A very long term undertaking

by Pierre Serge Choumoff
Mauthausen (matricule 25669),
Gusen (matricule 15014, then 47836)

 

In the very first days, in the wake of « Liberation »

The very roots of the research of our “Committee for history” (“Commission pour l’histoire”) are to be traced far back, when we initiated our study for the assessment of the situation of the Mauthausen camp, in the advent of the “liberation”. As early as the 5th May 1945, after our “service d’ordre”, French group, was created who were, to a certain extent, armed, we immediately concerned ourselves with the research of the French sick persons from the Sanitätslager (SL), the ancient Russenlager, who were made to live in confinement in an appalling state and whom we started counting and even, for a number of them, started making minimal contacts. In the evening of the same day, May 6th, the American soldiers took away our weapons from us, and, fearing a typhus epidemics, quarantined the SL. From May 7th and onwards, only a restricted group of French people, one could tell from their armbands – so long as they had been ascribed to this task – were authorised to organize contacts with our fellow countrymen, aiming first and foremost at helping them have access to hygiene and carry forth the basic necessary operations for cleaning the place where they lived. Many of them though had reached the very limits of exhaustion, some of them were on the threshold of death. One could feel among some of these people an angst, an urgent need to express themselves. Some asked us to make their past sufferints known as well as their present ordeal – little hope did they keep about their own survival. The awe when we were face to face with a friend we had just found again is beyond any possible description in words. The conditions where they lived were so painful. The sewer system was broken, the smell unbearable... The volunteers themselves had to be extremely strong and totally dedicated to this task. I did not, as far as I am concerned, participate in this task on a continuous basis, and only to keep the group in contact with the camp secretariat. Yet, I cannot but quote a few names among those persons whose deeds were so admirable, such as Jo Attia, René Roby, Hubert le Maoüt, Dr. Jean Benech...

It is important to mention that, among the deportees from the Central Camp, nearly a half of them were actually kept in the SL in the early months of 1945. Therefore knowing which Koppandos they had belonged to is a priority if one is to identify each deportee’s route in the Mauthausen complex.

On April 28th 1945, the very last transports of French people, Belgians, and people from Luxembourg and from the Netherlands, came to an end. Apart from them, who originated from the Central Camp, others stayed – the sick persons from the SL, and Emile Valley who had volunteered to stay behind and wait for those who were to replace them. Those were, as one notes, evacuees from a large number of Kommandos – we were among them as we came from Gusen – who were immediately parked in quarantine blocks, as if they were Zugänge (newcomers). Hence, the protests we addressed the American Command, as soon as we had an opportunity to do so. They eventually ascribed us blocks 12, 13 and 14. Then we were able to elect our chiefs for each block – a different kind of chiefs from those whe had before, though – (particularly Maurice Billotte and the Belgian citizen Rémi Gillis, who had composed our “Chant d’Espoir” at Gusen on a script by Jean Cayrol). The French secretariat then had to face new administrative goals to help them and, particularly relevant to the situation which is destribed here, the tasks of :

  • Collecting a comprehensive list of the French prisoners in each of the blocks, as well as in the SL, mentioning the Kommandos they originated from – which was an essential element of information to be transmitted to France. This was done and published in the newspaper “Libres” as early as the month of May 1945, knowing though that a number among the people listed had died after the lists had been established ;
  • Attempting to register all information about the French people who were deceased, and report about them to the camp secretariat, by means of lists and registers. One exemple is the report about Polish deportees, Tchecks, Spaniards with their own fellow-citizens. One knows that the archives the US owned had been established immediately after the war ended, to serve as a basis whereupon the numerous trials would be grounded ;
  • And more generally, collecting all documents containing the names of French people with a view at bringing them back to France and protecting them from the confusion in the camp. Much was done to organize the classification with the precious help of José Bailina, a Spaniard, among others, a man who had a knowledge of the documents of the Politische Abteilung, which, actually, he had belonged to.

After I came back to France, together with Emile Valley, in the end of May, I joined a mission (oganized by the “Ministère des Anciens Combattants”) which consisted in going back to Mauthausen immediately. We reached Mauthausen on Sunday 3rd June, the day after Father Jacques had died. We meant to try and find the missing documents. Those were eventually brought back to France by other means. Bailina who had been contacted by the Ministry was able to make a list complete with the names of the French people who had died, which actually stood out as the first official list in 1946, a copy of which was given to our “Amicale”.

An absolute necessity in the face of history

Unfortunately, among the data concerning the French people, a number of errors continued to be circualted as late as the 1980’s, which can be accounted for if one is to consider the large number of commemorative plaques, at the entrance door of the camp in 1947, when the Soviet troops in occupation who had been ascribed this zone left. Hence, the total number of French people was then estimated 13000 and was reported as such in the publications of the Amicale until its second edition in 1980 – this estimate was as well recorded in the very important book by Hans Marsalek. It eventually became obvious that the number of French people who had stayed in Mauthausen (or simply gone through the camp) and whose traces could be ascertained, was to be assessed at 8000.

