Austrian prosecutors: Mauthausen Holocaust survivors may be called criminals

Prosecutors in an Austrian city reaffirmed Nazi logic by failing to indict authors of a magazine article that called Holocaust survivors murderers and criminals, the president of Vienna’s Jewish community said.

Oskar Deutsch made the statement Monday concerning the recent decision by prosecutors in the city of Graz to close a probe into the publication of an article titled “At Mauthausen, Mass Murderers Walked Free” in the July-August edition of Aula, which is affiliated with the far-right FPO party.

The Justice Ministry in Austria is reviewing the case following the submission of queries to the parliament on the prosecution’s decision.

Mauthausen was a Nazi concentration camp built in 1938, where 119,000 people, including 38,120 Jews, were killed outright or worked to death.

“According to Graz prosecutors, Nazi logic must be continued in Austria,” Deutsch wrote following the decision not to prosecute the people responsible for the article. In what Deutsch said was a “heinous reversal of roles,” the article “labeled the victims, not the perpetrators, as mass murderers,” he added.

Mauthausen served as a prison for common criminals throughout 1938.  But in 1939, it expanded to become both a concentration camp and a killing center for political and ideological opponents, according to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. The first transport of Jews arrived in Mauthausen in 1941 from the Netherlands.

Yet, according to the Der Standard daily, the Graz prosecutor’s office dismissed complaints against Aula, affirming that it is “understandable that the release of several thousand people from the Mauthausen concentration camp posed a nuisance to the affected areas of Austria,” and that lawbreakers were “undisputedly” among the inmates.

Christian Pilnacek, a high-ranking Justice Ministry official, told the daily that Aula’s article was “impossible to understand and inhuman” and that the decision not to prosecute is wrong. He did not say what actions, if any, the ministry intends to take on the matter.

Survivor: Mike Popik

The SS entered Mauthausen’s overcrowded barracks 30 one night in February 1944 to punish the 120 boys, including 14-year-old Mike (Miki) Popik, who were engaged in a shoving match to avoid sleeping next to the cold, damp wall. Among the guards was one everyone called Sturmführer Kaduk, and who, Mike said, was “a beast and a murderer.” Kaduk sent the boys outside, ordering them to stand for one hour in their wooden shoes with both feet on the ground. Mike cheated by occasionally raising one foot and then the other, even though it meant being kicked a few times by an SS soldier. Still, he reasoned, that was better than having his wooden shoes freeze to the ground, which would mean falling over and dying. 

An hour — and many deaths — later, the survivors were called back to the barracks and ordered to perform sit-ups to revive themselves. When told to stand up, Mike saw his good friend struggling: “Robert, don’t die on me,” Mike begged. Robert grabbed Mike’s pants and hoisted himself up. Kaduk, who witnessed the interaction, came up behind Mike and kicked him with such force that he flew into a wall and collapsed. Blood poured from his mouth and nose, and he fell unconscious. 

Mike was born on May 11, 1931, in Levice, Czechoslovakia, to William and Frida Popik. His brother Andrew was born in December 1927, and brother Gaby in September 1941.

William, along with two non-Jewish partners, owned a trucking company, and the middle-class family lived in a house on a small river, where Mike enjoyed swimming with his Jewish and Christian friends. The family was observant, though not strictly religious, and Mike attended Jewish school. 

In November 1938, the First Vienna Award ceded parts of southern Czechoslovakia, including Levice, to Hungary. The Hungarians, however, didn’t enter Levice until spring 1939, when, Mike recalled, “Life changed tremendously.” 

Then, on March 19, 1944, Germany occupied Hungary. And in early May, the Jews were forced into a ghetto, where Mike’s family shared one room with five or six families.

By late May, the ghetto was evacuated, and the Jews were loaded into cattle cars, traveling, Mike said, “in the most inhuman conditions that you could imagine.” 

On the fifth day, the train pulled up to the Birkenau platform. As the doors slammed open, prisoners in striped uniforms ordered, “Go here, go there,” while Nazi guards with German shepherds shouted, “Schnell, raus” (quick, out). 

