Dying and living in Ebensee: recollections of prisoner No. 120482


by Dr. Michael Marunchak
Translated by Orysia Paszczak Tracz

Horror envelops you when you see living corpses all around, all looking so alike that you cannot tell them apart. Only bones, covered in yellow skin. Once in high school I saw a skeleton used in teaching human anatomy - and here in Ebensee it was as if a whole forest of those skeletons arose around me. [After my arrival from Mauthausen] I began meeting and talking to them, all the while thinking that in a few days I will be standing or lying down beside them. Different thoughts tumbled through my head at all this, and I even silently conversed with these skeletons: does anyone of your kin know that you are the refuse of your jailers, that you are being thrown about from place to place like a log, or will be finally tossed onto a ladder-sided wagon which will take you and your friends to your death? The guards even stomp you down into the wagon, as if compressing garbage, because they are told that hundreds more such unfortunates are awaiting their turn. See, friends, not only is there a queue for the work brigade, but here there is even one for death. Among the prone corpses I see one whose eyes are still shining. He is already fading, but a swallow of water or a spoonful of nourishing liquid might still save his life. But who of us would be brave enough to risk helping him. ...

This happened in April 1945, at the height of the worst crisis at Ebensee. The staff of the hospital collected the bodies of the inmates which lay in piles before Block 23. The order was to take them away for burning twice daily, to prevent the spread of cannibalism. At the same time, the staffing of the crematorium was doubled. People were dying in the hospital, in the barracks, on the fields, between the barracks, on the roads. Even though the healthier inmates collected them, the crematorium could not keep up. That was when ditches were dug beyond the camp, and the corpses were dropped in like logs for burning. Because the whole camp had become a morgue, this is how the bodies were cremated.

The friends we met who were still alive we could not recognize. These were skeletons who had no strength to climb up onto the second bunk on their own. I was shocked to meet the once-cheerful Julian Savytsky who, in Auschwitz, helped us so generously, and here did not have the strength to stand up. When he saw the pigeon-egg-sized piece of potato in my bowl, he said, "I have never begged, but give me that piece of potato. Maybe it will give me some strength." I gave him not only the potato, but added the broth from the peelings. True, this was not an actual broth, just the water from boiled peel, but for a starving man even this was a rare treat. The whole camp was so sombre, full of these starving inmates. The only ones with some hope shining in their faces were the ones who had recently arrived from other camps. Each wondered to himself how long he would last in this official government mortuary. ...

The pall of death permeated the camp. More prisoners were coming into the hospital and, as we lay in our beds, we watched every morning as they carried out on stretchers those of us who had died during the night. It was difficult to look at the quasi-corpses not that far away from us, fading away, looking at us and the world with hopeless eyes, carrying on unintelligible conversations with themselves. They barely stayed on their feet, yet so wanted to wander off somewhere to meet with their imagined kin. They lived more through hallucinations. Actually, they were not living, but "embering" - the embers of their life fading - and their agitation foretold their end. ...

On the third day after my arrival at the hospital [actually just a hall where the sick lived], we were visited by our secret OUN contact [the underground Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, which fought both the Nazis and the Soviets during the war], Ivan Boyko. Dr. Michael Shevchuk arranged for us to rest on neighboring beds to meet with Ivan and hear the news. There were seven of us: Ivan, Dr. Shevchuk and five patients ... All were members of OUN and sworn by the underground's oath of secrecy. After some conversation, Boyko came to the point, "You know, there is the possibility of walking out of the concentration camp to freedom, but you would have to be wearing German army uniforms." He sighed heavily as he said this, and asked each of us for our opinion. ... We all refused such an arrangement because, as each of us said, such an act would disgrace and betray the ideals we had defended and fought for so many years, and for which we and such a multitude of other patriots were now incarcerated in the concentration camps. Our decision was unanimous. ...

Holy Week, before Easter, May 1945

People were dying en masse, but so far, there was no liberation. In Block 23 high mounds of dead prisoners who could not be burned on time piled up, and more and more corpses were being delivered constantly. The sick were not being treated because there was no medication.

Friday, May 4, finally arrives. The hospital is deluged with news. The war is certainly ending; the war has already ended. All conversation is about Hitler's unconditional surrender. The most interesting news is that the SS will leave Ebensee, and the guard towers will come under the Volkssturm (the German People's Army), under the command of the mayor of Ebensee, and not the SS. As all this varied and completely incredible news was pouring in, the camp gong rang for the morning reveille. We watched furtively from our hospital barracks.

Lagerführer O. Ganz began his address to the prisoners with "Meine Herren." It had been unheard of for the SS to address prisoners with the respectful "gentlemen." Commandant Ganz spoke fairly gently, and without his usual harangue. It was obvious that he wanted to convince the prisoners that as the war was ending, we needed to "remain calm and not give in to our emotions." In order for the prisoners to be safe from wartime events, Ganz suggested that we hide in the mining tunnels. As soon as he finished this couched "gentle address," the whole field of prisoners roared "Nein!" "No!" "We will not go there so that they can ambush and lynch us!" No one moved, the commandant turned pale, and turned to his SS for consultation, then returned with the reply, "If there is no desire to hide in the tunnels, all remains as is." The SS column did not move either. A stalemate.

