With ‘Endphase,’ local filmmaker brings to light 1945 massacre in quiet Austrian town
Hans Hochstöger remembers the Austrian village of Hofamt Priel as an idyllic place. He grew up in this bucolic setting an hour away from Vienna, with farmhouses that are in calm contrast to the Austrian capital.
From his teenage years onward, however, Hochstöger’s perception of his hometown was shattered when he learned about its World War II history. In May 1945, during the closing days of the war in Europe, over 200 Jews were murdered in Hofamt Priel. Now Hochstöger has made a film about the tragedy, “Endphase,” which attributes the mass killing to the SS and posits that it might have been the largest and last such atrocity in the area. First screened in Austria two years ago, the film was recently shown in the UK.
“We knew that something bad happened in our village,” said 40-year-old Hochstöger, who worked on the film with his 30-year-old brother Tobias Hochstöger. “But actually, I was never aware of the scale of the massacre… I actually was not aware it was so close to the end of the war.”
He describes a general lack of awareness in Hofamt Priel about the massacre, caused in part by a culture of silence.
“Not that many people really want to cope with it, know about it, speak about it,” Hochstöger said. However, he added, “There are also a lot of people trying to [spread] knowledge about the massacre. There are a few commemorations every five years.”
Footage of a moving 2017 ceremony is shown at the end of the film. The victims of the massacre are buried in a Jewish cemetery in nearby Sankt Pölten, where their remains were brought in 1964. A memorial lists the names of the dead — 228 men, women and children — with mourners able to light candles and leave stones of remembrance.
Hochstöger calls his hometown “a really nice place with a really dark story behind it.”
The dark story is part of the narrative of Hungarian Jews in the Holocaust. As the film explains, over 400,000 Hungarian Jews were deported from their homeland in 1944, with 80 percent of them, roughly 320,000, perishing soon after arrival at Auschwitz. In Austria, there were 15,000 deportees doing forced labor, including repairing roofs in Vienna after Allied air raids. The German position became untenable with the approach of the Red Army.
“They tried to bring all the Jewish forced laborers to Mauthausen to kill them there,” Hochstöger said of the concentration camp 160 kilometers (100 miles) away, “before the Russians or the Americans could find out what they did to them. In March and April 1945, a lot of people, Jewish people, had to walk to Mauthausen. At the end of April 1945, they could go no further. Mauthausen was days away from being liberated by the US Army.”
Instead, according to the film, the Jews were temporarily housed in neighboring Persenbeug at a barracks for workers at a power plant on the Danube River. Hochstöger states that an SS unit came to the barracks on the evening of May 2, 1945, brought most of the Jews to Hofamt Priel and gunned them down there, with help from several local Austrians.
“Some people — locals from Persenbeug, not Hofamt Priel — were involved in some way in that massacre,” according to Hochstöger. “We couldn’t find out what the connection between those people and the SS unit actually was, and which SS unit was involved.”
Remnants of witnesses
Making the documentary took almost six years. It was challenging to find people with firsthand knowledge of the atrocity, but the filmmakers did locate Yakov Tibor Schwarz, who survived the massacre as an 11-year-old boy and now lives with his large family in the central Israeli city of Bnei Brak.
They also spoke with two Austrian women — Barbara Weber and Rosa Forsthofer — who had been children at the time; and with Fritz Wiehaim, an Austrian man who shared memories of returning to the area from captivity in German-occupied Belgium.
Poignantly, two Jewish brothers — Marton Kardos of Hungary and Zev Vilmos Klein of Israel, who lost the rest of their immediate family in the massacre — each died within months of speaking with the filmmakers.
“As a filmmaker, it was really a big responsibility to work with the testimonies of all the people shown in the film,” Hochstöger said.
Schwarz’s testimony is especially poignant. As he recalls, his mother and sisters left him in the barracks after they and other Jews were summoned out for the ostensible purpose of labor. Instead, the SS marched them to Hofamt Priel and death.
“Yakov Schwarz told me that he and his family were sure the war would end in a few days,” Hochstöger said. “They were already prepared to go home to Hungary.”
After the mass killing, the SS went to the barracks and opened fire on the Jews there. Schwarz says that he was only spared because he was inadvertently shielded by the body of a nearby child who was slain. That child was Imre Klein, brother of Marton and Zev.
After the massacre, Schwarz says, he recited the Mourner’s Kaddish and the El Malei Rachamim prayer for the dead. He walked with two fellow survivors, a 60-year-old and a young man, to Rosa Forsthofer’s home. Her family sheltered Schwarz but sent the others to another family, the Stadlers. Schwarz recounts a subsequent improbable train odyssey back to Hungary, where he reunited with his father and brother, as well as another survivor family, the Ungars.
Today both Schwarz and his friend Yona Ungar live in Israel — Schwarz in Bnei Brak, Ungar in Haifa. The filmmakers interviewed both men in Israel, with the footage including a Schwarz family celebration. One of his 18 grandchildren shares a moving tribute to her grandfather.
Who pulled the triggers?
Back in Austria, the filmmakers encounter difficulties when they try to identify the perpetrators of the massacre. Evidence is scarce; some of it comes from an October 28, 2000, video interview with the late survivor György Roth, who immigrated to Israel. In Romania after the war, Roth convinced authorities to give him custody of two SS captives who told him they were in Persenbeug. Noting that his family had been killed there, Roth said he executed the SS men. The film suggests that the SS men who committed the Hofamt Priel massacre might also have fled to Romania.
When the subject turns to locals in Austria who could have abetted the mass killing, they find few people willing to talk. Weber, Forsthofer and Wiehaim share what they remember — including one particular memory: a request to a man nicknamed “Fritzl” to turn on the light, possibly a reference to using motor vehicle headlights to illuminate those about to be killed. “Fritzl,” the director hypothesizes, could have been a prominent local doctor, an SS member whose Nazi ties predated the war.
Of any connection between this individual and the events of May 2-3, 1945, Hochstöger said, “We can’t prove it. Quite possibly, he was involved in the massacre.”
After the war, the doctor became such a beloved community figure in nearby Petzenkirchen that one of its squares was named after him. Hochstöger has a seat-squirming conversation with the mayor about this recognition, which was ultimately stripped last year.
“They didn’t see any need to change the name of the square,” Hochstöger said. “They just changed the name after our film was shown on Austrian TV. We got a lot of bad emails.”
However, he noted, in the village and its environs, “a lot of people wanted to see the film and actually saw it… We managed to put the massacre information to the public.”
“Actually, the massacre is not really known to American historians,” Hochstöger said. “It’s a very unknown massacre. It was too late in the war. Possibly, the film changed that, is changing that. If nationally and in Germany and the US, a lot of people will see it, my hope is that one cannot say anymore that they have never heard of Hofamt Priel or the massacre of Hofamt Priel.”