Once outside, Frida, holding Gaby, joined the long line of sick, elderly and mothers with babies. Mike turned to follow them, to protect them, but his father grabbed his arm. “You are a bar mitzvah boy. You are going with the men,” he said. Mike saw his mother and Gaby looking for them as they walked away — they hadn’t had a chance to hug and kiss. He caught their eye, and he, his father and brother Andrew waved. Frida and Gaby waved back. “This was the last time I saw my mother, who was 39 years old, and my brother, who was not even 3,” Mike recalled.

Mike continued walking with his father and Andrew, eventually reaching a small brick building where they were processed. Mike’s father and brother were later led to Barracks 19 and Mike to Barracks 21, with the young people. There he slept on a bare concrete floor, with no blanket.

For the next few weeks, the youngsters in Mike’s barracks were subjected to meager rations and almost nonstop roll calls, with kapos kicking them and SS hurling filthy names at them. “We were like confused animals,” Mike said. 

Then, one morning in late July, Mike’s father and brother, who were being transferred to Dachau, came to say goodbye. Mike’s father also offered some advice, which Mike interpreted as orders. 

In short, William told Mike to wash his face every day with half the water he was given to drink; to exchange his bread ration for a piece of charcoal from the kitchen if he contracted diarrhea; and, most important, to always volunteer. 

That was the last time Mike saw them.

About two weeks later, during roll call, Dr. Josef Mengele asked for prisoners experienced in metal work. Mike promptly raised his hand, and he and 14 others were selected.

But before leaving Birkenau, the boys were tattooed, Mike with B-6193. “I was happy,” he said. “I felt like I got a passport for America.”

The group was taken to Eintrachthütte concentration camp. Mike worked as a runner in the Huta Zgoda factory, in nearby Sosnowiec, bringing tools to the German, French and Dutch civilian employees who helped manufacture anti-aircraft artillery. 

On Mike’s second day, the Polish foreman instructed him to empty the trashcan. There, and every day following, Mike found a few bites of the man’s sandwich, the most he could leave without arousing suspicion. “I loved the man,” Mike said. “He helped me so much.”  

Six weeks later, Mike learned from some Hungarian prisoners arriving from Auschwitz that the day after he left, all 1,200 children in the children’s barracks had been sent to the crematorium. Mike cried for two days; he had not known about the crematorium until then. 

On Jan. 21, 1945, as Russian soldiers shelled the factories, Eintrachthütte’s 1,300 prisoners were evacuated, forced to walk in bitter cold and deep snow in their wooden shoes. Mike’s left foot became frostbitten and he lost a small piece of flesh. 

They reached Sosnowiec late that night and were loaded into cattle cars. 

Three days later, they arrived at Mauthausen and were immediately sent to shower. There, the 16 or 17 kapos who had traveled with them from Eintrachthütte were separated, and, in what Mike described as “the most brutal thing that anybody can imagine,” they were clubbed to death by the Mauthausen kapos, who didn’t want any competition. Mike saw flesh and blood scattered everywhere.

Mike’s group was taken to the barracks, where, a month later, he was kicked by Sturmführer Kaduk. The pain dissipated after three months, except for intense flare-ups every month or two. 

In early April, the prisoners in Mike’s barracks were moved to Mauthausen’s Zeltlager (tent camp) and then, in late April, dispatched on a death march.

After three days, they arrived at Gunskirchen Lager, where they slept on the ground in filthy, hastily constructed barracks. Four days later, with no food, they began chewing bark off the trees and drinking water from trenches filled with dead bodies. 

The next afternoon, on May 4, the Germans ran away. A few hours later, and before American soldiers liberated the camp, Mike left with two friends, walking along the main road.

The trio eventually reached the town of Wels, where American soldiers gave them food and an attic to sleep in.

But three days later, Mike was hospitalized for 40 days with typhus. Once his fever broke, he left the hospital and headed back to Levice, where he learned that, of his 39 close relatives, only he and an aunt had survived. 

Mike remained in Czechoslovakia, working in a bakery/cafe. But, he said, he was “restless and wild” and wanted to immigrate to Palestine.

