The Amstetten Horror House 8,516 Days in Darkness

Elisabeth Fritzl and her children, forced to live in a windowless basement for 24 years, vegetated away like the sole survivors of a nuclear holocaust. For them, the Cold War speculation over what it might be like for people who could never go outside again and return to the earth's surface was a reality.
The scene of the crime: Ybbstasse 40 in the Austrian city Amstetten

The scene of the crime: Ybbstasse 40 in the Austrian city Amstetten

Foto: DPA

Editor's note: This is the second half of a SPIEGEL cover story on the Amstetten tragedy. You can read the first half here .

At 15, Elisabeth entered a training program as a waitress at the "Rosenberger" highway rest stop on the A1 autobahn near Strengberg in eastern Austria. After the years of abuse, it must have felt liberating for her to get away. She and other girls in the program slept in a dormitory below the kitchen. For the first time, she felt safe from her father, safe from his greed and his lasciviousness.

On Jan. 28, 1983, Elisabeth ran away from home and, together with another girl from work, went to Vienna, where she lived -- in hiding -- in the city's 20th district.

But after three weeks the police picked her up and returned her to her parents. By attempting to escape and failing, Elisabeth helped provide her father with the story he would later use when he took her down to his basement and kept her imprisoned there. Now she was a runaway, a rascal, a troubled child. In the end, who would really care where she had gone and what had happened to her? Her father didn't touch her during the first few weeks, but then, as she says today, it started all over again. She decided to stick it out and endure for another year and a half, when her training program would be finished and she would be free. She completed the program in the late summer of 1984 and had a job prospect in the city of Linz in northern Austria. Just as she was on the verge of finally getting away from him, her father asked her for a favor. He wanted Elisabeth to help him carry a door into the basement. It was Aug. 28, 1984, and she would not see the sky again for 24 years.

Once they were in the basement, he raped Elisabeth and reportedly handcuffed her to a column, where he left her for two days. Later on, according to her testimony, he attached her to a leash so that she could go to the bathroom. Although Fritzl denies it, Elisabeth claims that he kept her attached to the leash for the next six months, perhaps even nine. Whichever version of the story is true, he now had her entirely to himself -- for good. From then on, he was completely in control of her in the basement dungeon, like some maniacal god. Elisabeth no longer remembers how often he raped her while she was on his leash.

In the world above, on the other hand, he was simply the inconspicuous Mr. Fritzl, carefully crafting his lies and red herrings, gauging their effects on the police and youth welfare agencies. Of course, it was also to his benefit that he lived in an environment, an entire country, in fact, that stubbornly remained a consensus society, despite the many radical changes of the day, a society with a tendency to avoid and cover up disputes.

Unforgotten are the 40,000 or so pornographic images found on the computers at a Roman Catholic seminary in St. Pölten west of Vienna, including child pornography and images of priests French-kissing trainee priests in front of the Christmas tree. Was it a scandal? Not for Bishop Kurt Krenn, who was in charge of the St. Pölten diocese and who, before resigning under pressure from the pope, only felt compelled to comment that the whole thing was nothing but a "childish prank" that was "of no concern" to the conference of bishops.

Unforgotten is also the 2006 case of Natascha Kampusch, another instance where no one paid attention, no one knew anything and no one even claimed to have suspected anything. And now a similar case has come to light once again in a country with a population of only 8.3 million.

If no one was interested in paying attention in those cases, why should anyone pay any heed to what this loner was up to next door in Amstetten? Gertrud Ramharter, a neighbor who lived across the street on Ybbsstrasse, says that she repeatedly heard hammering and construction noise coming from the Fritzl property. She did wonder what was going on, she says today. "What's he building? And how big is it going to be?" she would ask herself. And then there was Alfred Dubanovsky, one of about 100 tenants who rented rooms in Fritzl's house over the years and were told that their leases would be terminated without notice if they ever entered the garden or the basement. Dubanovsky still remembers the bags that Fritzl was always carrying down to the basement.

But where Germans would be more likely to call the police, preferably anonymously and often in connection with a long-standing dispute with a neighbor, Austrians have a tendency to look the other way. Given this mind-set, it isn't exactly surprising to hear Vienna criminologist Katharina Beclin say that of the estimated 25,000 cases of sexual abuse occurring in Austria each year, only about 500 are ever reported to the police.

On the day after Elisabeth's disappearance, Rosemarie Fritzl promptly -- and properly -- reported her daughter as "missing." A short time later, Josef Fritzl handed over a letter to the police, the first that Elisabeth was forced to write in captivity, dated Sept. 21, 1984 and postmarked at the post office in the nearby town of Braunau am Inn. According to the letter, she had had enough of living at home and was staying with a friend. She also warned her parents not to look for her, otherwise she would leave the country.