Only in the light of Celine Lesourd’s work with digital technology, in 1990, was it possible to come to the ultimate concievable assessment of 9000. It is true that her work only mentions the initials on the names of the deportees, yet, this was evidence enough to establish that the complete register of cases could only be obtained by adding all the different names and not by relying on mere quota samplings of them.

Hence, from the 1990’s onwards, within the “Amicale”, the “Commission pour l’Histoire” has been intent upon creating a technological normative list of all the French male deportees, and a separate list of French female deportees who have been through the camp of Mauthausen. This was achieved owing to a number of original lists which were in the hands of several national services of archive. French, American, German, Polish, and those of the BMJ, the Austrian Home Ministry, who owned most of the Mauthausen archives – all services whose collaboration had been resorted to as soon as 1969 – in an action which aimed at demonstrating the reality of gas chambers in Mauthausen and to publish or participate in the publication of well-known books. Consequently, such links with the BMI allowed us have access to the original lists relevant to the transport of prisoners between Mauthausen and all the Kommandos and vice versa, nearly an amount of 9000 lines on 174 pages. This arduous task was initiated, with the encouragements of Abbé Varnoux, by the members of the Committee, some of them though, among the more active, have unfortunately left us since : France Boudault, Pierre Laidet, Jaro Kruzinski, Joan De Diego. Neither do I forget how helpful and active Jean-Baptiste Mathieu and Jacques Peyrat were, nor how effective, though time and again impatient, Pierre Saint Macary. Alas he didn’t live to see the achievement of the task he shared.

Most welcome was the contribution of younger historians to drive on our work : Jean-Louis Roussel, then Pierre Jautée, thanks to whom the systematic exploitation of the Vienna archives could be conducted. A prominent help too, though of a different kind, was then provided by Guillaume Agullo, the Director of the “Musée de la Résistance et de la Déportation” in Toulouse : he had made it possible for us to have a team of trainees work on our project under the supervision of our computer engineer friends Manuel de Lavallée and Martine Decius thus allowing us to present a report in 2004 when the congress of our Amicale was held in Toulouse. This report consisted in the prototype of an individual file, for each of us. Each line refers to one item from the original listing with a possibility to mention the number of assignments to each Kommando according to each case.

From then on we have had years of exchange with the teams of the “Fondation pour la mémoire de la déportation” with a view at exchanging and complementing our results, especially those relevant to the convoys of persons which had been grouped as they proceeded towards Mauthausen.

Confronting our methods to the reality

Our aim is by no means to describe extensively and itemize the difficulties we have met along our way so as to give an insight into a number of complex and litigious cases which might be apprehended by observing and analysing a listing of cases. Yet we have to report about them.

Undoubtedly, Céline Lesourd’s report is extremely worth attention as she committed herself to the classification of deportees according to ages. Yet obviously enough, one notes that the very existence of the SL, wherefrom hundred of seriously ill people arrived from Gusen in February or March 1945 stands as an obstacle to the clear understanding of the distribution of mortality rates within the complex of Mauthausen. Hence, one notes that the mortality rate in the central camp, the SL included, seems to exceed the mortality rate in the Kommandos which were nevertheless reported to come ahead of all the other camps as far as the death toll was concerned (particularly so for Gusen II).

Actually, the multiplicity of registrations for the same inmate, due to the fact that certain deportees had left Mauthausen for other camps and, at times, had even resumed the camp of Mauthausen, makes the task more difficult. Confusion arose from the added complexity resulting from the registration system specific to Gusen for a period, and followed by a second or third system, ending in three different registration numbers for the same inmate. We were then confronted to the necessity of assigning each name one registration number only, and vice-versa, to avoid any risk about the registration of prisoners. A number of specific cases appreard (multiplicity of the stays in a given camp) which implied we had to give a number of new registrations and consider such cases with particular care.

As far as our main objective was concerned - elaborating the list of the French people - it happened on several occasions to be challenged by the fact that the German documents relevant to the identification of Resistance fighters of diverse origins (Spaniards of course, but Italians, Tchecks, Poles, etc.) were difficult to interpret so long as they had been arrested with the French.

Though our main concern was to avoid elaborating a list of cases and avoid any ambiguous aspect of each one of them, we were first and foremost desirous to elicit each case with the utmost attention, relying on the documents in our possession and eliminating any potentially complex or debatable situation

Pierre Serge CHOUMOFF
Vice-President, Amicale de Mauthausen
President of the Committee for History (Commission pour l’Histoire)