Eventually, with false papers saying he was 19, he arrived in Israel in late May 1948 and immediately joined the Palmach. “The Israeli army gave me the strength and dignity of a human being,” he said. 

While in the army, Mike had another flare-up and learned he had lost his right kidney when Kaduk kicked him. “You are a miracle that you are alive,” the doctor told him.

After the army, Mike worked in deep water and oil drilling. During this time, he met Esther Greenspan, and they married on Aug. 23, 1952, when Mike was 21 and Esther 17. Their daughter Frieda was born in June 1953.

The family left Israel in 1958 for France. They later traveled to Mexico City, where their daughter Anita was born in December 1960. The family then settled in Los Angeles in 1963; their daughter Vivian was born in May 1964. 

Mike worked as a house painter, but, after a car accident in 1969, he switched to the car wash business, retiring in 2007. 

Since then, Mike, now 83 and the grandfather of six, has been a regular speaker at the Museum of Tolerance. 

Mike attributes his survival to his father’s final words as he left Auschwitz. 

“Because of this advice, until today I am able to talk to you. Maybe with a little luck also,” he said. 

Survivor: Stella Esformes

It was 1944, and Stella Esformes — then Sterina Haleoua — was looking forward to watching the national Independence Day parade in Larissa, Greece. She had even purchased a new pair of beige and brown shoes for the occasion. But the day before the event, in the early morning of March 24, she was awakened by the sound of boots walking outside her family’s apartment, followed by loud knocking on the door. “Open up,” a voice demanded. It was an interpreter, accompanied by two German soldiers. “Come with me,” he ordered. “Take some clothes, food and your valuables.”

Stella and her parents were put in a large, open truck, which  made multiple stops as the soldiers rounded up more families. “We were crying. Nobody was talking,” Stella recalled. 

Stella was born on April 15, 1926, in Salonika, Greece, the only surviving child of Avraham and Rosa Haleoua. The couple’s previous four daughters all died between the ages of 1 and 3, before Stella was born. 

The Haleouas, who spoke Ladino, lived in a house they shared with another family. Avraham worked selling horses in Larissa, about 90 miles away. He returned home every weekend or two. Rosa was employed as a live-in housekeeper for a wealthy family, also coming home on weekends. A neighbor cared for Stella. 

Stella lived in a vibrant Jewish community where she had many friends and enjoyed celebrating Shabbat. 

At 6, she attended Jewish kindergarten. The following year, however, her mother lost her job and they moved to Larissa.

Stella didn’t speak Greek, and she didn’t attend school immediately. Instead she learned to crochet and embroider from Rosa and picked up some Greek while shopping at a neighborhood market.

At 9, she enrolled in first grade, where the children teased her because of her age and poor command of the language.  After second grade, she left school and apprenticed for a seamstress. While there, she sewed several dresses for herself, replacing the one dress she had been wearing every day. 

On Oct. 28, 1940, Italy invaded Greece. With bombs dropping, Stella stopped working. Some months later, a neighbor took her own two sons and Stella to live in a village in the mountains, where Stella felt safer. But on March 1, 1941, an earthquake struck, severely shaking the house. Stella’s father came for her that day.

The Greek army pushed the Italian forces into Albania, winning the war. “We were so happy,” Stella recalled. But then Germany attacked Greece on April 6, 1941, occupying it by April 30.

Not much changed initially for the Jews of Larissa, according to Stella. But by 1943, they were issued identification cards and required to check in with German officials weekly. And on March 24, 1944, they were rounded up. 

The truck delivered Larissa’s Jews to a large, empty garage. Additional trucks brought more Jews from Yanina, Volos and other surrounding towns. “We were crying and crying,” Stella said. 

The Germans took everyone’s valuables. One woman handed Stella a gold necklace with three diamonds to hide, which she embedded in her coat hem.

A week later, at midnight, the Germans marched the Jews to the train station and loaded them into cattle cars, where they sat on the floor “bumper to bumper,” Stella said. 

