Family meets ‘cellar siblings’ for first time

”Astonishing” and ”moving”, were the words used by psychiatrists on Tuesday to describe the scene as Elisabeth Fritzl and five of her children were reunited for the first time.

The meeting followed years of separation after three of the children fathered through incest by Josef Fritzl were ”chosen” to live above ground with the couple assumed to be their grandparents, while the other three endured years of darkness and isolation in a purpose-built dungeon below the family home.

Missing from the encounter was Kerstin (19) whose hospitalisation 11 days ago led to the unravelling of one of the worst known kidnap and incest cases. She remained in a critical state on Tuesday night.

Berthold Kepplinger, head of the clinic in Amstetten, Lower Austria, where the reunion took place and where the family is receiving therapy, said: ”It was astonishing how easy it was. This will help their recovery and we’ll try to ensure they stay together from now on.”

So began the long road to recovery for the damaged family, a process that doctors said could take years. Psychiatrists, neurologists, speech therapists and physiotherapists are among the specialists on hand to aid them back into society, Kepplinger said.

Elisabeth Fritzl and her mother, who were reunited again after 24 years, were said to have ”fallen into each others’ arms. They cried and didn’t want to let each other go,” the psychologist said.

While Elisabeth had told the children kept underground of the existence of their siblings who had been snatched from her as babies, those brought up by their grandparents had been under the impression that their mother had abandoned them and joined a sect.

Five-year-old Felix, who was born in the cellar and, like the brother and sister he had grown up with, had never seen daylight until three days ago. He had hardly met any human beings, other than his mother, two siblings and the figures he had seen on television, and was said to have clung to his mother, terrified. Doctors nevertheless said that, because of his age, he had the best chance of being integrated into society.

Attempting to sum up the scale of the family’s suffering, one commentator asked yesterday: ”How do you greet your brother who you didn’t even know existed, and who you have just learned has spent his whole life until now imprisoned in a dark dungeon, only two floors below your own bedroom, locked up by your grandfather, who, you discover, is also your father?

”And how do you greet your mother, who you’ve always been told had fallen into the arms of a devilish sect and given up her children when they were still babies, but who you learn also had to vegetate in the cellar for 24 years?”

The so-called cellar incest children were reportedly able to make themselves understood, but psychologists said their language was far from normal.

”The children who grew up in the cellar are as you’d expect them to be, considering what they’ve been through,” said Kepplinger. ”They can speak and make themselves understood, but they’re far from being in a normal state.”

Residents in the town of Amstetten, 120km from Vienna, were struggling to deal with the enormity of the crime as more details of the so-called ”House of Horrors” unfolded. A vigil was planned in the town as a sign of solidarity towards Elisabeth and her children as the world’s media filled the streets. Flowers were laid by sympathisers in Ybbsstrasse, where the Fritzls lived.

A man watching as forensic scientists removed boxes of belongings from the underground prison admitted the community was gripped by guilt at having let Elisabeth languish in an airless cell for so long. ”Had we noticed anything we’d have said something,” the man said, refusing to give his name, but describing himself as a neighbour.

A teacher had even brought the classmates of Monika (13) one of the incest children who had lived above ground, to observe the goings-on. ”The children are desperate to see it for themselves. There’s no point keeping it from them, that will only make it worse, and they’ll find out anyway because it’s all anyone’s talking about,” she said, also speaking on condition of anonymity.

As Austria sought answers to what the interior minister described as the worst crime of its kind in the country’s history, experts tried to piece together the details, saying it might take months.

An insight into Elisabeth’s state of mind and her desire to protect her children was demonstrated by a letter found by doctors on Kerstin when she was delivered to the local hospital. In the letter, published on Tuesday, Elisabeth described how she had tried to treat her sick daughter as best she could with aspirin and cough medicine.

”Please help her!” the mother wrote. ”Kerstin is very scared of people, she has never been in a hospital before. Ask my father for help — he’s the only person that she knows.” The letter concluded with a note from mother to daughter: ”Kerstin, please hold on in there, until we see you again! We’ll see you soon!”

Neighbours said the 12-, 14- and 15-year-old children who lived above ground had appeared to have a normal childhood. Their grandmother, Rosemarie, carried out the school run, enrolled them in music lessons and took them to a youth club. They were often heard playing in the swimming pool in the family garden — above the very prison in which their siblings were held.

Fritzl, meanwhile, drove a Mercedes, bought, it was said, from the proceeds of a successful rental and real estate business. Alongside the real estate business, which brought him in dispute with residents of Amstetten when he announced plans to build penthouses and offices, other companies registered under his name included a campsite and an underwear firm.

In the apartments he rented out in the building where the family lived, subletters told police they had been strictly forbidden to go near the cellar. Over the years it would appear not one of them dared disobey his commands. – Â

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