appropriate to having been shot which expression the guard must have had a close acquaintance with as 180 prisoners fell behind and had to be shot on this one march alone.  In the absence of all such signs, how is it that this guard imagined that he had succeeded in executing you and prince Radziwill?

(9) If you were so weak that you could not go another step, so weak that once left behind by the Germans you could not stand up to escape, could not crawl to seek shelter then how is it that you survived the night?  Even had you been bundled up in a warm coat, you would have frozen to death and I assume that the Germans did not provide their Jewish prisoners with warm coats.  You refer to your "steps crackling thunderously" in the frozen snow, which suggests extreme cold, as snow becomes soft or slushy when the temperature is warmer.  I doubt that you had gloves, and yet you do not report losing fingers to frostbite; I doubt that you had socks, and yet you do not report losing toes.

(10) How could you have been revived by the warmth of the bodies that were piled in the truck?  Surely a body that lies out in the cold for even an hour will have no appreciable warmth radiating from it, and one lying out in the cold all night will have even less.  In Justice Not Vengeance (p. 12), you say that the cold was so great that even living men packed tightly together in the trucks froze to death, and yet here you say that men long dead provided enough warmth to revive you.

(11) You say that the other factor that may have revived you is the motion of the truck, but as this provides no warmth, then I don't see how it could have helped.

(12) This forced march to Mauthausen is such an extraordinary event that it is a wonder that it was altogether omitted in your earlier account in Justice Not Vengeance where the impression is given that the trucks did the sensible thing, which is delivering all the prisoners directly to Mauthausen.

(13) Did it ever occur to you that as a result of your having eventually remembered this forced march and the assistance that you and Prince Radziwill rendered each other during that march, that you might be in a stronger position to solicit donations from the Radziwill and the Kennedy families even from the Onassis family toward the support of your Jewish Documentation Center?  Would you happen to know if Prince Radziwill has written down his account of this same forced march and if he has published it?

Yours truly,

Lubomyr Prytulak