After seven days, the train pulled up to the Birkenau platform. When the doors of Stella’s car opened, the girls and boys were separated, and the older people were directed to board trucks standing nearby. “Stella, come with us,” Avraham pleaded. “No, Daddy, I’m going with the girls. We’re going to work,” she answered. She assumed they would meet later. 

The girls were marched to a large room where female capos tattooed Stella with the number 77137 and cut her long hair. Nazi guards then ordered the girls to undress and shower. Stella carefully folded her coat with the gold necklace, planning to retrieve it after her shower. But they exited through another door, and Stella was handed a thin dress and a pair of wooden shoes. 

The girls were next taken to a barracks. The first night, Stella couldn’t stop coughing and couldn’t sleep. “I was nervous,” she said. 

The next day, she met a girl from Salonika. “Where are our parents?” Stella asked her. “Your parents went where my parents went, to the crematorium,” she answered. Stella thought the girl was crazy, but she subsequently heard the same story from others.

After being quarantined for 40 days, the girls in Stella’s barracks went to work. Stella was assigned to unload potatoes from a train and then cart them by wheelbarrow to the camp. 

One day, Stella stole three potatoes, wrapping them in her headscarf and putting them between her legs. As the group returned from work, a capo saw her walking oddly and ordered her to open her legs. The potatoes fell out, and the capo struck her three times on the head with a heavy baton. 

The group then stood at roll call where a German guard called out her number and directed her to the sidelines. “I was crying. All my friends were crying,” Stella remembered. Everyone feared she would be taken to the crematorium. Instead she was reassigned to clean the latrines and the open sewer, where she later found a mezuzah that she hid in a piece of bread.

In January 1945, as the Russians approached, Stella and others were evacuated in cattle cars to Bergen-Belsen, a 17-day trip. They were given a blanket and placed in tents. 

Some weeks later, the group was transferred by train to Gellenau, a women’s labor camp in Germany’s Silesia region. Stella worked on a machine, standing on her feet from evening to morning, every night. One morning after work, she fainted; she had contracted typhus. Her friends wanted to bring her to the hospital, but Stella refused, returning to work that evening. “I didn’t want to be taken away,” she said.

In March 1945, Stella was shipped to Mauthausen. The first night, she was assigned a barracks filled with sick people. She climbed into a bunk next to a Hungarian woman, who was dead by morning. 

At Mauthausen, Stella traded her mezuzah for additional soup. One day, while fetching her extra portion, a Hungarian woman said, “What do you need soup for? You’re free.” 

Stella walked up a hill, where she saw American soldiers tossing chocolates and cigarettes to the newly freed prisoners. “We were very happy,” she said. It was May 5, 1945. Stella was 19 and weighed about 85 pounds. 

Stella remained at Mauthausen, which became a displaced persons camp. Then, on July 28, the Americans departed and the Russians took command. That night, when Stella was sleeping in a room with 35 girls, Russian soldiers knocked on their door. The girls took refuge in the barracks with the Jewish men, who protected them, and left the camp the next day. 

Stella headed for Salonika, where she lived with her cousin Sinto and a group of young people. There she met Yomtov (Joe) Esformes, who was nine years older and the only survivor in his family. They married on July 14, 1946; Stella wore a rented dress and borrowed shoes. 

In April 1947, their son, Elias, was born, followed by daughters Flora in July 1951 and Rose in September 1958. 

In October 1951, Stella and Joe received a visa to immigrate to the United States. They settled in Los Angeles, seeking a mild climate for Joe, who had contracted asthma in the camps.

The Jewish community helped the family financially. Then, when Flora was 3, in 1954, Stella began working in a window blinds factory. She took a leave when Rose was born and retired in 1963. Stella then helped Joe in the small produce market he had opened in downtown Los Angeles. He sold it in 1969 and died on Oct. 13, 1989. 

Stella, now 88, has three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. She is active in Jewish Family Service’s Café Europa and UCLA’s Bearing Witness program. 

While Stella was in Birkenau, a French prisoner read her palm, telling her she was going to be liberated, marry a red-haired man and have three children.

“Believe it or not, that’s what happened to me,” Stella said.