The Ox Thieves

I am only telling this story because the statute of limitations on the case has expired. Eventually, justice did return to its old ways as if nothing had ever happened. You may think: the nerve! -- how can he talk about justice when he have stolen an ox! Cattle thieves should not be above the law, regardless of their motive. But I regret nothing. Nevertheless, I still feel bad for that ox.

They had observed the cattle herd for days, and it was always the same scene: cowering behind a pale pine in the ravine, the massive brown ox kept a bit off to the side, as if it weren’t quite part of the herd.

“That’s the one,” “Halleiner” said.

Sepp Plieseis, a.k.a. “Halleiner.”

He owed his nickname to his escape from Hallein Concentration Camp, which was an outpost of the Dachau camp. “It’s just as well that this ox belongs to the leader of the farmers’ association in the village. He is better fed, and besides, the little matter of ownership will ease our conscience.”

For all three men death was a constant presence. Take Halleiner: After escaping from the concentration camp he hid deep in the mountains for two years. He knew that he could not expect to be spared a second time and avoid ending up in the quarry with the steep staircase, especially considering that he had been in Spain.

The other one, “Welser,” had escaped from a jail right in the center of his home town. It was a daring coup, and the alarms had sounded all around the region. The Second Court Senate of the People, the so-called “Head-Chopping-Senate”, had just charged him. If they caught him now he was done for, there was no doubt about that.

Alois Straubinger, a.k.a. “Welser.”

Photo: Sammlung Kammerstätter, Concentration Camp Memorial Museum Ebensee.

The third man, nicknamed “The Missing Man,” had been on the way back to his army unit after a short leave when a heavy bombardment hit the rail hub. He was listed as missing ever since.

Karl Gitzoller, “The Missing Man”. Photo: Collection Kammerstätter, Concentration Camp Memorial Museum Ebensee

The police had misgivings about the official notification letter that was sent to his parents. Twice, SS showed up at their house and asked threatening questions, stating that they would return. If they caught him now, one year later, he would be a dead man.

All three of them stood at death’s door because of some mysterious incidents that would inevitably be traced – directly or indirectly -- to the movement that they had built: A Gestapo man was shot to death in a moving train not too far away. A truck carrying two SS officers had a deadly accident near Salzburg. There were unexplained fires, a latent atmosphere of civil disobedience, and folks suddenly disappeared, mostly young people. It was pretty obvious that a far-reaching organization was involved.

“You meadows, farewell, you sunny pasture. The shepherd must leave, the summer is gone,” Halleiner quoted sarcastically. “In a few days the animals will be taken back down from the mountain, and we can’t wait any longer.”

The first light frost had already covered the poor mountain pastures, still visible in ditches that were not warmed by sunlight. All signs pointed to a cold winter. The overgrazed pastures were taking on a brown hue, and the cattle had to roam farther and farther to find half-decent food.

A salt lick helped them lure the massive ox across a hill away from his pasture; they put a rope over his horns. They did not have to coax the animal, because the ox started to jump happily when it realized that they were going to walk downhill. In fact, it forced his handlers into a fast trot.

“It is fall. He is homesick,” Welser laughed, breathing hard. “He knows the calendar!”

“He does not go by the sun and moon, but by food,” Halleiner added. “He definitely remembers the richer grazing grounds down in the valley. I doubt that he longs for the hard work that is waiting for him at home. No, it is not likely that it’s the yoke he is pining for!”

Missing Man, who knew the area best, was walking in front of the ox. He pulled the animal toward the narrow trails between the trees, because he did not want to use the main cattle path. The ox also knew those trails, because they had provided cool respite from the heat in the dead of summer. He tried repeatedly to break away and return to the easier path.

“I’m afraid, Brownie here will give us a hard time yet,” said Welser. “I would not put it past him to drag us down to the market square where he knows his feed box is waiting for him. That’s the last place we want to wind up today!”

Any time they heard voices, they took cover in the black alder bushes and gave the ox some salt to be quiet. There was a narrow road down into the valley, following the bed of a stream. The ox jumped for joy and wanted to head toward  the village. They used their combined strength to drive the animal down to the stream. The ox was thirsty from licking the salt, and he drank until his belly was plump. Then he lay down at the edge of the stream and began to ruminate.

“We have to drive him up to our hideout,” Halleiner said and sighed: “We need to get away from this road quickly.”

“It would be better to carry the meat than to drive the ox up into the rocky area,” said Welser and Missing Man. “This devil here will drive us crazy.”

“No, we must not cause trouble in this hunting district; that is the deal and we must not break it. We have too much riding on it.”

The ranger knew that they had their hideout in his district. He owed them, because they were hiding his sister’s son.

Ranger Franz Mittendorfer, who allowed the partisans to hide in his district. Photo: Sammlung Kammerstätter, Concentration Camp Memorial Museum Ebensee.

