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UnCommon Ground

UnCommon Ground

Surviving Mauthausen: When Professor Eva Revesz read a paper from one of her students detailing her interest in World War II, she immediately reached for the phone.

They drove through the unmanned gate, beneath the Reichsadler—the Nazi imperial eagle—and into an incomprehensible landscape of hell. More than half a century after Colonel Richard Seibel and 600 American soldiers under his command entered the Mauthausen concentration camp, he remembered the stench. It was May 5, 1945. Hundreds of dead bodies were stacked in the open air like cords of wood; prisoners who had committed suicide by throwing themselves against the electrified fences hung like contorted spiders against the barbed wire. SS troops had abandoned the camp shortly before Seibel’s arrival, leaving the remaining 18,000 or so emaciated and ill prisoners without food, water, or power. Some continued to die of starvation and disease, but Col. Seibel and the U.S. troops worked for weeks to save the living and get them strong enough to return to their home countries.

The Mauthausen camp had a nickname during the war: Knochenmühle—the bone-grinder. It was the scene of some of the worst atrocities within the Nazis’ extensive system of extermination-by-labor and medical experimentation. Primarily to punish the intelligentsia—the “Incorrigible Political Enemies of the Reich”—the camp was established on the site of an Austrian granite quarry that had supplied the stones used to build the streets of Vienna, and with wartime slave labor to build monuments to the Third Reich. The fate of many prisoners was the notorious “186 steps of death,” a steep stone stairway from the base of the quarry, which they were forced to climb while saddled with 150- pound blocks of granite strapped to their backs. Those who faltered were shot in the back of the head or were allowed to fall backward, creating a gruesome domino effect of fallen, broken bodies down the bloody stairs. Guards also were known to stand prisoners in a single-file line at the top of the steep quarry pit, and force the second in line to push the person standing at the edge to a precipitous death before stepping up to the edge himself.

Samantha Seibel ’17 didn’t hear the stories about Mauthausen until she was a teenager. Her grandfather died when she was 4, and she remembers him fondly, but the history of his role in liberating the concentration camp came to her over time, through her father, Peter. In her first semester at Denison last fall, Samantha signed up for a first-year seminar, “Genocide in the 20th Century.” She felt a personal connection because of her grandfather’s story, and she also knew she had a lot to learn about the subject. The course was being taught by Visiting Assistant Professor of German Eva Revesz, who asked her students in an early assignment to write an essay about what interested them in such a weighty topic.

Revesz was reading these papers when she came to Seibel’s, which outlined her grandfather’s history as a soldier and his role in liberating Mauthausen, and she remembers reaching for the phone in astonishment even before she had finished reading Seibel’s account. Revesz’s father had been a prisoner at Mauthausen, and was among those found alive by the Americans more than 68 years ago. Now an emeritus professor at Wayne State University, he listened to his daughter’s story with the composure of a man who has learned to meet atrocities and miracles with equanimity.

Andrew Reeves (he changed his name from Revesz when he emigrated to America) lived in Nazi-occupied Budapest as a teenager, and witnessed the everyday anti-Semitism in Hungary metastasize into government policy. One by one, opportunities closed to Jews, and preposterous laws made daily life more and more impossible. Still, the young Reeves dismissed the rumors of extermination and gas chambers. “Germany was the nation of Goethe and Beethoven—such savagery was unimaginable,” he later would say.

He eventually was arrested and sent to a work camp in 1944, and a year later he was moved to Mauthausen, where conditions were so appalling that the 20-year-old Reeves, already starving, saw no reason to expect he would survive. He and others were soon marched to Gunskirchen, one of many Mauthausen subcamps, and it was there that the emaciated Reeves stood at the gate to see the first advance patrol of Americans. He didn’t know at first if the soldiers in the jeep had come to save him or shoot him, but he saw their expressions of shock at his condition. “Before that first jeep pulled away,” Reeves recalled, “I asked them for food.” The soldiers rummaged in their vehicle and pockets and came up with a few saltine crackers and a can of condensed milk. “That can of milk was the best-tasting thing I had eaten in the entire past year.” The soldiers told him, “Don’t worry— things are going to get better from now on.”

Out of gratitude, while still at Mauthausen, the former prisoners presented Col. Seibel with an American flag they had cobbled together. It was made, as he described it, “from scraps of clothing and anything else they could find that was red, white, and blue.” There were 56 stars. “They didn’t know how many states were in the United States. I immediately flew that flag over the camp, the first American flag to fly over Mauthausen.”

Among the Mauthausen prisoners liberated that spring of 1945 was Simon Wiesenthal, who became well known as a Nazi-hunter and author. The Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, established to support Jewish rights worldwide, was named in recognition of his work. Samantha Seibel’s family donated her grandfather’s American flag to the Center, where it is now in the collection.

At the age of 90, in 1998, Colonel Richard Seibel spoke to the graduating class of Defiance College as he was presented with an honorary degree. “You have in your future the chance to make a difference in our quality of life, in the tolerance and respect we show for others, and the examples we set for our children. There is a beauty and balance in our diversity. Every act of intolerance or hatred based solely on race, heritage, gender, religion, poverty, wealth, disability, or otherwise, is like a miniature Mauthausen. Do not allow these daily concentration camps to exist. Liberate your minds, your values, even if you don’t agree. Be kind. Be tolerant. It is not in some grand war that you will bring peace on earth, but in your daily lives with singular acts of kindness.”