The letter was practically made-to-order for a quick decision by the relevant bureaucracies. Nowadays, perhaps, even officials at Austrian youth agencies would ask themselves why a girl who was considered well-adjusted and shy would run away from home twice. But, at the time, the letter conformed perfectly to the standard prejudice that runaways are little more than ungrateful brats who ought to be thinking about what they were doing to their poor, suffering parents. The authorities did what was expected of them, forwarding the missing child report to the Austrian Interior Ministry, the state financial authority and all state educational authorities, but that was where their involvement in the case ended.

Josef Fritzl had merely helped provide the authorities with an excuse for dropping the case when he told police that his daughter must have run off to join a sect. And yet no one even bothered to inquire with the officer in charge of sects at the St. Pölten diocese, Manfred Wohlfahrt. It was only a matter of weeks before investigators apparently gave up on Elisabeth Fritzl.

Raped in the Presence of Her Children

Down in the basement dungeon, her father told Elisabeth that he would gas her if she tried to attack him or escape. Whenever he left the basement, he would fiddle with a gadget near the door, as if he were setting a system, as Elisabeth assumed. But perhaps it was nothing but an attempt to intimidate her.

She lived in a single room in the basement until 1993. Fritzl apparently visited her roughly once every three days to bring her food -- and to rape her. At first it was just the two of them, but eventually, after the birth of her children Kerstin, in 1988, Stefan, in 1990 and Lisa, in 1992, Fritzl raped her in their presence. He eventually added a second room, and in the same year he created space in the basement for more children by bringing Lisa -- the girl in the cardboard box -- upstairs.

In defense of the authorities in Amstetten, the letter that was included with the baby in the cardboard box and is part of her adoption file today was a masterpiece of deception. "You will probably be shocked to hear from me after all these years, and with a real live surprise, no less," Elisabeth wrote, almost cheerfully, and yet she was writing the letter from her concrete prison. Of course, at least one of the two recipients wouldn't have been shocked at all, since he had dictated the letter in the first place. "I breast-fed her for about 6 1/2 months, and now she drinks her milk from the bottle. She is a good girl, and she eats everything else from the spoon." It was a letter filled with a sense of normalcy, and it seemed only natural that Elisabeth would politely ask her parents not to even attempt to find her. It was as if she were asking them to respect and tolerate her alternative lifestyle.

Once again, the authorities were sufficiently impressed, not even asking themselves why Elisabeth would entrust her child to parents from whom she herself had run away. Instead, the Amstetten youth welfare office wrote, five days after Lisa's appearance on the Fritzl's doorstep: "Mr. and Mrs. Fritzl have recovered from the initial shock. The Fritzl family is taking loving care of Lisa and wishes to continue caring for her." Within a year the Fritzls had adopted Lisa. But the next child, nine-month-old Monika, soon followed, on Dec. 16, 1994, shortly after midnight. This time the new baby was not left at the door in a cardboard box, but was found in Lisa's stroller in the vestibule of the Fritzl house. The telephone rang a few minutes later, and when Rosemarie Fritzl answered, she was convinced that it was her daughter Elisabeth on the other line, asking her to take care of the child. "I just left her at your door," the caller said.

Rosemarie Fritzl was in shock, and not just because her daughter seemed to have contacted her once again. The family had just received an unlisted number. How could Elisabeth have the number? She told the Amstetten authorities about the number, and how it was "completely inexplicable," and her comments were noted in the record. But there was an explanation: Josef Fritzl. Not only did he know the number, but he had also apparently used a recording of Elisabeth's voice to make the call.

Down in the dungeon, behind a concrete-reenforced metal door that weighed 300 kilograms (661 lbs.), as well as an additional steel door, life went on at its usual pace: lights on, lights out, lights on, lights out, lights on, rape, lights out. Alexander was born in 1996 and, like Monika, was sent upstairs and taken in by the Fritzls. His twin brother Michael died shortly after birth. Elisabeth says today that her father incinerated the child's body in a furnace. The last child, Felix, was born on Dec. 16, 2002. The boy had to remain in the dungeon with his mother and the two eldest children, Kerstin and Stefan. His wife Rosemarie couldn't have handled another child, Fritzl later told authorities during his interrogation.

The four people who were forced to live in a windowless basement for all those years vegetated away like the sole survivors of a nuclear holocaust. For them, the Cold War speculation over what it would be like after the bomb, over what life would be like for people who could never go outside again and return to the earth's surface, was a reality.

