Otto Wagner (1924)

Photo: Otto Wagner

Biography:

“If I had not shot, I would have been shot. It was the matter of survival.”

Otto Wagner was born on August 7, 1924 in Bratislava into the seller’s family. Along with his brother they grew up in a harmonious background and thus he could pursue his studies. He never suffered because of his Jewish origin; however, the situation changed radically in 1938, especially after the establishment of the Slovak State in 1939. Along with his brother and parents they expected nothing good from the new regime, but reality was even much worse. Then, Otto moved to his friend’s house in Horský Park. In April 1942, when he was still there, he got a letter from his parents, who asked him to come back and to go with them to the camp in Žilina. However, Otto’s parents were sent to the concentration camp in Poland, from which they never returned. Otto’s friend gave him his own papers and thus Otto could live in Bratislava under the name Ľudovít Krajčovič. However, despite all the efforts, his real identity was revealed one day and he was taken to a labour camp in Nováky, where he was interned until the outbreak of the Slovak National Uprising. After the dissolution of the camp in August 1944, he got involved in the fights within the Slovak National Uprising and went through the military training in Kostoľany, after which he was sent to fight against the German troops. At first, he was a member of the 9th Battalion Jegorov, later he was appointed the head of intelligence of the 9th Battalion Jegorov-Stalin. In October 1944, he was taken captive and was deported to the concentration camp of Mauthausen in Upper Austria. Starvation, diseases, slave labour, constant fear, and death were a daily routine there. He believes that only a good physical condition, which he gained as an active sportsman before the war, helped him survive. He had to live in these inhumane conditions until May of 1945, when the American troops arrived in the camp, though the majority of guards had left the camp before it was liberated. He returned to his hometown in August 1945. After the war, he completed his university education and finished the part-time study at the School of Economics. Later, he worked as a head of geodesy, but after his son’s emigration from the communist Czechoslovakia, he was relegated to the post of an ordinary officer overnight. Otto worked in the Slovak Confederation of Political Prisoners in Bratislava for many years; he was the chairman of the Association of Prisoners of Concentration and Internment Camps in Slovakia and he also was an active member of the chairmanship and plenum of the Central Council of the Slovak Union of Anti-fascist Fighters.

 

Life Was Worthless There

Life Was Worthless There (data format Flash Video)

“Life in the concentration camp was something terrible. Just imagine that there were about 200,000 people from eighteen European countries. Our daily ration was about half a litre or a litre of water with potato skins and one eighth of bread, so it was impossible to live on it. I had the good fortune that sometimes the SS man took me to serve as an interpreter as I speak five languages. And thanks to this work I got a bit more soup and bread, so then I could share it with my cellmates. However, it was not regular; it occurred only from time to time. But I want to tell you that seeing a corpse next to me was really common, you know. When the group of armies approached, we were moved into one tent camp in Mauthausen, where we had to lie on a bare ground and it was in November or in December, on the bare ground, we were squashed there one by one. When I woke up, if I can talk about sleeping, so when I woke up, there were my cellmates crushed against me, but actually they were dead. So I can say I was lying between the two dead men for the whole night. Can you imagine it? However, the most important fact was that the life didn’t mean anything there. As a man usually saw dead people there, as it was so common, you know, a man became completely insensitive.”

How Multiculturalism Works

How Multiculturalism Works (data format Flash Video)

“People who were born in Bratislava in the period when I was young virtually spoke the three languages. German, Hungarian, and Slovak. When we were together, I mean when we played football or hide-and-seek game and the like, one was Hungarian, another one German, the third one was a Jew, and the fourth Slovak. This meant that young people automatically learned three languages without any special effort or motivation. It was a common part of life that when I wanted to ask the Hungarian boy to come to me or so, I had to learn those words and the like. However, I want to emphasize one thing. When I was attending school, either an elementary or a secondary one, an atmosphere was reasonable in Bratislava. As you probably know, there lived Hungarians, Germans, Jews, and Slovaks, in fact the majority was of the Slovak origin, but no one saw difference in Slovak, Hungarian, German, and Jewish origin, and so on, there was an absolute harmony. Well, the discord occurred when the Slovak state was established and when the guardsmen took power. You know, it was artificially induced. But in other regards there was a tremendous harmony, I've never heard anybody cursing the religion, the nationality, and the like. It was one city with three languages and with the family concord and harmony among friends and families.”

Hard times

Hard times (data format Flash Video)

“Well, we were at the age when we saw and feel it, and learn about it from our friends, right? But our father told us that the hard times were coming. As you know, the Slovak State was established, the guardsmen were in power, a Catholic priest was in the lead of the state and he didn’t have a good relationship with the citizens of the Jewish origin, and we only had to get prepared for the worst. We even found out that maybe we would be moved out, we would have to leave our flat, you know, we had a two-room flat here in Obchodná Street, and we thought we would have to move to a smaller one. And all our fears came true and we were evicted from the flat and moved to another one. However, we were still tolerating it until one day. You know, when the situation worsened, I used to live with my friend. I never knew when the guardsmen could come, so I lived in Horský Park with my friend Ľudovít Krajčovič, but I was still in touch with my parents and my brother. One nice day, it was in April 1942, my father let me know that there were the guardsmen, who had ordered us to pack our stuff in order to be transferred to a labour camp in Žilina. They asked me to come and to go there with them. However, I had learnt earlier what it actually meant to be sent to the labour camp. So I was lucky, because my friend Ľudovít Krajčovič gave me his ID card and his papers and I started to live in Bratislava under the name Ľudovít Krajčovič and I had Aryan papers. I had everything he could lend me and then he reported to the police that he lost his papers and the like. And there I  lived and worked as an auxiliary worker and I was there until April 1942 when it happened, I guess I know who was responsible for that, but I can’t prove it, as I was a citizen of Bratislava and many people knew me, one of them snitched on me. So one nice day the guardsmen came and escorted me to the labour camp in Nováky where I was from April 1942 to the outbreak of the Slovak National Uprising in August 29, 1944.”

