January 1917

Life in refugee camps

By Francesco Frizzera

“I was sent to the Lager on 30 August, and since that time I have been treated like a beast. […] Last week, for three days in a row, for dinner we received a small handful of maize flour; it’s a pity that none of us had any utensils to cook it with. […] My son has now been seriously ill for days and I have lost 5 kg in 8 days. […] I would have much preferred to go on the firing line rather than slowly rot in this swamp.”

Maria Graziadei, refugee in the Mitterndorf camp. Letter of complaint to the camp manager, 06/09/1915. In NÖLA, Präs, Sign. P, XIIa, ZL. 3972.


From the spring of 1915, the Austro-Hungarian empire found itself fighting on three different, distinct fronts: Russia, Serbia and Italy. The majority of the border regions were therefore absorbed into the so-called “war zone”, inside of which the military also managed civilian administration. More importantly, between 1914 and 1915 vast portions of Habsburg territory had been invaded.

This led to hundreds of thousands of civilians of Jewish faith fleeing from the eastern regions, followed by the evacuation of just as many hundreds of thousands of women, children and elderly from Galicia, Bukovina, Tyrol, the Littoral and Bosnia. It is estimated that by mid 1915, one million one hundred thousand refugees had sought refuge in the central regions of the Empire. In particular, the great majority of the evacuees had been amassed in the 4 central regions of the Empire (Upper Austria, Lower Austria, Bohemia and Moravia) and in the northern part of Styria, the only ones not declared war zones. 

The ways in which people fled and were expelled from border regions complicated their accommodation in the interior: the military did not inform the Ministry of the Interior of the evacuation from localities, journeys were made on foot or on cattle wagons and evacuations were carried out in just a few hours, very often in situations of open violence and pillaging. The result was extremely impoverished refugees, evacuated without any belongings or food, and on top of all this, the civilian authorities were unprepared to receive them.

Pressed by this situation, the Austrian Ministry of the Interior decided to accommodate a considerable number of refugees in camps made up of specially constructed huts. These were urban engineering systems that addressed multiple functions: they avoided the refugees coming into contact with the local population in environments in which they were poorly accepted, they allowed greater control of the displaced people and made it easier to achieve economies of scale in the food and clothing supply systems, ensuring that within reasonable timescales schools, health and religious services could be set up for the use of the evacuees, who normally did not speak the language of their hosts. 

For this reason, the Ministry of the Interior decided to set up at least one refugee camp for each nationality. Refugee camps for people of Jewish faith were created (in Moravia at Nikolsburg, Gaya, Phorlitz and in Bohemia at Deutsch Brod); other camps for Ruthenes (Gmünd in Lower Austria, Wolfsberg and St. Andrä in Carinthia); for Poles (at Chotzen in Bohemia and at Wagna, in Styria); for Italians (at Potterndorf and Mittendorf in Lower Austria, at Braunau am Inn in Upper Austria, at Wagna in Styria); and lastly camps were set up for Slovenians (Steinklamm in Lower Austria) and for Croatians (Gmünd in Lower Austria).

Despite these efforts, living conditions for displaced persons in the camps comprised of huts proved from the beginning to be barely tolerable, both due to the material conditions of life, and because of the strong psychological pressures involved in surviving in conditions of semi-imprisonment and under constant control. Data concerning mortality rates and daily calorie intakes give an indication of what life was like.

In the camps that were home to Italian refugees, the absolute numbers show an exceptional situation: in the Mitterndorf camp 1,913 people out of the approximately 10,500 taken in died in 3 years, in the Braunau camp 728 refugees out of the roughly 8000 accommodated; at Wagna, where refugees from the Littoral were housed, deaths were 2980 out of around 20,000 resident; at Potterndorf 650 evacuees died out of the 6000 living there.

