The way to Mauthausen
Local Holocaust survivor puts his experience in perspective
“What good fortune for those in power that people don’t think.”
“An evil exists that threatens every man, woman and child of this great nation. We must take steps to ensure our domestic security and protect our homeland.”
– Hitler, about creating the Gestapo
A study undertaken by the Israeli government and published by the Israeli prime minister’s office in 1997 estimated that there were perhaps as many as 960,000 Holocaust survivors worldwide, a number that includes people who never saw the death camps, but who were forced to flee their homes and their native lands because of threats to their lives and freedom.
This information was cited on a Web site devoted to debunking the severity of Nazi treatment, using the Israeli findings to make the case that the camps must have been fairly benign if so many survived, a site devoted to “debunking the myths” spread by the “Jew liars” who “huckster” their own dead in pursuit of reparations.
According to the Israeli study, between 140,000 and 160,000 of those people, alive in 1997, were in the United States, the country with the third largest number of survivors, after Israel and the former Soviet Union.
Lubertus Schapelhouman is a concentration camp survivor who now lives in the United States, right here in Butte County, but Bert Schapelhouman and thousands like him are not included in that number. The Israeli study focused on Jewish survivors, and Bert Schapelhouman is not a Jew.
When the war came for him, he was milking the cows. It was a beautiful morning in May in northern Holland. Above him, the cloudless sky filled with planes. Off in the distance he could hear the krump-krump-krump of artillery, though he did not yet know that was what he heard.
“All hell had broken loose,” he says now, “but we did not know it at that moment.”
It was 1940, in the tiny farming village of Boyl, a place that could trace its history as a village back nearly a thousand years. Lubertus Schapelhouman was a 14-year-old boy, tall for his age, a kid who loved speed skating and collecting stamps from exotic places.
His father had told him war was drawing near. “The Germans are coming,” he said, “and they are coming to take things, not to bring anything. Not anything good.”
The words of his father would prove prophetic. A beating he suffered at the hands of German interrogators in the waning days of the fighting would harm him in ways from which he could not recover, and a few months after the war ended, he succumbed to those injuries at the age of 53.
His son survived, though the war rages in him each day even into a new century. And in that new century, you could walk by Bert Schapelhouman and not give him a second glance, blind to the fact that you’d just passed a repository of human horror. He appears hale and hearty at 81, a big man with a kind, round Dutch face. You could walk past Bert Schapelhouman in a cloud of your own concerns, and it would never occur to you that a man had walked by whose experience reduced your concerns to trivialities.
He is a gifted storyteller, mesmerizing whether he is talking about atrocities or about the sound of skates on frozen lakes in the depths of winter. The stories spill from him as he sits in the office of his neat and comfortable home overlooking the golf course in Magalia. The walls are covered with prints—scenes and maps from his native Holland. There are also paintings of prints of his adopted land, the clean and wide open vistas of the American West.
He spent his post-war adult life as an accountant, first in Amsterdam after his release from Mauthausen, an Austrian concentration camp, then in Canada as an emigrant, and then in the San Francisco Bay Area, an emigrant once more. He is a man who loves the order provided by figuring, the neatness of columns, and the certitude numbers provide. His home is similarly tidy, though he lives alone. “People sometimes tease me about being tidy,” he says, “but I saw enough filth when I was young.”
His wife is in a care facility in Chico, suffering with Alzheimer’s, or perhaps not suffering since she has jettisoned all knowledge of who she is and who she was, including all memory of Bert, her husband of more than 50 years, a man she no longer recognizes when he goes to visit.
When the symptoms of Alzheimer’s began to mount in his wife, it caused him to return, more and more, to the days when he was a boy, living in fear of the Nazi occupiers of his homeland. “I got so mad,” he says. “Not at her. I just felt helpless, that helpless feeling I knew in the war. Her illness was a thief, coming in the back door. It steals everything.”
Before Lubertus Schapelhouman found himself in Bavaria, at Mauthausen, he’d had his introduction to pain and terror back on his native soil in Holland. When he was 18, in 1944, the SS came to the family farm and took Lubertus and his brother away for interrogation. On the first day, the interrogators feigned kindness, offered him a cigarette, spoke in soft tones. But the second day, different men came into the room, and the soft interrogation was over.
“Before I was arrested,” he says, “I remember two Jewish girls who had come to stay with us. They wanted to please my mother, and they came to sing to her each morning. They were 7 and 9 years old, and their voices were so sweet with the singing. If they were caught, they’d be put on a train. Then, after a while, they went to stay at another safe house. They were betrayed by someone in the village. I can still hear those lovely voices. Their voices were so sweet.”