Life in Nováky Was Not That Bad

Life in Nováky Was Not That Bad (data format Flash Video)

“I got there in April 1942, when the guardsmen escorted me to Nováky, when they learnt that I had lived with the Aryan papers. So I was in Nováky and I was there for two years. You know, Nováky can’t be compared with a concentration camp, the life was much better in Nováky. Firstly, food was relatively good there and I did various winter works, sometimes in the quarry, sometimes we were sent to other organizations to work for them. Well, overall the life was good in Nováky. You know, I think that the guardsmen living there were bribed by the Jewish community, they often received various gifts and thus they were a bit more humane than other guardsmen, do you understand? Well, I lived there for two years and I worked there and then I was taken to the Mauthausen camp, so I could compare the life in Slovak camp of Nováky and in Austrian Mauthausen, even though it was actually incomparable.”

Mauthausen Concentration Camp

Mauthausen Concentration Camp (data format Flash Video)

“We travelled there for about four, five hours and then we walked for an hour, two to the camp and there we were welcomed by the SS members and so on and they scoffed at us and we had to strip naked, they shaved our head, gave us that striped dress and wooden slippers. And it was in winter, in November, right? And we were given only the thin linen dress, a cap, and slippers and we were left standing outside, at the Appelplatz for three, four, five hours, it was a big area where there were barracks on the one side and on the other side there was a free space, where they were doing control every morning. Thus, when people were standing outside almost naked, only in that thin linen dress, they tried to get to the middle. I was lucky enough that I always managed to get there as I was young and vital. And those who stood on the edges usually got cold and diarrhoea, which was certain death. Every day hundreds of people died of diseases, diarrhoea or froze. Hardly anybody can imagine the conditions there. Well, it was my good fortune that I was young and healthy. When I was young I used to be a swimmer, I was the champion of Czechoslovakia and champion of Slovakia in the 100 meter freestyle. It always kept me in a good health and it also helped me survive. Although many of my colleagues, who were at my age, died there and the like, I managed to survive and I am persuaded I did so only thanks to doing a lot of sport.”

Stairs of Death

Stairs of Death (data format Flash Video)

“Imagine that there were 186 stairs and prisoners had to carry various heavy boulders from the quarry to the very top of the camp through those stairs as they were actually building the camp and those boulders weighed thirty or forty kilos.  Totally 186 stairs and when a prisoner had not enough strength and fell down, the SS men immediately surrounded him and shot him to the crown. Who couldn’t make it didn’t survive.  I had to carry the stones up to the camp for two or three times, but I was lucky that I could handle it, because I was aware that if I had fallen, I would have been shot to the crown. It was very common that when prisoners were carrying those boulders, their cellmates fell down and then only shooting resounded, bam bam bam. You know, later, the man simply took it as a part of life. And then there were also such cases that when prisoners managed to reach the top, the SS members made fun and as it was really high, I don’t know, 300 meters or the like, they pushed the prisoner down and killed him. They did so just for having some fun. They caught the prisoner and pressed him, ‘Stand on the edge!’ And when he stood there, they normally kicked him and he fell down. So the life there actually wasn’t life, it wasn’t life, you know. A man lived there, but it wasn’t life, because a man never knew the moment, the minute, when it can be over.”

“You cannot imagine what a real hunger means...”

“You cannot imagine what a real hunger means...” (data format Flash Video)

“There were cases that when I sometimes interpreted for the SS man, I was given a bit bigger piece of bread and as I was eating it, the bread crumbs were falling to the ground and my cellmates, and there were some very intelligent people, just lay down on the floor and licked the crumbs. I am sure you can’t imagine what a real hunger means. It is something terrible.”

Worse Than the SS Members

Worse Than the SS Members (data format Flash Video)

“Blockälteste was the name of the head of each block, who were mostly Poles. They were Polish prisoners, who were promoted by the Germans to the positions of the leaders of the certain groups of prisoners. I can tell you that, unfortunately, those Polish guards were sometimes even more radical than the SS men. More radical. I know I can’t generalize, but there really were cases that they were worse than the SS men. To prove their loyalty and the like, to prove that they deserved the trust of the SS men, they were sometimes even more consistent than the SS members. But as I said, I can’t generalize, because there were such people in both camps.”

I Myself Do Not Want to Believe It

I Myself Do Not Want to Believe It (data format Flash Video)

“There were such cases, you know, there was a lot of Russian prisoners among us and once a Russian general was taken as a deterrent, I do not remember now what he committed, but I know it happened in winter. In December he was tied to the lamppost and doused with cold water until he froze there. So he served as a cautionary case. Others were hanged, shot dead, doused with water, and the like. These are the stories, which nobody could believe, ‘That’s impossible.’ And I always respond, ‘Unfortunately, it is possible and it really happened.’ A man had to be careful. For example, one nice day I passed an SS man and I greeted him briefly and he approached me that I greeted him badly. You know, he slapped me across my face twice and I really thought I became deaf. In fact it was normal, it was a common practice. You know, talking about it, these memories are too drastic. When I think of what I went through, I myself don’t want to believe.”

The story and videoclips of this witness were put together and published thanks to the financial support of EU within the programme Europe for Citizens – Active European Remembrance. 

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