they never saw the beautiful arches

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This post is about an 8km walk from Alkoven to Fall. I visit the Hartheim Killing Center, then I get into a thunderstorm.

I had slept very well in the yoga studio. It was a public holiday, so after a coffee I asked Anita and her family if they wanted to go visit the castle as well. Her husband Gregor and her son Levi said yes, and off we went.

just a beautiful castle?

It all looked pretty normal from the outside: Hartheim was a small renaissance castle with towers protruding from its four corners, something that aristocrats liked to build in the 16th or 17th centuries. Inside there was a beautiful courtyard framed on all four sides by several storeys of fragile, almost oriental-looking arches. It was very beautiful.

But that wasn’t the actual story.

from an estate to a killing center

Castle Hartheim had gone through some ups and downs as an estate until the late 19th century, when the government took ownership and converted it into a mental institution. This changed again in the late 1930s when Austria became a part of Nazi Germany and social darwinism became a part of the official ideology.

Suddenly there didn’t seem to be much space anymore for people with physical or mental disabilities. Castle Hartheim was outfitted with a back door for deliveries, with a gas chamber next to the back door, and with a crematory next to the gas chamber.

Aktion T4

The nazis called it Aktion T4: the “disinfection”, or involuntary euthanasia, of people they deemed unfit to live. There were several killing centers like Castle Hartheim.

They used special buses to collect their victims from institutions like the Ybbs psychiatric hospital, a place that I had walked past a few weeks earlier. They would deliver them to the back door and herd them directly into the “shower room”, which was actually the gas chamber. It would take about 20 minutes for the victims to die, upon which they would be cremated next door. About 30,000 people were treated this way at Hartheim alone.

My friend Gregor told me how the old people from the village used to talk about the buses, how they always arrived full but left empty, and about the smoke, that ghastly, black smoke.

the worst

I had never been to a place like this. Dachau, Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen, Sachsenhausen, Niลก, Melk, Mauthausen and Gusen, even Auschwitz – every one of them had their own character, and every one was horrifying in their own way. But not a single one of these places had been a pure killing center. There was still the possibility for you to live if you ended up in Auschwitz or in Gusen, but here, in Castle Hartheim, there was only death.

It was the same process for every single one of the 30,000: they got off the bus and entered a door. They made them walk down a short corridor to the “shower room”. They took off their clothes, then the door closed behind them. And none of them ever saw the courtyard with its beautiful arches.


I didn’t get very far after this. First I stayed for lunch at Anita’s place, then I walked for a few hours until a massive thunderstorm forced me to seek shelter in someone’s garage. That someone turned out to be Joseph, who joined me for beers and then cake in his driveway.

In the end, after a very short walk from Alkoven to Fall, I spent the night on a campground.


the walk from Alkoven to Fall:

  • Tim Low

    Hey Chris… From the last post on 08/06/2023.. I looked on Google map and thinking you could have crossed the border into Germany…

    Good job Chris…


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