Lubertus had promised his mother he would never give information to the Germans. He was a boy who loved his mother very much. He is an old man now who loves her still. Tears well up in his eyes at the mention of her.
On the second day of interrogation, they put his left hand in a vise and pulled out all of his fingernails. On the third day, they did the same to his right hand, and on the fourth day to his right foot, and on the fifth day, his left foot. On the sixth day, they knocked out all of his upper teeth.
“And you know what?” he asks, rhetorically; “they were drunk, those men. Always drunk. I could smell it on them.”
They wanted names of people in the Dutch resistance. They wanted to know who was hiding Jews. Lubertus had such information, but he gave them none of it.
“After those days,” he says, “I have no idea how long I was there. They would bring me back for interrogation and I would faint before they ever struck a blow.” He shakes his head in puzzlement. “Isn’t that something? That we have such a saving mechanism built into us.”
Back in his cell, his body trembled all over with shock and pain. He couldn’t eat. “There are millions of nerves that jump, all over your body.” He couldn’t hold things, and he couldn’t walk. Not long after that, he was transferred to Mauthausen, a politische haftlung, or political prisoner.
Few will relish reading Bert’s stories over coffee and croissants. They are unsettling. But unsettling stories from long ago are insistent. They press their telling on Bert Schapelhouman. The dead bear witness to the living through people like him.
Bearing witness this morning is a boy who died on Christmas Day in 1944 while an inmate of Mauthausen. He was a Hungarian Jew, and both of his parents had been executed in the months preceding his own death. He was in bad shape. A Belgian priest, also an inmate at the camp, took pity on him because his suffering was notable even in this place of great suffering. Seeking solace, the boy told the priest he wanted to convert to Catholicism and so, secretly, the priest nurtured the boy in his faith, though all religious practices were forbidden in that camp. The inmates—political prisoners, gypsies, and Jews—were referred to by their keepers as nacht und nebel, “night and fog,” the forces of darkness and the underworld, and because they were seen as subhuman in all respects—the enemies of the Aryan light—they were not worthy of religious practices.
On Christmas Eve 1944, at this place of horror, while the German guards partied with girls from the nearby town, the priest held a clandestine baptismal mass for the boy, and for 28 other camp prisoners. Lubertus Schapelhouman was in that number.
The boy was weak, but he spoke of his desire to go to heaven. At the moment the boy was baptized, the Germans and their camp Kapos burst into the room and began to beat everyone, a storm of blows and curses, a pandemonium of pummeling and kicking and the heavy thudding of rubber-sheathed truncheons breaking bones. A kick or a punch—he would never know the source—threw Schapelhouman’s hip out of joint.
They were taken outside—the priest, the boy, and all the attendees of the forbidden Mass. It was 14 degrees below zero. The priest and the boy were made to strip naked and told to embrace, and then the guards drenched them with a hose. They froze in that position, died in that position, and the next day—Christmas—the entire camp was marched out to look at them—the frozen statuary of blasphemous baptism. “Augen raus.” Eyes right. That was the command the Germans shouted as they marched the prisoners past the boy and the priest.
Then, the following spring, when the war was nearly over, new prisoners arrived at Mauthausen each day, driven there in forced marches from other concentration camps as allied forces closed in. On one such day, 600 women straggled into the camp, stumbling before the guns of the SS, a pitiful remnant of a group that had numbered 4,800 when their march began. The inmates of Mauthausen were assembled to greet them, to witness their degradation as the new arrivals were made to strip before the assemblage, were told that 200 of them would be chosen to serve as prostitutes to the Kapos, the most swinish and brutal of the camp guards. SS officers moved among the huddled women, using swagger sticks to lift a breast here, or stroke a thigh, gesturing to the slavering Kapos who were to make the selections. “What do you think of this?” in German, or “how about this one?”
Tears well up in Schapelhouman’s eyes as he stands to continue his story. “And then,” he says, “I heard a sound, a guttural growl of uncontainable rage, and a man charged out of our midst, ran toward the SS in a fury.” Bert tries to reproduce the sound the man made in his last moments on earth, the inchoate rage that drove him, and though the sound he makes is frightening as he tells the tale more than 60 years on, it is clearly restrained, a facsimile of hell itself, brought to life in a tidy suburban home far from where it happened.
They shot him, that berserk and enraged man, as he charged forward, and the story later went around the camp that he had become unhinged at the sight of his own daughter among the women.
Their fun over, the SS marched the women into the gas chambers, gassed all of them, and then cremated them. That 200 of them would be “spared” to become prostitutes had just been a joke, a way of taunting the Kapos.
