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New visitor center at Mauthausen tells the dark story of Austria's main concentration camp
Former Polish prisoner Leshek Polkovski walks in front of a Second World War monument dedicated to Polish victims of the Nazis, at the former concentration camp Mauthausen, on May 5, 2013. AFP PHOTO/SAMUEL KUBANI.

By: Simon Sturdee

MAUTHAUSEN (AFP).- US nurse Mae Lopatin Herman summed up the horror of Mauthausen when she described her arrival at the Nazi concentration camp after its liberation 68 years ago this Sunday.

"We could smell (the camp) from a long way off," the former member of a US medical unit recalled. "In the middle of the most beautiful scenery you could ever imagine was this hellhole."

Her account is one of 48 interviews than can be heard in a new visitor centre open to the public from Monday that tells the dark story of Austria's main "KZ" and its subcamps between 1938 and 1945.

Among those taking part in Sunday's inauguration are Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, together with her father-in-law Moshe Spitzer, a Mauthausen survivor, and the presidents of Austria, Hungary and Poland.

Some 200,000 people, around a quarter of them Jewish, from 40 nations were incarcerated at Mauthausen, set in rolling hills just north of the Danube river near Linz, where Hitler went to school.

In 1939, the camp held 1,500 German and Austrian prisoners but by 1942 it had 10 times as many, from Soviet civilians to 7,000 Republican Spaniards who fled Franco's Spain after the civil war.

Around 90,000 didn't make it, perishing in back-breaking labour in granite quarries from malnourishment, disease -- or shot by the guards, hanged, throttled, beaten to a pulp or gassed.

The two new permanent exhibitions, housed in the original buildings, recreate this not only with the interviews but also dozens of original objects that speak volumes about life -- and death -- at Mauthausen.

These include one of the vicious "Ochsenziemer" whips employed by the sadistic guards, a trap door for the gallows, identity bracelets recovered from a mass grave and a rusty can of Zyklon-B poison gas.

Other items tell happier tales, like Hana Berger-Moran's baby clothes -- she was born in captivity -- stitched by other prisoners, or the bike given by a nun to Stanislaw Kudlinski on his trek back to Poland after liberation.

Another new installation at Mauthausen is the "Room of Names", where the 81,007 people documented to have died there are inscribed on horizontal glass panels in the camp's chilly -- and chilling -- former mortuary.

"We wanted to give people their identity back," said director Barbara Glueck. A blank space is left on the panels for the 10,000 other victims "whose identity we will never know," she said.

-- Hitler's first victim? --

But with the new visitor centre, eight years in the making, involving more than 100 institutions worldwide and costing 1.7 million euros ($2.2 million), Austria is perhaps a little late.

It replaces a somewhat more rough-and-ready exhibition set up by camp survivor Hans Marselek (1914-2011) that opened in 1970 and which organisers say was outdated.

Many sites in Germany went through an overhaul following the reunification of East and West Germany in 1990. Dachau, for example, gets 800,000 visitors a year, four times as many as Mauthausen.

"Concentration-camp research didn't really begin in Austria until the 1980s," Glueck told AFP. "It perhaps has something to do with the way Austria deals with its history."

For a long time after the war, Austria brushed aside its complicity in the Nazis' crimes against humanity and saw itself, "annexed" by Germany in 1938, as Hitler's "first victim".

This changed in the late 1980s when a scandal over the -- actually minor -- wartime record of former UN secretary general and Austrian president Kurt Waldheim prompted the country to re-evaluate its past.

"This site now has several functions -- as a memorial, a cemetery, a warning to future generations, a documentation centre and an education centre," Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leiter said at Mauthausen.

"It ensures that we take very seriously our responsibility and duty to pass on the knowledge of the atrocities that took place here, to make sure it never happens again."

© 1994-2013 Agence France-Presse

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