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Home Culture Art, avant-garde and horror in the Ebensee Nazi concentration camp | Culture

Art, avant-garde and horror in the Ebensee Nazi concentration camp | Culture

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The Nazi commander’s plan was as criminal as it was unsophisticated. It consisted of locking the 16,648 prisoners of the Ebensee concentration camp in the gigantic tunnel drilled into the immediate mountain and dynamiting the entrance. Bury them alive. The prisoners sensed the maneuver, they knew that the Allied Army was nearby and they rebelled. The usual thing in a mutiny against a restless and retreating SS is that the leaders were machine-gunned unceremoniously, but they were left in the hands of a Wehrmacht patrol. “His life was worth nothing,” says Wolfgang Quatember, director of the Ebensee concentration camp memorial in Upper Austria, “and Anton Ganz, the commander, was already thinking about his own after the war. In the consequences of a selective killing with witnesses. He had no time for skirmishes. “They fled.”

Silvia Dinhof-Cueto listens carefully to Quatember inside the tunnel. Her father was one of the prisoners in the camp. Víctor Cueto, an Asturian lieutenant in the Republican Army, had escaped from the coup troops by crossing the Catalan Pyrenees on foot to end up confined in the concentration camp on the beach of Argelès-sur-Mer, built on the sand. There they offered him three alternatives: return to Franco’s Spain, enlist in the French Foreign Legion or work on the Maginot Line, the useless Gallic defensive wall on the border with Germany. He opted for the latter but was immediately captured by the Nazis. He entered Mauthausen in the summer of 1940, with number 3,438. He survived five years. Until liberation. An eternity.

“My father said that in Mauthausen everything happened by chance. An SS chief, the most sadistic, the most animal, chose him by chance to work in the field garden. He saved her life. He was working in extreme conditions in the granite quarry, there he would not have lasted much longer. In 1944 they transported it to Ebensee,” says Dinhof-Cueto in perfect Spanish, pointing to the gallery system. In the main tunnel, Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota has just installed a 25-meter-long red loom. A second skin that evokes, in her words, a feeling of “presence in absence.” Dinhof-Cueto contemplates Shiota’s work: “My father would have asked himself ‘what does this mean?’ But his purpose is to remember what happened here, I think he would have liked it.”

The final improvisation of the Nazi commander actually did not clash with what had been Ebensee, a satellite camp of Mauthausen conceived in 1943 to develop a new generation of weapons with the exploitation of slave labor. Here they murdered more than 8,500 people through work in just 18 months. When they had excess labor force, the SS left the weakest prisoners out in the open, half-naked on the edge of the barracks so that they would die of cold. In US Army photos from May 6, 1945, mountains of corpses are seen piled up in the crematorium, the bodies of convicts who could not resist any longer and died just hours before the liberation of the camp. For a week, about 450 people continued to die every day.

Prisoners of the Ebensee concentration camp, 1945. Photo 12 (Universal Images Group / Getty)

The tunnel hid an underground factory to execute Nazi Germany’s missile program, directed by officers Walter Dornberger and Wernher von Braun, who after the Second World War continued their brilliant careers in the development of ballistics on the enemy side, in the US Army The Ebensee gallery system embodies the perfect alliance between science and barbarism, technology and exploitation of human beings.

“Memories are the only way that allows people to escape this contempt for humanity, this fatal combination of destruction and progress”, says Elisabeth Schweeger, artistic director of the European capital of culture of 2024 in Bad Ischl–Salzkammergut, who recognizes the difficulty of carrying out initiatives that confront the past in a region with deep Nazi roots. “The Ebensee tunnel and the former concentration camp nearby are places to remember. How can we do justice to this place, how can we honor it with art?”

His answer was Chiharu Shiota. And also an original audiovisual docufiction, curated by architect Marlene Rutzendorfer, Regional Express. He designed it so that, during train trips between the towns of the Salzkammergut region, travelers would have an oral history archive on their phone that was almost subversive compared to the silence of other times. The objective is the same: to promote a pedagogy of memory. Rutzendorfer was born and raised in Bad Ischl: “For a long time, Salzkammergut society was reluctant or unwilling to closely examine its own role in National Socialism and the concentration camp; not only in Ebensee, but also beyond. “It seems very easy to choose not to see the traces of the field’s existence.”

Hidden in Stuttgart

The beauty of the landscape does not exclude horror, heard on the mobile. And then the testimony of Silvia Dinhof-Cueto, who participates in the story, emerges: “It saddens me to think that for me, Traunsee and Attersee, where I grew up, are beautiful places. For my father it was horror. This was always difficult for me. And it still is. There is an obvious tension between the wonderful and the brutal.”

Dinhof-Cueto’s father did not leave Salzkammergut and rebuilt his life working as a cook at the American military base in Lenzing, on the shores of Lake Attersee, where Klimt and Mahler spent their summers and were inspired, just 30 kilometers from Ebensee. She lived stateless until 1955, when Austria granted her nationality. She was born stateless in 1954.

Ebensee was released a day later than Mauthausen. The Nazi commander Anton Ganz escaped to Germany, led a low-profile, orderly life in Stuttgart (“he only went out to go to mass on Sundays,” notes Wolfgang Quatember) and once retired, in 1972, he was prosecuted by the German justice system and sentenced. to life imprisonment. In fleeing from him the barbarian was intelligent. They only found witnesses to accuse him of seven murders. He served a few days of preventive detention and was released shortly after for health reasons.

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