I grew up in Nazi death camp ran by my sadistic dad who made wallets from inmates' skin – but I saw them as friends
21st January 2022

WALKING beside his dad, 11-year-old Walter Chmielewski watched as an emaciated man on death's door was dragged towards a crematorium. 

It was a harrowing sight, but one which was commonplace for Walter, who grew up in a Nazi concentration camp in Austria, of which his father Karl Chmielewski – a German SS officer dubbed the "Devil of Gusen" – was commander.

More than 35,000 prisoners, most of which were Polish, Spanish Republicans, Soviet citizens and Italians, were slaughtered at Gusen – a subcamp of Mauthausen – during the Holocaust.

Prisoners were subjected to starvation, heavy labour and mass executions and had a life expectancy of just six months.

Chmielewski, who ran the camp between 1940 and 1942, was renowned for his ruthless, extreme brutality and was said to whip prisoners with a riding crop, scald them with buckets of boiling water and make wallets out of their skin.

But Walter saw the inmates as his friends – as did his mum, who infuriated her husband by feeding them the same food as the rest of the family when they came to work at the house.

Walter, now 92, never accepted his father's Nazi beliefs, despite his insistence that the prisoners were "criminals, traitors, Jews, parasites" who want to "destroy Germany and don’t deserve anything else".

As a child he was often taken into the camp to see a doctor or to have his hair cut, always tended to by inmates. 

He told The Sun: “I saw some terrible things as a child… half-naked prisoners standing on the roll-call square at the camp, in the freezing cold.

“I remember one experience, when I wanted to see the production plants, so my father took me there, and on the way there stood a prisoner and he was throwing up.

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“He was obviously, visibly, not in a good condition. My father then shouted at the guard who was accompanying us, 'See to it that he returns to his place of work immediately!'

"Then the guard hit him in the back with the butt of his rifle and yelled, 'You lazy one, get back to your place of work!' But then the prisoner collapsed and fell unconscious. 

“The SS guard called two Kapos (prisoners in charge for favourable treatment) and he was then dragged away by his hands in the direction of the crematorium. 

“I don’t know if he was actually then taken to the crematorium itself. And I don’t know if he died there. It was 100 metres away. But he was certainly dragged in that direction.”

Mass graves

Walter was only allowed into one side of the camp, where prisoners were in a marginally better condition, as it was where doctors were situated. 

It was only when he turned 16 and briefly served in the German Army that he witnessed the full extent of his father's atrocities.

Walter was forced to bury the bodies of dead prisoners in the part of the camp previously off-limits.

He said: “There were six or seven of us and we were taken to a massive pile of corpses next to the crematorium. There were so many bodies. They were all naked and often covered in excrement.

“It was terrible. We had to take their shirts off then place the bodies into a mass grave.

“Given how young I was, it was really terrible. It plagued my dreams for many years and I can still remember every detail of it. Over the few days I was there I had to bury several thousand bodies.”

There were so many bodies, all naked and covered in excrement… it plagued my dreams for years

What made it all the worse for Walter, who appears in Sky documentary Mauthausen: Camp of No Return, was the fact he'd grown close to a number of prisoners when he was younger and had always treated them with respect.

He recalled: “Perhaps the closest relationship I developed with a prisoner was Monolo, a Spaniard. He was a special friend of mine. 

“We would put on our swimming trunks and wade out into the water and often cut the reeds together – he was forced to do it but I wanted to do it because I enjoyed it. 

“He would bend the reeds and then I would cut them, and I really loved doing it.”

Prison break

In the end, Walter inadvertently saved Monolo’s life by enabling his escape. 

He recalled: “It was lunch break and my mother had made a little buffet outside where we had been working.

"We sat down for our snack, then Monolo was sent off on a small task, and I had left my bike there.

"When he saw it, he just jumped on it and headed off down the road in the direction of the Danube. He escaped!

“Of course, the SS chased him as soon as they found out about it, but by then he was long gone.

"My father was furious but I was happy for Monolo because he was a friend and we had talked and laughed together.”

My father was furious that Monolo escaped but I was happy for him because he was a friend

Walter told how his father "went insane" when he found out his wife had been looking after the prisoners.

"He said, 'You can’t give prisoners the same food as you give to SS men,' and she just told him, 'What I do here is none of your business. For me they are normal people just like everyone else.'

"He backed off because at home he didn’t have much of a say.”

Family divided

The decision by Walter’s father to join the Nazi party had shocked the wider family, who were liberal voters.

Prior to the war Chmielewski joined the SS, and when he arrived home to the flat in Munich that his family shared with his wife’s parents, he was told to leave and never return in his uniform again. 

His refusal divided the family, and saw Walter and his mother move out to live with Chmielewski. 

Within a year Chmielewski rose up the ranks and worked for Reich leader Heinrich Himmler, a main architect of the Holocaust.

Chmielewski was first made commander at Sachsenhausen, where many concentration camp commanders were groomed, with most going on to run Auschwitz or Malthausen. 

As a child, Walter barely witnessed his dad’s nasty side, except for when he put on his uniform to work in the camps. 

It was a real Jekyll and Hyde situation. Even just standing in the kitchen before he left, his whole tone was quite different. He really did have two faces

He recalled: “He suddenly changed, he even had a different facial expression – a real Jekyll and Hyde situation.

“Even just standing in the kitchen before he left, his whole tone was quite different. He really did have two faces.”

In 1940 Chmielewski was promoted to build and run Gusen concentration camp, taking his family with him to live just 3km from the site. 

After the war, Walter cut ties with his father, who disappeared and took on a new identity.

Chmielewski was arrested by West German police in 1959, and at his 1961 trial he was branded a "sadist" and handed a life sentence.

He died in 1991 after being released from prison in 1979 on mental health grounds and spent his final years in an institution at Chiemsee, Germany.

Mauthausen: Camp Of No Return airs on Sky History at 9pm on January 23rd.

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