Some stories defeat the imagination, and I think the news coming from Amstetten in Austria is one of those stories. The depravity of this man, who imprisoned and raped his own daughter for 31 years, quite properly leaves all decent people baffled. No matter how I try, I can’t get my brain to process this information in any meaningful way.
Josef Fritzl started sexually abusing his child in 1977. Elisabeth was 11 years old. In 1984, he drugged the poor girl and locked her in a specially-adapted cellar, where she remained for almost 24 years, and where she gave birth to seven children as a result of continual rape by her father.
Fritzl forced his daughter to write a note so that the police would believe she’d run away or joined a religious cult. It worked. His wife continued to live at the house without ever finding out that her daughter was locked into the cellar. Fritzl is such a violent, terrifying, domineering individual that no-one dared question him, and the cellar was forbidden territory, even to his wife.
The first of Elisabeth Fritzl’s children, Kerstin, was born in 1988 and the second, Stefan in 1989.
Four years later, somebody left a nine-month-old infant outside the house, with a note in Elisabeth’s handwriting.
In 1994, another baby was left outside the house, also with a note, and Elisabeth’s parents became the baby’s foster parents.
In 1996, twins were born but one of the babies died within a few days. Josef Fritzl burned it in the furnace. A year later, he took the other twin upstairs to live with him and his wife.
Elisabeth had another baby, Felix, in 2002. Fritzl kept this child in the cellar with Elisabeth and Kerstin who was then 14 years old.
Earlier this month, Kerstin was admitted to hospital with a life-threatening illness, and it was only then that the police began to suspect something was badly wrong. A note from Elisabeth was found in Kerstin’s clothing and police appealed on television for Kerstin’s mother to contact them. Fritzl had no choice but to release Elisabeth, Stefan and Felix from the cellar. Neither Kerstin, Stefan nor Felix had ever seen daylight in their entire lives.
When Elisabeth, now 42, and Josef Fritzl, 73, went to the hospital, he was arrested for sexual abuse and abduction.
Elisabeth and all the children are in care. Kerstin is still in a critical condition.
Those are the bald facts, but behind them there’s a universe of suffering.
Of course, this isn’t the first time that women have been locked up and abused in Amstetten. During WW2, the town was home to two Nazi concentration camps — one for women only. They were both sub-camps of Mauthausen, where 65,000 prisoners were murdered. All camps were staffed by local people, including the brutal female camp guards and I imagine many of today’s citizens can still remember their concentration camp. Some of them are the children of the murderers and torturers who ran it.
The camp was still in operation when Josef Fritzl was 10 years old and there can be no doubt that it was a significant part of his formative years, as it was to many of Amstetten’s citizens. Isn’t it remarkable that, just as in 1939-45, the locals noticed nothing? Isn’t it remarkable that Elisabeth Fritzl’s mother, Rosemarie, noticed nothing over 24 years, and believed the word of an overbearing loudmouth? What does that remind you of?
Who knows? Perhaps evil really can seep into the stones of a town.
Or a country.
It seems Austria has a great ability to ignore ugly facts. Fritzl was convicted of rape in the Sixties, when he already had four children. The police don’t think this is relevant as it happened more than fifteen years ago, and it didn’t pose any obstacle when he became a legal foster parent to Elisabeth’s children.
With an official attitude like that, it’s no surprise that the Austrians have failed to deal with their Nazi past. When an entire country is in denial about its part in a monstrous crime like the Holocaust, it’s easy to understand how a vicious thug like Fritzl could go unnoticed.
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