Collective amnesia: Austrian town unable to find the remains of 180 people massacred by Nazis

The Austrian municipality of Rechnitz (in Hungarian: Rohonc) is a peaceful village of about three thousand people near the Hungarian border. Many people come here on the weekends to enjoy the beauty of the nearby lake and forest. The town has a dark secret, though: 180 Hungarian Jews were killed here 74 years ago. Their remains have not yet been found still, although there have been 16 attempts to find the mass graves already. The town has been keeping the secret for more than seven decades, while descendants of the dead are still fighting for the truth.

Austrian authorities announced recently at a press conference that the most recent search for the mass grave of the victims of the Rechnitz massacre was unsuccessful – just like the previous searches. The place where the ground was dug up turned out to be a military trench.

We went to Rechnitz in March to attend the annual memorial service for the victims and to talk to those who are still trying to find the remains of their ancestors. The last direct descendant of a Rechnitz victim is surgeon Gábor Vadász who is looking for the remains of his father, his twin brother and 180 other prisoners. He has been trying to find their graves for decades.

We used his account and several books on the subject to summarize what happened. British journalist David Litchfield wrote several stories and a book on the subject.

Look at our photo gallery of Rechnitz and the memorial service for the victims of the massacre in March 2019:

Rohonc 2019. március

What happened on the night of the massacre?

The scene of the massacre was the castle that was built in the 17th century by Adam Batthiány and was bought by the Thyssen-Bornemissza family in 1906. The castle burned down in 1945 – it is unclear whether Russian or German troops were responsible. It was never rebuilt – today residential buildings are standing in its place.

During the time of the massacre, the castle was owned by Baroness Margit Batthiány Thyssen-Bornemissza, daughter of German factory owner Heinrich Thyssen.  The family was very rich, and by the time of World War II they were based in Switzerland. This was the place from where they directed their industrial empire: mines and factories. They were producing coal, steel and important war equipment (submarines) for the Nazi army. Heinrich Thyssen had a friendly relationship with Göring and the Nazi secret service – he helped them with his international relations in the banking sphere.

Baroness Margit Thyssen-Bornemissza, the owner of the Rechnitz castle, was also enjoying the riches that came to her family from the Nazis.

On the night of the massacre, 24–25 March 1945, she was hosting a party for about 40-50 people in the castle. SS and SA officers were in attendance. At the time Russian troops were only 15 kilometers away from the Hungarian-Austrian border.

The chain of events started a few days earlier when the work camp of Kőszeg (a town on the Hungarian side) was emptied out hastily because the Russian troops were fast approaching.

The seriously ill were killed; those who were sick and could not walk were put in train carriages. They were taken to Rechnitz train station and from there transported to a shed that belonged to the buildings surrounding the castle. Other prisoners from Kőszeg, those who could walk, were in the cellar of the castle.

According to researchers and to Vadász’s account, Ortsgruppenführer Franz Podezin gave the order by phone to those in the castle: kill the sick prisoners in the shed. Eleven or twelve ’volunteers’ were given weapons and they headed out from the party – drunk. After the massacre, they returned to the party and drinking as they were – in bloody clothes.

According to the documents of the 1947 exhumation some of the prisoners were beaten to death; others were hunted down or shot in the head. Only two or three of them survived.

It is unclear who exactly took part in the massacre. We do not know whether Margit Thyssen-Bornemissza was among those who killed the prisoners.

Prisoners from the castle cellar were ordered to dig the graves. One of them told an organization helping those who had been deported in 1945-46 that they dug up nine L-shaped graves, two meters wide and two meters deep.

Next morning a lot of clothes were taken to the castle yard. The prisoners recognized the clothes of their fellow Kőszeg prisoners.

A few days later Russian troops took Rechnitz. They dug up the graves but when they realized that there were no Russian soldiers among the dead, they re-buried them.

The graves still have not been found

The exact location of the graves has been forgotten since. Investigations were started against 18 people after the war but only a very few people were punished for the crimes. The Baroness and her husband were not even questioned during the court proceedings.

The local Gestapo-chief who planned the massacre, Franz Podezin disappeared in 1945 – most probably with the help of the Baroness. Two key witnesses were murdered, and the house of another burned down together with key documents about the case.

Austrian authorities were not very keen on finding the perpetrators, either. Similarly to the situation in Hungary, the state of Austria also has a hard time facing history and its role in it. If they did, they would need to face the fact that the citizens of Rohonc were witnesses to the tragic events and that the local elite was often seen in the castle. Some of them were definitely present at the party as well during the night of the massacre.

Some locals reportedly adored the Baroness. And those who did not were scared after the murder of the two key witnesses. Rechnitz quickly tried to bury its past.

Margit Thyssen-Bornemissza moved to Switzerland and then to Germany, but, according to local sources, she often visited Rechnitz and her farm. She died in 1989 in Switzerland; she was still one of the richest women of Europe at the time.

The Thyssen-Bornemissza family is still wealthy and influential in Europe. Atlatszo covered their ties to the Hungarian government previously:

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The excavation chief of the Austrian federal monument authority, Franz Sauer said at a press conference that even though the latest searches were unsuccessful, they will keep looking for the mass graves.

In the meantime, Vadász and Hungarian nationals in the area are questioning the methods of the researchers and express their dissatisfaction with the Austrian authorities – hinting at the idea that Austria might still not want to face its past.

Written by Szilvia Pais-H.

English summary by Anita Kőműves. You can read the original, much longer Hungarian story here.

Image gallery by Péter Pais-Horváth.

Cover image: the main square of Rechnitz in the 1930s. Photo by Fortepan / donated by Attila Jurányi.