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Gusen: Granite and death, memory and oblivion

18 September 2017

The opening ceremony of the exhibition "Gusen: Granite and death, memory and oblivion" took place on 7 September 2017 at the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre. The exhibition, consisting of 20 bilaterally printed panels, was organized by the Embassy of the Republic of Poland in Pretoria in cooperation with the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre, the Embassy of Austria in Pretoria and the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung in Johannesburg.

The aim of the exhibition is to restore the collective memory of Gusen - the largest German Nazi concentration camp in Mauthausen – Gusen complex. The entire KL Mauthausen-Gusen complex was classified as a third-class camp (Stufe III), with the toughest conditions and with the least chance of survival. 

(Photo by Lukasz Nowak)


Over 35 thousand prisoners of 27 nationalities lost their lives in Gusen, more than half murdered were Poles. Among 42 thousand of the concentration camps created by the Nazis, in which 15-20 million people were killed or imprisoned, KL Mauthausen - Gusen belonged to the heaviest camps of the Third Reich.
After the war, most of the perpetrators evaded responsibility, and the remains of the KL Gusen concentration camp began to deteriorate. At the end of the fifties of the previous century the residential estate, which exists until now, was built on the premises of the former camp. At present, a few preserved buildings and relics of the former concentration camp are in private hands.

Former prisoners of KL Gusen had to fight to preserve the memory of the camp, its victims, the unimaginable suffering and the crimes of German and Austrian Nazis.  If it were not for the involvement of former prisoners, it would not be possible to save the crematorium, around which - thanks to the funds collected by former prisoners and their families - the first commemoration centre was opened in the 1960s.  It was only in 1997 that the responsibility for maintaining the KL Gusen Memorial was taken over by the Ministry of Home Affairs of the Republic of Austria. Thanks to the efforts of the international community, especially the former prisoners from Poland, a modest visitor centre was opened in Gusen in 2004.

Only recently, there has been a real chance to save Gusen, thanks to the consistent involvement of former prisoners, the local community, and the countries from which the victims were deported. An important decision of the Austrian authorities was to enter several remaining relics from the camp in the register of monuments in 2016. The Federal Office "Mauthausen Memorial" was established in Austria in 2017, which aims to promote knowledge of Nazi crimes in the entire Mauthausen-Gusen complex.

Thanks to the involvement of the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, the Embassy of the Republic of Poland in Vienna, the Austrian municipalities of Langenstein, Mauthausen and St. Georgen, and the local community centered around an initiative called the Bewusstseinsregion (Awareness Region), there are plans to establish an international education and youth centre in Gusen and to preserve the memories of the former concentration camp.  The main aim of the initiative  is to commemorate the victims of KL Mauthausen-Gusen as soon as possible, and to create a centre of education and meetings aimed primarily at younger generations.

On behalf of the Ambassador of the Republic of Poland to RSA Andrzej Kanthak, Head of Politics and Economic Department of the Polish Embassy in Pretoria, Krzysztof Bielaj delivered a speech. He quoted Pope John Paul II in his speech: "We wish to remember. But we wish to remember for a specific purpose, namely to ensure that never again will evil prevail, as it did for the millions of innocent victims of Nazism. " He also emphasized the significance of the exhibition and the need to preserve the memory of the camp and its victims after decades of obliterating traces of the camp.

Veronica Philips, a witness and former prisoner of the German Nazi concentration camp Ravensbrück also gave a speech during the ceremony. In her shocking and touching testimony, she spoke of the unimaginable suffering and crimes of Nazi Germany.

The exhibition will be presented at the Holocaust and Genocide Center in Johannesburg until 7 October 2017 and later transferred to the Holocaust and Genocide Centres in Durban and Cape Town.

Exhibition "Gusen: Granite and death, memory and oblivion" was prepared by the Museum of Polish History in cooperation with the Polish-German Reconciliation Foundation, as part of a wider project initiated by the Minister Magdalena Gawin (Ministry of Culture and National Heritage), to restore memory of KL Gusen Concentration Camp as a place of martyrdom of the Polish community, especially the intelligentsia.

Embassy of Poland in Pretoria, South Africa




February/March 2020

















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