(Lugoj, Romania 1919 – Vienna 2013): Political prisoner at Auschwitz I
He who does not speak up is complicit: Life in the resistance
Franz Danimann’s childhood and adolescence were shaped by his family’s social democratic background; the man who raised him as a father was arrested during a weapons search in Schwechat in January 1934. In 1935 Danimann began an apprenticeship as a gardener at the Vienna Central Cemetery. At the advanced training school for gardeners, the young Franz Danimann joined a resistance group with links to the illegal Free Trade Union movement and the Communist Youth League, which were committed to opposing Austrofascism and the restoration of a democratic Austria, and also fought the rising Nazi threat. As late as 11 March 1938, Danimann took part in a demonstration held in Schwechat for the independence of the country under the slogan “Freedom for Austria, red-white-red to the death”.
Resistance against Austrofascism could cause problems with the authorities and lead to arrest, but resistance against the Nazis could cost you your life. Franz Danimann knew this and decided to resist nonetheless. He cited the brutal anti-Jewish riots immediately after the Anschluss as the catalyst for doing so, despite the danger it posed. Like in Vienna, Jews in Schwechat were also rounded up and forced to their knees to clean the streets with toothbrushes. Among the onlookers there would have been three groups. The first had been adherents of Nazi propaganda: “Yes, serves them right, the Jews... they should finally do some work.” Another group had watched in silence and a third group had walked away shaking their heads in dismay. Danimann recognised a fellow student from his secondary school who was now directing the humiliating spectacle as a Hitler Youth leader. He confronted him: “Aren't you embarrassed ... to be making such a scene here?” The Hitler Youth leader retorted: “Ah, so these are your friends? ... Kneel down, get a toothbrush and join in.” Franz Danimann cycled home, but from then on it was clear to him that he would have to fight actively against the Nazi regime. In Simmering he helped to set up the Communist Youth Association, whose members threw flyers into the streets in an attempt to counter Nazi propaganda in early 1939. The flyers warned, and correctly so, that the Nazi employment policy only served to prepare for war.
The resistance group was discovered. Franz Danimann was arrested at the beginning of 1939 and sentenced to prison for preparing to commit high treason. However, in 1942 he was not released after serving his sentence, but was taken to Auschwitz concentration camp. In the same year he was put on trial again in Vienna for exerting communist influence on fellow prisoners while in custody. To his own astonishment, he was acquitted and not – as he must have feared – sentenced to death. He was again taken to Auschwitz concentration camp, where he survived in the main camp until its liberation by the Red Army on 27 January 1945. On that day he was born again, he said in an interview.
At the Auschwitz concentration camp, Danimann initially worked for the gardening site management in the garden of the concentration camp commandant Rudolf Höß, then in a road construction commando and in the German armament factories. Eventually he managed to find work in the inmates’ infirmary, initially as an assistant nurse. There he tried “to provide psychological support to prisoners when they were at the end of their tether, when they ... no longer wanted to live. ... I myself went so far several times that I said to a fellow prisoner: ‘I'm going to the wire’. This meant that I would throw myself into the electrically charged barbed wire and die immediately. ... And there was always someone ... who helped me and ... could give me the strength not to despair.” Later Franz Danimann became a block clerk and temporarily a block leader. He was also a member of the Auschwitz combat group, “but I was only a very small cog,” he recounted in an interview. Immediately after the liberation, he and others tried to secure the documents left behind in the concentration camp. These would later form an important basis for legal proceedings.
He returned to Vienna before the war was over and wrote the newspaper article “The Hell of Auschwitz. The Six Million Murdered Accuse”, which appeared in the newspaper Neues Österreich on 5 May 1945. Initially he worked for the Department for the Investigation of War Criminals at the Federal Police Headquarters in Vienna, he then studied law and eventually worked in labour market administration.
Franz Danimann, Flüsterwitze und Spottgedichte unterm Hakenkreuz, Wien 2001.
Franz Danimann, Interview 45.610. Visual History Archive, USC Shoah Foundation. Transcript Freie Universität Berlin 2012: http://transcripts.vha.fu-berlin.de/interviews/847?locale=de&query=Franz+Danimann (23.11.2021).