But the ranger had also made it clear that there was to be no poaching in his district and that they must not fire any shots. After all, he often had to take hunting tourists around his grounds, including high-ranking officials of the Reich. Everything had to be in perfect order. The hunting parties’ praise for the ranger was their protection, because he took care to avoid the area around their hideout, and he shared any the news that he heard with them.

It was fall 1944, and there were many prominent evacuees in the area, among them high-ranking staff officers from Slovakia and Croatia. To protect and guard them, armed SS battalions had also been moved there. Typically, partisans made it their goal and mission to be in populated areas, but this winter they anticipated so much reorganization that they would occasionally have to flee into the wilderness and let the snow cover them. Avalanche chutes can be better protection than even the thickest fortress walls. But they needed a solid amount of food for their hideaway, because they could be cut off from supplies at any time.

Time and again that fall, they had discussed the strategic developments of the war, as vertical silver threads wafted earlier than usual above meadows and forests. It was not a foregone conclusion that the impending military defeats were to cause a tangible weakening of the “inner front.” Here, within the deepest realm of the “Alpine Fortress,” they would still demonstrate a show of force when it would no longer be feasible on the military front lines. This area right here was where they would take their last stand.

“The flip side of great weakness is always great cruelty -- remember my words,” Halleiner said. “The SS may be on the run from the Russians and Americans by now, but they have plenty of strength and force left for bandits like us. They will still bully everyone around here when all is lost.”

They had learned that Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the leader of the Reich Security Office, had recently shown up in the region a few times. Surely, he was not here for leisurely walks. Big shots are always followed by a rat’s tail of security. This was their last refuge, the place where they would do whatever they could to delay the end.

At any rate, there would be a long and hard winter with lots of snow, deprivations, and a thousand dangers. In spring, the storm would begin to brew, but the first sign of it would be the avalanches.

They had to beat the ox as they drove it uphill along the stream in the opposite direction of the village. They used hazel whips, and they were getting rather angry: “You dog, will you walk now or won’t you?” Welser cursed, and Missing Man pulled on the rope with all his might. The ox was foaming at the mouth.

For a while, the animal gave up its resistance and gave in as they pulled it into the wrong direction. At least he walked, albeit reluctantly and very slowly. The three men, however, had to complete this part of the journey quickly, because it was here that they would most likely run into people who would have realized immediately what kind of cattle drive was going on there. The road lead downhill, and as they came around a bend they saw two bicyclists approaching.

They quickly took the rope off the animal’s horns and hid behind a large rock. The bikers stopped and looked at the animal with curiosity.

“He must have run away from the mountain pasture,” the older bicyclist said to his companion. “Those oxen are the cleverest animals because they move around a lot when they are working, and they get to know the entire region. I bet he is returning home a few days before the scheduled cattle drive.”

They scratched the head of the animal and continued on. The ox let them go, looked after them, and resumed his grazing on the side of the road.

“If he had followed them we would have lost him,” Halleiner said, “but he kind of accepts us by now. At least we know now that there won’t be a big fuss up on the pasture about his disappearance. They’ll think that he just returned to the stable early.”

They drove the ox along the path. Salt helped as they progressed slowly. The animal seemed to sense that he needed to buy time. The three men knew that the hardest part of their job was still ahead. Right now, the ox was still familiar with the area; he had pulled many loads of lumber from the valley.

At last, they reached a spot where an old pine trail branched out from the road. The logs guarding the entrance were rotten, and moldy leaves lay all around. Now the ox began to rebel. He lowered his horns in a threatening manner and started to snort, moving neither forward nor back, lashing out, and scratching his front hooves in the leaves. Welser and Missing Man beat him with their hazel switches until welts appeared on his brown coat.

“He’ll force us to use the ugliest cattle driving tricks yet. And I am no animal abuser.”

Eventually, the ox gave in and reluctantly entered the old trail, even though he was suspicious when he realized that they were walking uphill again.

They had stashed sacks with greens in several hiding spots along the path. Welser and Missing Man had spent hours collecting tender grass, dandelions, and ribwort.

“Tough grasses don’t tempt him; he has plenty of that on the high pasture in fall,” Halleiner had instructed them. “His last meal should be juicy.”

“The last meal!” Welser added ironically. “Think of the thousands of oxen being driven to slaughter everywhere, and don’t get sentimental on us now!”

