Saturday, October 13, 2012

Nazis Underground

After walking countless kilometers through Vienna (the ratio is 20-to-1 in Misti’s favor) and having free time not influenced by Keir’s student schedule, we are trying to broaden our horizons and look for adventures that involve more than strolling by Beethoven’s house, or hanging out in the same coffee house that Freud and Tolstoy used to frequent.  How jaded we’ve become.

So last Saturday, a gorgeous fall day, we jumped into the Kangoo, turned on the GPS, and programed in “Seegrotte,” the largest underground lake in Europe that is so big you can actually cruise upon it in a boat.  The lake is located in Hinterbrühl, a 6,000-year-old town I hadn’t heard of but should have. 

The Mine at Hinterbrül

To our surprise, the GPS machine said Hinterbrühl was a mere 17 kilometers from the center of Vienna – closer than the schloss I work in.  Off we went, and after driving a short way, we were in the scenic hills and woods on the west side of Vienna, and then, suddenly, we were there.  It was a bit like driving from downtown DC to Bethesda, or Minneapolis to St. Paul.

Hinterbrül is picturesque, but it is less an identifiable village and more a collection of buildings, old and new, scattered on steep hillsides among the trees of the Vienna Woods.  The lake, as we learned before we ventured out, is in the lower level of an old gypsum mine that dates back to 1848.  I had heard that this was the place used by the Nazis late in World War II to build fighters deep underground, safe from the increasingly frequent bombings by the Allies.

The Passageway
As we walked to the entrance, it occurred to us that an old gypsum mine used by the Nazis wasn’t the same as our visits to Luray Caverns in Virginia or Wind Cave in South Dakota’s Black Hills.  But the largest underground lake in Europe, natural or not, had promise, so we paid the 9 Euros, put on our coats, and headed into the darkness with our gruff Austrian tour guide.

One enters the mine through a 230-meter brick-lined passageway that is cold, narrow and looking every bit of its 164 years.  The guide warned us to watch our heads and our steps, as sometimes the walk is a bit slippery, but eventually the passage opened into a small cavern, or room.  The guide lectured in both German and English about gypsum mining (it’s used in fertilizer), and we learned that there were three levels to the mine. In 1912 miners broke through some rock on the lower level and suddenly 20 million liters of water from local springs flooded in, creating the lake.  The mine was closed shortly thereafter.

Deeper in the Mine 

We walked past the room where the miners ate dinner, then past the stables, where we learned that the 20 or so horses in the mine (used to power the hoists) were intentionally blinded before they were brought into the mine because they then behaved better in the darkness.

The Fuselage
Farther on we paused at an alcove that contained the corroding fuselage of a jet fighter, along with a model of the plane, and a few other aircraft body parts.  This was the He 162, the first jet fighter, developed by the Nazis near the end of WW II.  I’d heard about this plane when I was a kid (my dad was in the Air Force), but didn’t know much about it.  What I learned on the tour was horrifying … not because of the airplane itself but because of how it was manufactured in the cave.

The Plaque
As we wandered along, we heard mention of the 2,000 Italian prisoners of war, along with countless others from a nearby concentration camp, who worked in the cave building airplanes (not just the jet  but other Luftwaffe fighters).   There was a plaque on the wall of the cave system’s chapel commemorating the workers who were forced into the cave as laborers.

The Chapel
Misti and I looked at each other and started thinking about all of those people working and dying in this place, and once again we realized that no matter where you are in Vienna, or much of Austria, the ugly history is just below the surface – literally in this instance.  Our adventure to the cave suddenly felt more like a tour of a concentration camp.

The Factory 
A little more research revealed how justified that feeling was.  What the tour guide didn’t say (to his credit, he did use the phrase “those horrible times,” once), was that a satellite concentration camp to the much larger Mauthausen concentration camp near Linz was built in Hinterbrül in 1943 to move labor closer to the cave system, which was converted to an aircraft factory in 1944-45.  In the last months of the war, concentration camp inmates were force marched from other concentration camps to the mine; virtually none of them survived.  In 1945, 51 inmates were killed by the SS (in which the Austrians were disproportionately represented) in a single, awful incident just before they were to begin their march to the mine.  There is apparently a monument to these 51 souls erected in 1988 near the subterranean lake, but we didn’t see it.
Building a Jet

Outside the Entrance 
The airplane factory itself, we were told, was on the lower level, where the lake is now.  The Nazis pumped the water out, laid cement flooring, and started building fuselages for the fighters.  They could only build fuselages and other smaller parts because the cave system only has the one entrance …  the narrow, 230-meter long entrance passageway.  The fuselages barely fit through the passageway. The rails for the transport carts are still there.

In various places in the mine are signs with a symbol that consists of a crossed hammer and pick, with the letters “G” and “A” (see top photo).  The letters stand for “Glück Auf,” or “Good Luck.”  Mining in the 1800s was so dangerous “Gluck Auf” became the miner’s motto.  We imagined how cruel those words seemed to the forced laborers in the caves.

The Dragon Boat 
St. Barbara Room
We were shown a large room with candles and a religious icon, one of several Catholic shrines to Saint Barbara within the mine, and told that the Vienna Boys Choir occasionally sings there and as many as 2,000 listeners attend the concert – about the same as the number of prisoners and concentration camp inmates who worked in the mine at any one time. Then we went down a long staircase to the lake, which featured an anchored golden dragon boat used in the 1993 “Three Musketeers” movie.  The boat, along with a movie poster on a nearby wall, seemed eerily out-of-place.  At the end of the tour, we rode around the lake on a tourist boat for 20 minutes as the guide pointed out a fountain, the wall the water had come through back in 1912, and a handful of other sites.

But it was hard to pay attention.  There were too many ghosts.