In short, at least one person in 10 of those who entered a refugee camp died, with mortality rates comparable to those of male adults called up to the front. This fact indelibly tainted the refugees’ experience of war: at Wagna, for example, the mortality rate was 19 times higher than in the pre-war period. It was mainly children below the age of 5 who died, as they more easily contracted infectious diseases in the conditions of overcrowding (as many as 500 residents per hut, in some cases), malnutrition and freezing cold. In the refugee camps erected in 1914, which housed Ruthenes, Poles and Jews, the situation was even worse. At Chotzen between December 1915 and March 1916 an average of 293 persons a month died out of the 12,500 resident in the camp. Similar figures in the winter of 1915/16 were also recorded at Steinklamm (274 deaths in December 2015 amongst the 5000 evacuees) and Gmünd, where a peak was reached of 1500 deaths in November 1915 amongst the 26,000 residents. The sensation of death that pervaded the camp was heightened by the poor quality, low-nutrient food (1600 calories a day on average) and life in the communal huts.

Psychological tension caused by living in these wooden cities exerted further pressure on the evacuees sent to the collective facilities. The camps were fenced off with barbed wire, guarded by police and subject to curfew; they could only leave the camps if they requested entitlement to do so and martial, arbitrary law was imposed inside the camps. Pecuniary sanctions and arrests were rife even for minor infractions. As time went on the facilities were transformed, they lost their primitive military layout and there was an increase in the healthcare and employment services provided. However there remained amongst the residents a sense of estrangement that burdened people’s lives in many of these facilities. Numerous diaries and reports from the authorities that were involved in providing refuge gave negative assessments of life in the camps.

The Hilfskomitee für die Flüchtlinge aus dem Süden [Assistance Committee for Refugees from the South] wrote for example in its annual report of 1915 that the refugees in the camps were living “under the impression that they were being treated as prisoners”. A few lines further on it is noted how the difficult conditions led “not infrequently to emotional depression, which through predisposition and temperament soon manifested in sentiments of apathy, indifference, suffering and general misfortune that lead to unrelenting homesickness and intolerance”. Similar observations emerge with plastic vigour from the reading of some diaries. Anna Giongo, for example, couldn’t help but note how the huts are experienced as a “whim” or “torture invented out of cruelty or insanity”. Dominica Daldoss, whilst noting the efforts of the Government to equip the camps with the care facilities needed, notes in his journal how “with all these conveniences, we fugitives lack the most basic necessity, in other words, life”. The state of mind of the writer is easily identified by the use of adjectives and adverbs: “Under this crude inhospitable sky, almost without realising it, we are miserably and bitterly spending the Easter festivities here for a second time. We are possessed by a gloomy, hollow melancholy, we try hard to shake it off, but in vain, we are poor refugees and that means so much but there’s little we can do”. Mealtimes are described in just a few lines by Filomena Boccher: “a few morsels of cheese and a bowl of coffee that’s nothing more than filthy swill”. This is how the same writer describes the accommodation: “223 straw mattresses arranged in 4 rows”. The result of this material and psychological pressure is summarised in these lines: the existence of schools, workshops and hospitals “is not enough to soothe their frayed nerves, to allay the homesickness they suffer in their hearts, to dull their exasperated souls against so much injustice, so much prevarication, so much tyranny”.

The peculiarity of war for Austria-Hungary, encircled on three sides and compelled to manage an enormous number of displaced persons, of different nationalities, language and religion in a restricted area, led to the creation of the refugee camp as an instrument of temporary relief. The performance of these collective housing and assistance facilities however proved to be disastrous, in terms of living conditions and psychological pressure. Nevertheless, the Government continued to erect camps until 1916, despite the fact that the precarious living conditions of the residents housed in the camps were by now common knowledge, in addition to the cities of huts being uneconomical when compared with allocating people to small villages or industrial areas. The roughly 130,000 Habsburg citizens that experienced being evacuated to the camps saw an astonishingly rapid decline in their confidence in a State that proved itself incapable of guaranteeing their subsistence after evacuating them and that, due to policing requirements, treated its citizens like objects to be administered, preventing self-determination in the places they had been temporarily allocated to until September 1917.