They did have some connection with the world outside -- through an old television set. It was reality, but for the children living in Fritzl's basement, it was like watching a film. Images of meadows, mosquitoes and the sun might as well have been parts of some fantasy Never-Never Land, because these children had never smelled the scent of a meadow, felt the itch of a mosquito bite or the warmth of the sun on their skin. And the cars, spaceships, mobile phones and lightsabers? Couldn't all of this have been nothing but science fiction?

They knew that rain exists and that there are oceans, but they knew these things without understanding or experiencing them. And although Josef Fritzl did not kill them, he deprived them of their lives nonetheless.

According to criminal psychiatrist Haller, Fritzl was driven by a high degree of narcissism arising from his omnipotence. But there is also another form of narcissism that could have been equally relevant in this case. With the narcissism of the collector who buys stolen paintings so that he can have them for himself, Fritzl kept his children in his vault. Each time he went to see them, to spend an hour or two with them, or to bring them food and medication at night, he was able to reassure himself that the uniqueness of his property made him all the more unique.

One of the most incomprehensible aspects of this case is that the children living in the upper half of his double life had relatively normal childhoods. The Fritzls apparently took pains to "encourage the children in many ways," the local social welfare agency confirmed in its regular reports. They were exposed to "children's gymnastics" and "books and cassettes from the city library," the social workers wrote, concluding that the Fritzls "are very loving with their children."

Fritzl was undoubtedly strict with the children, but he was not destructive, perhaps because it was his wife Rosemarie who cared for the children. Almost every day, she would drive her grandchildren to their music lessons, where Lisa learned to play the flute and Monika and Alexander the trumpet.

"Everyone was amazed at how strong she was," says one of the children's music teachers. Only in one conversation, says the man, did her voice break and tears come to her eyes. She was telling him about Elisabeth, about how she had run away to join a sect and how much she missed her daughter. According to Elisabeth's testimony, the mother knew nothing about her captivity, nor was she involved. It was only the father, says Elisabeth, who supplied her with food and clothing.

Gaining a Daughter and Losing a Husband

The week Rosemarie Fritzl was reunited with her daughter and lost her husband began with a shock in the dungeon. In the night of April 18, the condition of Elisabeth's eldest daughter, 19-year-old Kerstin, had deteriorated rapidly. She had always been sickly, but now she was having cramps and biting her lips until they bled. It was an infection, not a hereditary disease, but she was deathly ill nonetheless. Elisabeth, the mother, begged Fritzl to take to the girl to a hospital.

Fritzl gave in. Was it out of pity, after so many years of cruelty? Or perhaps out of panic at the thought of having to dispose of the body of a grown woman? Whatever the reason was, Fritzl was unable to carry her on his own and Elisabeth had to help out. It was thus that, in the early hours of April 19, a 42-year-old woman who had spent half of her life underground saw the light of day for the first time in many years.

It was only for a few moments before Elisabeth was forced to return to her dungeon, where she would spend the last week of her captivity. Fritzl called an ambulance. He had to concoct another story, but this time it would not be enough to save his skin. The world above and the underworld had begun to move closer to each other, slowly becoming one, and no matter how much Fritzl tried, he could no longer prevent the inevitable.

That same morning, at 10:37, the police received a call from the Mostviertel-Amstetten State Hospital to report the admission of a mysterious "female person." The patient was unresponsive and in critical condition, and her symptoms suggested that she had been severely neglected. The man accompanying the woman was one Josef Fritzl, of Ybbsstrasse 40.

Fritzl, who had to provide the police with an explanation, told them that he had suddenly heard noises in the stairwell and had found a young woman leaning, apathetically, against the wall on the ground floor. She had been carrying a note, Fritzl told police, in which Elisabeth wrote that the girl was her daughter Kerstin and that she urgently needed medical attention.

The doctors were unsure about what was wrong with Kerstin. They speculated that it could be epilepsy, or perhaps something else. To be able to determine what was wrong with her as quickly as possible, they needed more information -- from her mother.

The police launched an extensive investigation. The case of Elisabeth Fritzl, who was still officially classified as "missing," was reopened. Josef Fritzl repeated his old story about the sect, and then he presented his usual trump card: a "new" letter from his supposedly long-lost daughter. In the letter, dated January 2008, she wrote that her son Felix had been very ill in September, and that he had had epileptic seizures and symptoms of paralysis, but had recovered. Kerstin, the letter read, had also had health problems, including circulatory symptoms and stabbing chest pains. But, it continued, Elisabeth, Stefan and Felix would soon be coming home, and perhaps they would even be able to celebrate birthdays with Lisa and Kerstin.