Smoke from their cremation hung in the air for days. “I smell them all the time,” Bert says, “to this very day.” And sometimes, deep in the night, he smells them on his own flesh and goes from his bed to shower the phantom odor from his aging body before returning to his clean sheets and tortured sleep.
Mauthausen, though lesser known than Auschwitz or Buchenwald, was no less horrific. It was the last camp to be freed in Europe. Between 225,000 and 335,000 prisoners were offloaded there, a wildly inexact number due to the fact that many were killed as soon as they got off the trains, before they were registered, before they could become a statistical reality. At war’s end, on May 11, 1945, the day the camp was liberated, there were 17,290 survivors: 2,079 women, 15,211 men. Lubertus Schapelhouman was one of those survivors.
He had arrived at the camp in November of 1944, stumbling out of a cattle car that had held him for five days. “I was lucky,” he says. “I was wedged against the outer wall of the car, and there was a crack, about an inch wide, and I could see out, and air came in there. We were packed in that car, 80 or 90 people, like herring. No place to go to the bathroom. By the second day it was horrible. People moaning, and the stink.”
On the fifth day, the train came to a halt and the door slid open. The light was blinding, and the SS dogs were yapping, and those who had survived the journey poured out of the car, ravenous with hunger, crazed with thirst. There was snow on the ground. “I tried to stuff snow in my mouth, I was so thirsty, and the guards kicked at me. I looked up and saw the mountains. I come from the low country and I never saw mountains. They were glorious. The beauty was unbelievable to me. I thought the worst was over.”
But, of course, it wasn’t.
For the next six months, he would sleep on a three-foot “bed,” a wooden platform sprinkled with straw, he and two other men with names he cannot say because no one bothered to learn names at Mauthausen. One night, he felt the breathing of the man next to him grow still, and later he felt him grown cold. Dead. He laid his bunk mate on the concrete floor, stripped him of his clothes, and then crawled back onto his wooden slab, dressed in the dead man’s rags as well as his own.
“I’ve done things I’m not proud of,” he says. “Like leaving that man naked on that cold floor. But he was dead. I didn’t feel mercy for anyone. Isn’t that terrible? Self-preservation was all. You push it out of your mind because you want to live.”
The Kommandant at Mauthausen was a man named Ziereis. Bert spells the name carefully—"Z-I-E-R-E-I-S,” then pronounces it again. “When his son turned 14, Ziereis brought him into the camp, down among the prisoners. He told the boy to pick out 50 of the inmates, then handed him his long-barreled Luger and told him to kill those he’d chosen, those he’d counted off. The first time the boy tried, he flinched, and only managed to blow off a man’s ear, but soon he was proficient in the killing, and in 3 1/2 hours, he had killed all 50. His father hugged his son then and said for all to hear: ‘Now I know he is a man.’ “
On May 23, 1945, SS Standartenfuehrer Ziereis, commander of the concentration camp Mauthausen, was shot and seriously wounded by American soldiers as he tried to escape the camp dressed in civilian clothes. In a confession taken as he lay dying, Ziereis said: “My name is Franz Ziereis, born 1903 in Munich, where my mother and brothers and sisters are still living. I, myself, am not a wicked man and I have risen through work.”
When Lubertus Schapelhouman was arrested, he weighed 160 pounds, but when the Americans came, he weighed 78 pounds, and he was too weak to stand. “It was nice weather,” he says, “and they carried me out of the barracks and put me in the sun.”
There were others near him, all filthy, all emaciated, all confused. An American soldier approached him and the cluster of wretches nearby. He was the first black man any of them had ever seen. The soldier said something unintelligible. Next to Lubertus, two Hungarian Jews began to shout and gesticulate toward a guard tower. The American soldier took out his pistol and fired several rounds. A German guard who had been hiding in the tower tumbled to the ground.
“I can still see him falling through the air,” Bert says, and then he chuckles. “That’s terrible,” he says, “I shouldn’t laugh. It was a human life.” He shakes his head. And then he chuckles again.
Lubertus Schapelhouman has survived into a world where many people deny the reality of what happened to him, and where once more the cry of “Death to the Jews” can be heard around the globe.
“I went in the year 2001 back to Mauthausen,” he says. “The first day I was surprised; there was so much there still intact. It is a large complex—35 acres. I would look at it all, and it didn’t do much. I was surprised. And then, I came again the next day, went back and the wind was blowing, and I was frightened and I had to leave that place. I could hear the voices—the screams and the crying out in the wind. I looked down on the Danube and it wasn’t blue; it was brown from all the pollution. And this place, this hellish place in those beautiful mountains, is 14 miles from Linz, where Hitler was born.
“All those voices. They still cry for help. Did we learn anything?”