Shortly afterwards, the SS marched out of the camp through the gates, and were gone. Everyone sensed the lack of authority - anarchy - in the camp. The prisoners presumed that the SS had reorganized in the guard towers past the barbed wire, and as soon as the inmates were to move against the SS, they believed they would be gunned down. However, the SS were departing from the towers, and were being replaced by the Volkssturm.

By noon, there was a new order in the camp. The masses took to emptying the food stores. The kapos, block leaders, and the schreibers disappeared. The inmates remembered all the cruelty of this "crowned" elite, and retribution began. From one of our hospital windows we watched how these anointed camp leaders fled past the barbed wire from the throng. The guards did not shoot after them. The longest search was for the kapo called Tsyhan ("Gypsy"), named Hartmann. He could not hide himself in time. He was pulled from outside the fence and thrown live into the crematorium. The search was then on for the high-ranked Kapo from Melk, also called Tsyhan, who during his "reign" had gutted hundreds of inmates alive. But this monster, known to so many, did escape the people's justice and was tried by military court only after the war. Jean Lafitte, a French inmate, wrote in his memoirs "Die Lebenden", that 52 functionaries of the camp died at the hand of this prima eval justice. By evening the camp was calm. Nothing remained under lock, neither food nor clothing; all had been commandeered by the crowds. Late at night the camp was quiet and, with its staff working, only the crematorium still continued to burn its human fuel. Dr. Michael kept us informed of every detail of what was happening in the camp.

We awaited the American army. No one dared venture past the fence because we refused to believe that the SS would have given up the camp without a fight. Sunday morning was calm. The Volkssturm were still guarding. The camp cooks prepared a porridge, and no one asked out of whose grains it had been made, since by this time the food stores were already completely bare. The inmates walked around in groups and were stripping the SS storage facilities of anything remaining. Some of the stronger and braver prisoners headed for the watchtowers to search for the kapos. Many prisoners did not have the strength to move, not even to quiet their hunger. Some had become severely ill from the previous day's meals. The starving stomachs had needed a clinical approach to normalizing nourishment, and many died as a result [of eating too much too quickly]. The corpses were collected in the morning, before the arrival of the Americans. We continued to wait impatiently ...

In the hospital, we formed groups by nationality, and peered out the windows. It seemed that each of us had more strength than usual. We were even tired of all this nervous anticipation. All inmates who could stand on their own waited in the camp square and in the alleys between barracks. All around were thousands of "musulmans" [camp slang for the zombie-like inmates who were closer to death than to life.

A sad sight.

Suddenly, around 10 a.m., an American tank with an officer and a soldier rode into the hospital quadrangle. The camp roared with applause and cries of joy. Friends and strangers embraced and wept. A lieutenant left the tank and entered the large hospital hall where we lived. Again, the liberators were greeted with applause. We had selected a speaker beforehand, one who would greet the guests. This was a Belgian lawyer who, in fluent English, gave his short but sincere welcome and thanks from all the nationalities in the camp. He felt uneasy because his shirt barely reached his waist, and hundreds of sores covered his body. The lieutenant was so frightened of his appearance that he stepped back involuntarily when the Belgian first approached him. After the greeting, more applause rained down upon the liberators. The French inmates began the Marsellaise, which they had always sung in camp. The Poles then sang their national anthem. And the Ukrainians sang theirs, and we regretted that missing from our "choir" was baritone Petro Bolekhivsky (pseudonym Boyan), who was lying seriously ill in the hall. But he raised his arm in recognition of the anthem. If he had sung, his voice would have been heard in the mountains and valleys surrounding the camp.

We wept with joy from the warm friendly embraces. There were no more speeches nor greetings; it seemed that no one wanted to break the deep spiritual experience with mere words. But suddenly one of us cried out, "Today is our Easter! Khrystos Voskres! (Christ Is Risen! - the traditional Ukrainian Easter greeting). The replies, in tears and great emotion, were "Voistynu Voskres!" (Indeed He Is Risen!) And again, embraces and continuous personal greetings between individuals, "Khrystos Voskres! Khrystos Voskres! Khrystos Voskres!" Dr. Shevchuk, who was just as moved with emotion as his patients, added, "Let us not forget that Ukrainians add a national wish to this greeting - Khrystos Voskres, Voskresne Ukraina! (Christ Is Risen, Ukraine Will Rise)." And again we greeted each other with the conviction that Ukraine will indeed rise from the dead - to independence, "Voskresne Ukraina!". ...

The American divisions which liberated Ebensee found 16,650 registered prisoners, with 7,566 listed as ill, and over a thousand ready for the crematorium. ...


Dr. Michael Marunchak, 87, lives in Winnipeg. He is a survivor of the Nazi prison in Lviv, Ukraine, and the camps of Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, Mauthausen and Ebensee. He is a founder of the World League of Ukrainian Political Prisoners, and the author of close to 30 books, most on the history of Ukrainians in Canada, and about the experiences of Ukrainian political prisoners in Nazi Germany. This text was taken and translated from his memoir "Ukrainian Political Prisoners in Nazi Concentration Camps," Winnipeg: World League of Ukrainian Political Prisoners, 1996. 364 pp. An abridged version of this article appeared in The Globe and Mail on Easter Saturday, April 14, 2001.


Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, May 5, 2002, No. 18, Vol. LXX


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