Nazi victims group raps part-closure of Austrian Mauthausen memorial

VIENNA Wed Jul 16, 2014 1:02pm EDT

VIENNA (Reuters) - A group representing Nazi concentration camp victims criticized a decision by Austria to close its Mauthausen national memorial site on Mondays for most of the year, calling the move a disgrace for a country that helped perpetrate the Holocaust.

The Association of Social Democrat Freedom Fighters, Victims of Fascism and Active Anti-Fascists, founded in 1949 in by former resistance fighters and prisoners in Nazi-era Austria, appealed to the Interior Ministry on Wednesday to reconsider.

"It (partial closure) is a disgrace for this country. Hitler came into the world in Austria and he grew up in Austria. We have a special responsibility for history and for the future. We must take this responsibility seriously," Gerald Netzl, head of the group's Vienna branch, told Reuters by telephone.

A statement by the group said partial closure would be unthinkable at Holocaust memorials elsewhere in Europe.

"Mauthausen... is the central Austrian remembrance and commemorative site for the crimes of National Socialism, comparable to Auschwitz-Birkenau for Poland," it said.

An interior ministry spokesman said the closures were needed for technical improvements and updates of the visitor center and museum, which have been expanded in recent years, and the days had been chosen to coincide with the least busy periods.

About 200,000 visitors a year come to Mauthausen, the center of a complex of concentration camps where between 100,000 and 300,000 prisoners died between 1938 and 1945.

Most of those deported to Mauthausen - at first, common criminals but later the intelligentsia, Roma and Sinti and Jews among others - were from Poland, followed by the Soviet Union, Hungary, Germany, Austria, France, Italy, Yugoslavia and Spain.

The camp's location, near Adolf Hitler's home city of Linz, was chosen mainly for its proximity to granite quarries, where prisoners were initially put to work extracting building materials for prestigious buildings in Nazi Germany.

It was not meant as a death camp but many of those who did not die from starvation or exhaustion were killed by various forms of brutality.

Many of those who visit Mauthausen today are school groups from Austria, where the Nazi Holocaust and Austria's part in it have become part of the standard curriculum.

For decades, Austria - which was annexed by Nazi Germany in 1938 - maintained that it was Hitler's first victim and glossed over the enthusiastic welcome he got from many Austrians.

The Interior Ministry said it expected no drop in visitor numbers from the Monday closures at Mauthausen, which will begin in September and run until the end of February, resuming in July 2015 to February 2016.

It said it was also abolishing the symbolic 2 euro ($2.71) entrance fee - a step welcomed by the victims' association.

The Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial and museum in Poland is open all year round except New Year's Day, Christmas Day and Easter Sunday. The Dachau memorial in Germany closes only on Christmas Eve, and Bergen-Belsen, also in Germany, is open every day.

($1 = 0.7393 Euros)

(Reporting by Georgina Prodhan; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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