First in a series: Planning a family legacy trip
Jean-Pierre Kolbach, my husband’s grandfather and son’s great-grandfather, was liberated 74 years ago on May 6, 1945 from a concentration camp in Austria. My family and I were planning a trip to Austria on the 75th anniversary of the liberation to honor him, those who died, those who survived, and the U.S. soldiers who rescued them. However, that event has been canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
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Editorial note and update: A reader contacted me to let me know her father, a U.S. platoon sergeant, was in the first tank that liberated Ebensee, part of the Mauthausen concentration camp network, on May 6, 1945. He was the leader of a reconnaissance team. New post in this series (with more details) now published: contains information on Mauthausen’s virtual 75th anniversary liberation memorial services. Ebensee’s memorial ceremony has been canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
While much of what we know (or believe) has been passed down verbally in the family, the Mauthausen Memorial organization has been very helpful in providing documentation and information. Many of the details I’m providing in this blog series are a result of my research on their website as well as information they have provided to me directly. I’ve also consulted the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Arrested for political crimes
Jean-Pierre, and my husband’s grandmother, Madeleine, were activists in the Luxembourg underground resistance during WWII. Jean-Pierre was arrested for his so-called political crimes (distributing pamphlets), and committed to the concentration camp Mauthausen on June 5, 1943. He was transferred to Mauthausen’s subcamp Wiener Neustadt, and on Oct. 30, 1943, transferred to the subcamp Redl Zipf (code name Schlier).
According to his prisoner card, Jean-Pierre was transferred to the subcamp Ebensee (code names: Kalk, Zement, and Solvay) until his liberation by the U.S. Army 80th Infantry (aka Blue Ridge Division).
Updated with new information: It’s interesting to note that Jean-Pierre’s documentation lists his name as Johann Peter Kolbach. Learned that’s the way Nazis spelled the name.
Mauthausen and Ebensee: The concentration camps
Mauthausen was designated as a category III concentration camp – extermination by labor, especially educated prisoners and members of the higher social classes. Later, that would change as many were transported to Mauthausen when other concentration camps were evacuated from the front lines. Inmates worked (many to death) in the quarry and constructed underground production sites and tunnels to protect weapons from air raids. Gas chambers and a crematorium were constructed.
Between 1938 and 1945, 190,000+ people from more than 40 different nations were imprisoned in the Mauthausen/Gusen concentration camp network (including Ebensee). At least 90,000 of them died in these camps. More than 14,000 were Jewish.
Jean-Pierre and Madeleine: The grandparents
Jean-Pierre Kolbach was not Jewish; he was Catholic – a humanitarian who spoke up for those who could not, who acted and resisted the fascists and Nazis. Steve’s mother and grandmother (who was very active in the resistance) had to flee their home to another country during the war.
If it weren’t for the open doors and open hearts of a family in Germany, yes, Germany, it’s very likely I would not have a family.
While Jean-Pierre survived the Mauthausen and Ebensee concentration camps, I never had the opportunity to meet him as he died in 1974 when my husband was a teenager. I do cherish the great honor of knowing and loving my husband’s grandmother, Madeleine Kolbach, as my own. She passed away in 2000 at the age of 98.
Planning our family legacy trip
I don’t have all the family history and facts yet, and am discovering discrepancies in some numbers and dates. Please watch for future posts, like the one in the related posts section, as more details develop, and follow kmfiswriting as we plan our family trip to Austria in honor of our family’s legacy, sacrifice and courage. We still plan to honor him at a later date when it is safe to travel again.
History is a responsibility
It’s important that we all remember – not just those of us who were directly or indirectly affected – and never forget so that a humanitarian crisis like this never happens again. Please consider donating to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
*Sources: Mauthausen Memorial; United States Holocaust Memorial Museum; family history
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Please also check out Travel with Bibi’s post on How to travel through Austria on a budget.