At the first feeding stop the animal began to eat morosely. But his hunger won out; after all they had been on the move for several hours. The ox chewed, and his gentle brown eyes looked reproachfully at his guides. He got water, too, and for a moment it looked as if he had resigned himself to his fate, because he began to move slowly when the men prompted him. Then, after a few steps, he revealed a malicious streak. Missing Man had twisted the rope around his elbow, so that he could walk more comfortably. They were just moving through a beech copse that formed a green vault above the path. The ox jumped mightily and pulled Missing Man into the bushes with him. The green wood made a crackling noise, and Missing Man was thrown to the ground and dragged behind. The animal continued on for about sixty feet and only stopped because the small beech trees were getting so dense that it would have taken considerable effort to squeeze through. The ox had bloody welts on his shoulders and flanks. Missing Man had a large abrasion on his cheek, and his shoulder burned like fire. He was about to beat the ox about the snout with his stick.

“Let him be,” Halleiner said. “It is not his fault that we are terrible cattle drivers. Besides, you just don’t wrap a lead rope around your elbow – anyone knows that!”

You can scream at an animal to scare it into submission; that is what wagon drivers do when an ox won’t pull. The butchers use the cruelest trick: They pull a steer by his nose ring, or they twist the calves’ tailbones till they crack. All the while they look around to make sure nobody is watching.

But both methods are noisy: With the first one, the human screams, and with the second one, the animal screams. Smugglers and illegal cattle drivers cannot use either method; they have to coax the animal.

“Come on, Brownie,” they said to the ox. “We’ll be up there soon, then the walking will be easier. Keep moving, we’re nearly there.”

They gave him water, they let him rest, they lured him with greens. It was a long haul, but finally they reached the tree line. Rain had eroded the rocky grounds into long grooves, and the animal stepped softly and stopped occasionally, looking sadly about the terrain that it no longer recognized.

Though they did not want to admit it, all three men were granting the animal small favors. Missing Man loosened the rope, Welser gave it a handful of green grass, and Halleiner stroked the bloody flanks to chase away the flies.

Time and again they cajoled their victim: “Go on, Brownie, you are almost done. Step lightly: If you stumble – as heavy as you are -- you are lost.”

The soft talk must have raised the animal’s instinct. Suddenly, the ox let out a long, plaintive wail.

“Give him water,” Halleiner ordered, suddenly worried. There had not been a working pasture up here in ages, and the sound could easily betray them. While Missing Man watered the animal, Welser fetched more water from the nearest spring in a little wooden barrel that they had stashed away. They gathered around the ox, who had settled down again.

“What pigs the prairie pioneers must have been to exterminate all the buffalo,” Halleiner said, and all three thought of the same thing: Death was the verdict for this ox, and they would have to deliver it soon.

“We had a sow at home who would not eat, so she stayed lean,” said Welser, “and my mother was angry at her and said: ‘This time I won’t flinch when I stir the blood after the butchering.’ But when the pig was laid out on the trough and the blood flowed from its carotid artery, she blanched and could not stir the blood.”

“My brother used to shoot rabbits,” Missing Man added. “Before he cleaned them out he would hang them overnight on the door of the woodshed. We youngsters played with the woolly fur. Whenever there was roast rabbit at the table we could not eat a bite.

“I’ll never forget,” he continued, “there was a mine field in front of our position, and sheep used to get into it. Sometimes an animal would bleat, and we risked our lives to bring it in, out of compassion and also to supplement our poor rations. I never ate a bite of the meat.”

When he heard this talk, Halleiner knew that he would have to do the butchering himself, and that the others would not help him.

They must not fire any shots, and there was no butcher’s mallet around either; the kind of hollow hammer with a long handle that enters the cow’s brain after a mighty blow, felling it like lightning.

“We are like the Dolomite Cave Children who find out that the stone-age is no fun at all,” said Halleiner.

It took them until the evening to reach their hideout, which was hidden behind boulders on the edge of a little rock depression. The basin was bare but for a few withered larches, and the rocky ground left no traces for anyone who might try to investigate a secret.

The partisans in our story spent the winter of 1944/45 in the mountains around Bad Ischl and Bad Aussee, supported by some local citizens.

The path of our ox thieves through the steep terrain. Their hideout is marked with a red dot.

Photo: Collection Kammerstätter, Linz, Stadtarchiv.

The ox consumed the last tufts of greens. He was still chewing when Missing Man tied his head to a rock spur with ropes. Welser covered the animal’s eyes with a burlap sack and stroked his flanks. Then they stepped back.

Breathing hard, Halleiner lifted the heavy, wedge-shaped rock that he had designated as his tool, and let it fall on the animal’s skull. At first, the animal stood still, surprised. Then it tore angrily at the ropes and tried to rear up. It took two, three blows with the heavy rock to bring the ox down. He gasped painfully one last time before he collapsed.

The three hunted men looked up to the cliffs of the Dead Mountains. Then they began their work. They worked precisely and robotically, but they did not speak a word.


Franz Kain, “Der Ochsenraub.” Der Weg zum Ödensee. Weitra: Bibliothek der Provinz, 1996. 136-146.

Copyright Marion Hussong, 2010