The red herring worked once again -- one last time -- or at least it bought Fritzl more time. The letter had been postmarked in the town of Kematen an der Krems, about 70 kilometers (43 miles) from Amstetten. This led the investigators to focus on the wrong town. Naturally, none of the doctors they questioned in the Kematen vicinity had any recollection of a woman named Kerstin. The police became increasingly perplexed. Did this mysterious sect even exist?

On Monday morning, April 21, the telephone rang in the office of Manfred Wohlfahrt, the officer in charge of sects at the St. Pölten diocese. Wohlfahrt, who had not been consulted for 24 years, was asked to come to the Amstetten police headquarters immediately. The police showed him Elisabeth's first letter and the note that Kerstin had been carrying. Did the letters offer any clues as to where the woman who wrote them could be, they asked? Did the diction and choice of words suggest a sect?

Wohlfahrt studied the blue letters, written in a handwriting that looked like calligraphy, which were assembled into "oddly smooth, constructed and not very authentic" sentences. The letters seemed "dictated," Wohlfahrt said. His conclusion was that there was no evidence of a sect, an assessment that came 24 years too late for Elisabeth Fritzl.

Things were becoming increasingly tight for Josef Fritzl. Austrian television reported on the case. Until then, Fritzl had been consistently characterized as a "despairing father," but Elisabeth, in her dungeon, was also watching the story. She heard that doctors were searching for Kerstin's mother, and that it was a matter of life and death for the girl. On Saturday, April 26, Josef Fritzl concluded that there was only one way to save Kerstin and preserve his cover. He allowed his lost daughter to resurface, this time for good. When his wife Rosemarie and the other children were out of the house, he brought Elisabeth, Stefan and Felix out of the dungeon.

The police are still unsure of what happened in the house during the next few hours. Were new agreements reached on what Elisabeth was to say, and how she was to explain the last 24 years? The police received a call from the hospital that evening to report that suspicious individuals had visited Kerstin. They rushed to the hospital, arriving in time to catch Josef Fritzl and Elisabeth. Both were taken to police headquarters and questioned separately. Elisabeth only opened up after she was assured that she would never have to see her father again and that her children and her mother would be protected.

In the space of only two hours, Elisabeth told the story of her 24 years in captivity. At 12:15 a.m., when the officers completed the three full pages of minutes of the interrogation, they knew that it would be the most important case of their lives.

It is not difficult to imagine how the case will end for Josef Fritzl, even though his attorney, Rudolf Mayer, hopes that the country will soon see him as a person  and not just as a monster. Now police are also examining a possible connection to the body of a girl found at Mondsee Lake in 1986, not far from Fritzl's inn.

But what no one can predict is how life will go on for Elisabeth Fritzl and her children of the shadows. Chief Inspector Leopold Etz was in charge of the concerted effort to pick up Stefan and Felix from the house on Ybbsstrasse and take them to the state hospital. He says that they hardly spoke at all, except when little Felix said that it was wonderful. What was wonderful, the officer asked the boy? Everything, Felix replied.

And Elisabeth Fritzl, who must have been raped thousands of times, and who endured longer than any of the others? For 8,516 days of her life, dawn and dusk would be replaced by the switching on and switching off of an artificial light. One day was indistinguishable from the next or the day before, and the passing of time was only recognizable by the transient nature of life: her children growing older and her own hair turning gray until, on the day of her liberation, it was completely white.

It is a miracle that Elisabeth Fritzl didn't lose her mind during those 8,516 days. "I have rarely seen such a strong woman. I wouldn't be surprised if she had superhuman powers," the director of intensive medicine at the Amstetten State Hospital, Albert Reiter, told the tabloid Bild last week.

Psychologists are familiar with the phenomenon of the "unbreakable," of people who are exposed to unthinkable horrors and, miraculously, come away seemingly unharmed. They are people whose lives are not destroyed by post-traumatic stress disorder, who have the capacity to separate themselves from the horrors that were inflicted on them, as if they had been spectators to their own suffering.

Perhaps Elisabeth Fritzl will be strong enough to save her own family, and to bring together the two halves that her father had separated into two worlds, even to cope with the suspicion that her mother, Rosemarie, or perhaps someone else in the family might have known something after all. Who, if not Elisabeth, could rise above this abyss?

Witnesses say that the family's first reunion without Josef Fritzl, at the psychiatric clinic in Amstetten, was surprisingly buoyant. It was a beginning -- one of many encounters that will be necessary after such a long time.


Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.