The Children of the Cellar

The Children of the Cellar

The boys knew the world only through television and the little that their mother remembered. And so now, Stefan Fritzl, 18, and his little brother Felix, 5, are getting used to sunlight. After spending their entire lives imprisoned in a cramped, windowless cellar deep underground along with their mother, Elisabeth, they are now being cared for in a special wing of a clinic near Amstetten, Austria. Doctors say the boys and their mother are extremely pale. Their older sister Kerstin, 19, is in the hospital and very ill because of the terrible privations she suffered living in the dungeon created by Elisabeth’s father. It was there that he fathered seven children with his own daughter.

Kerstin is fighting for her life. She has been sedated and is on a respirator and is undergoing dialysis. Doctors say she is in a critical but stable condition. Doctors have not specified what she is suffering from. Her admission to a hospital in Amstetten was the trigger that led to the unraveling of Josef Fritzl’s double life. The fate of her family came to light after doctors, mystified by her ailment, publicly appealed for her mother to come forward because they needed her medical history. Josef and Elisabeth were then seized by police near the hospital.

Now, the children of the cellar have to learn to live in the light. They are also getting accustomed to having their own space. Dr. Berthold Kepplinger, who is leading the specialist team of doctors and therapists looking after Elizabeth Fritzl and her family, said they have all been given separate rooms and have their personal belongings and toys with them. “It is a question of restoring their spatial orientation step by step. We are convinced this will succeed in the next few weeks,” he said.

Stefan and Felix are also getting to know the rest of their family. The clinic is caring for Elisabeth’s three children who were taken to live upstairs when they were babies, Lisa, 15, Monica, 14, and Alexander, 12, as well her mother Rosemarie. The family had what officials described as “an astonishing reunion” at the clinic last Sunday. “They are talking to each other. They have so much to say to each other,” Kepplinger said. He said he had the impression that they were feeling as well as possible given the circumstances. Beginning 24 years ago Josef Fritzl, after apparently reporting falsely that his daughter was a runaway, kept her imprisoned downstairs in the cellar for years of incestuous abuse, fathering seven children. One of the babies died in infancy and Josef Fritzl told the police that he disposed of the body by throwing it into the furnace he used to heat his house. For years, Josef and his wife Rosemarie told friends and neighbors they adopted the three “upstairs” children after Elisabeth left them as infants on their doorstep.

The website of the German magazine Stern reported that Josef Fritzl had scores of tenants at his house in the 24-year period but all had to agree never to enter the basement. When some tenants observed that there were knocks emanating from the area, Fritzl would say that the sound was caused by heat and plumbing. Stern also reported that Josef Fritzl had been convicted of rape in 1967.

Despite the doctors’ optimism, the road to recovery is likely to be slow and painful for Elisabeth and her children. The Austrian teenager Natascha Kampusch, who was held hostage for eight years, has said her own traumatic experience and suffering would stay with her for the rest of her life. The Fritzl family, in addition, has the huge burden of incest to deal with. Experts suggest that Felix, the youngest, may have the best chances of living a normal life. Kepplinger said the boy was a “very affectionate, bright child,” who sticks close to his mother’s side. The family is being given legal advice about the possibility of changing identities. The clinic itself is being guarded to protect their privacy. For now it is perhaps the simple things that may help to sustain them. On Sunday, 12-year-old Alexander, who lived upstairs, celebrated his birthday with an impromptu party and a cake.