Today, in St Poelten, the capital of Lower Austria, will begin a gala of the grotesque. Josef Fritzl, perhaps the most notorious figure in recent European history, will go on trial for crimes committed while incarcerating below ground his daughter for 24 rape-filled years, and inflicting on her and her children cruelties beyond the understanding of all but himself.
And, to make sure justice is seen to be done and that no stomach is left unturned, upon the town of 51,000 has descended the caravans of the 24-hour rolling news business.
One person, mercifully, will be deprived of this spectacle: Elisabeth Fritzl, whose unimaginable suffering will be deconstructed in the necessarily forensic terms of the court.
Her tormentor will be on show, and his guilt of all but one of the charges is not in any doubt. (Nor could anyone, save for criminal psychologists, hanker for more details of what Fritzl may have done to his daughter in that cellar. To hear that he brought his engineer’s boot down on normality, kept her confined for 8,642 days, and subjected her to more than 3,000 rapes, is surely enough.).
But however Fritzl pleads to the charges of murder, rape, incest, false imprisonment, slavery and abuse, the most fascinating part of this terrible saga will remain untold in court: how Elisabeth is, with considerable professional help, no little courage and a dignity her father always denied her, trying to build some sort of life for herself and her children.
To measure that task, you have to go back to April 26 last year when the critical illness of Kerstin, the eldest of Fritzl’s subterranean children, led to the liberation of Elisabeth and the two sons — Stefan (19) and Felix (6) — who had lived their entire life in a basement world where they knew neither fresh air, trees, grass or the rest of society. All they knew was the cellar, its 5ft 6in high ceiling, their mother, and the man who came to rape her.
Then, suddenly sprung from their windowless trap, they were in a world they had only ever seen on television.They were taken to the clinic, and here they and their mother were united with the three children (Lisa, Monika and Alex) taken upstairs by Fritzl to be raised by his wife, Rosemarie. She was there, too, weeping into the arms of Elisabeth, the 42-year-old daughter she had not seen since the girl was 18. This was the family — the boys communicating mainly in growls and coos, the elder hunched, the younger starting at the slightest sound.
It was three weeks before the underground boys were, under supervision, allowed to walk in daylight. Since then, progress has been made, but the older boy, Stefan, still walks with a stoop. Together with his sister Kerstin (recovered from her illness) and little Felix, he is being lightly tutored at home.
Sporadic reports say that they have bonded well with the three siblings they had never before seen, and since last April all the children have lived together, largely happily.
The three “overground children” withdrew from their school when the story broke, but in September started attending another, under different names. The initial rift between Elisabeth and her mother was healed sufficiently to allow Rosemarie to visit, and there were reports that Elisabeth had even begun driving lessons. Then, late last year, this remarkable woman and her six children moved into a house to continue their struggle towards normality.
Elisabeth depends on the state for support, but a scheme is now in train for Fritzl himself to give a post-trial interview, with all proceeds going to Elisabeth and her children. Central European News is acting — for no fee — as the arranger, and its director, Mike Liedich, says that Fritzl’s and Elisabeth’s lawyers, his creditors, the court, and the Austrian justice minister have all agreed. But he admits a hitch may yet stop what many people, despite the destination of the money, would find distasteful.
Also in doubt are Fritzl’s pleas, and therefore the length of the case. The expectation is that he will admit incest, rape and false imprisonment, but contest the murder charge arising out of the death of the twin of Alex, who lost his life as an infant when hospitalisation might have saved him. Elisabeth’s video testimony will be key, as will her so-called “diary” — in reality scraps of notes that she hid around the cellar during her years of imprisonment.
But even if Fritzl is found not guilty of murder, he will spend the rest of his life locked up. He will probably end up in Goellersdorf, Austria’s Broadmoor. The cellar at 40 Ybbstrasse will be concreted over.
None of these things much matters. What does is that Elisabeth and her family are given every chance, including privacy, to break free of the shadow of Fritzl.