Documentary tells story of concentration camp

Thalerhof documentary producers Maria Silvestri of Avalon and John Righetti of Ohio Township stand near a Carpatho-Rusyn style painting by Ukrainian artist Vasyl Sabov. The documentary tells the story of the Austrian concentration camp established two decades before the Nazis used the same concept during WWII, Photo by Tom Steiner for The Citizen

Two local residents have set out to tell the world a story that somehow has become lost to much of history. That’s because it is a story that most history books fail to mention, but one that, now revealed, quite possibly will change forever the way that historians will report one of the darkest moments ever: the Nazi Holocaust.

For what very few people know is that before Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau and at least 20 other demented efforts at a “final solution,” there was Thalerhof, an Austrian concentration camp that served as the inspiration for all of those camps that were to come a few decades later.

In an effort to correct the informational gap, John Righetti of Ohio Township and Maria Silvestri of Avalon, both of Carpatho-Rusyn family heritage, have produced “Changed in Thalerhof,” a one-hour documentary that debuted this past weekend in Garlice, Poland and in New Jersey, both areas that claim large settlements of Carpatho-Rusyn descendants, many whose family members dating back three or four generations had been interned at Thalerhof. Release of the documentary coincided with the 100-year commemoration of the existence of the camp.

But where was the camp, and why did it exist?

In 1914, the Austro-Hungarian government felt the need for this facility because they believed that the Slavic people who called themselves Carpatho-Rusyns, based upon their centuries of living in the Carpathian mountain regions, were sympathizers with Russia at the onset of World War I. The quest for security trumped any sense of humanity as the government rounded up and imprisoned the people they feared.

“It was the first time that a state --Austria -- interned its own citizens out of a belief that those citizens were a liability,” Righetti said.

Remaining records describe the camp as being simply a fence of barbed wire, with hay strewn around the grounds. From September to December of 1914, the people lived outside -- no shelter, no sanitation, very little food. A few remaining accounts show that at one time, more than 20,000 prisoners were held there.

Perhaps the most chilling revelation comes in a question that Righetti asks, “And who was living in Austria at this time?” He quickly provides the answer, “Adolf Hitler. He was a young man during those years, observing it all. Thalerhof provided the prototype for a concept invented long before World War II. The Nazis simply picked it up and perfected it.”

Both Righetti and Silvestri believe that had the world known of Thalerhof and spoken out against it, perhaps Hitler would not have been able to create concentration camps that would imprison millions just two decades later.

Thalerhof closed in 1918, and long after it was torn down, the Graz airport was built over top of it. Many of the accounts of executions and deaths from disease and starvation also were destroyed, making precise details of the extent of the suffering impossible to obtain. There are no markers at the site, but there is a memorial chapel in the nearby town of Feldkirchen.

“And so the gist of the documentary,” Silvestri said, “is to tell a story so that Carpatho-Rusyn people can see it and say, ‘That’s part of my history.’ Those who are not of Carpatho-Rusyn ancestry can look at it and say, ‘That’s an event that changed world history and I didn’t even know that it happened.’”

The film was funded entirely by the Pittsburgh-based John and Helen Timo Foundation, which is committed to promoting and educating others about Carpatho-Rusyn culture.

The world can learn more of Thalerhof by accessing the documentary in its entirety via a YouTube computer search of “Changed at Thalerhof,” where it can be viewed with subtitles in English, Rusyn, Polish or German.

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