In August 1984 18-year-old Elisabeth Fritzl was soon to leave her family home in Amstetten, Austria, for a job in the nearby city of Linz. It was to be a welcome move for the teen, too, as it would allow her to escape the unwelcome attentions of her father, Josef – who had sexually abused her from the age of 11.
But on August 28, 1984, Elisabeth’s plans were scuppered. On that day her father asked her to help him move a door down to a basement extension that he was building beneath the family’s suburban home. She agreed and followed him into the basement. Little did she know, however, that this was to be the start of a 24-year-long ordeal of unimaginable horror.
Once Fritzl had his daughter in the basement, he pushed a cloth drenched in ether over her face, and the teen lost consciousness. When she came to, she was trapped. Moreover, she was now to spend the next 8,516 days in the basement, a helpless prisoner of her horrifically abusive father.
Over a period of 24 years, Fritzl repeatedly raped his daughter. Furthermore, Elisabeth delivered seven children, three of whom lived in the basement with her, while another died in infancy. The other three kids lived in the upstairs world of the house as the foster children of Fritzl and his wife.
Then in April 2008 one of the children became seriously ill. Kerstin was Elisabeth’s firstborn, and the 19-year-old was now in need of medical care. Somehow, Elisabeth persuaded her father to take the teen to the Landesklinikum Amstetten-Mauer hospital. But Fritzl couldn’t transport Kerstin on his own, and so Elisabeth, now 42, was enlisted to lend a hand. It was the first time her eyes had enjoyed natural light in 24 years.
After her brief moment in the sunlight, however, Elisabeth was returned to the dark of her prison. But the end of her ordeal was now in sight. Staff at the hospital were suspicious of their new patient. So suspicious, in fact, that they alerted the police, who had their own questions about Kerstin. Fritzl, meanwhile, simply told them that he had discovered the young woman at his house. Yet the police needed more answers, and so they appealed for Elisabeth to come forward.
For 24 years, Fritzl had maintained the same cover story to explain Elisabeth’s disappearance: his daughter had run away and joined a cult. And to make his fiction plausible, he made Elisabeth pen letters that backed up his account. Now, however, Elisabeth’s missing person file was reopened. In fact, Austrian TV even took up the story, and on screen Fritzl played the concerned dad.
But the net was closing in, and eventually, an increasingly desperate Fritzl decided that he had no choice but to produce Elisabeth to the world. Moreover, Elisabeth herself had a TV in the basement and knew that the police were looking for her. So Fritzl, accompanied by Elisabeth, went to see Kerstin at the hospital. Staff were suspicious, though, and immediately alerted local police, who came to apprehend the arrivals.
Fritzl and Elisabeth were subsequently separated at the police station. At the age of 42, Elisabeth had finally escaped her abuser. Yet while she was questioned by police chief Willibald Reitner, she told him, “If I tell this exactly how it all happened, no one will ever believe me.”
Even so, soon Elisabeth poured out the whole unthinkable story of what had happened to her over the previous 24 years in Fritzl’s purpose-built dungeon. After he’d imprisoned her back in August 1984, her mother Rosemarie had the very next day reported her as missing. And incredible as it seems, Rosemarie was apparently unaware that her daughter had been imprisoned in the basement for years afterward.
Moreover, Fritzl’s task in making Elisabeth’s disappearance seem unsuspicious was helped by the fact that she actually had run away from home at the age of 15. She’d fled to Vienna with a friend but was brought back to the family home by police after just a few weeks.
And mere weeks after she was reported missing in 1984, Fritzl made Elisabeth write a letter which he posted to himself. This communication said that she was fine and didn’t want to be found. Furthermore, since by this time Elisabeth had reached the age of 19, it was enough to convince the police that there was nothing untoward going on. Fritzl now had Elisabeth completely under his control.
For years, Elisabeth suffered the worst kinds of sexual abuse at the hands of her father. Not only that, but she had to have seven of his children without medical care. The two oldest kids – Kerstin, born in 1988, and Stefan, born in 1990 – both lived with their mother in the dungeon. Fritzl is even said to have raped Elisabeth in front of them.
The third child, Lisa, was supposedly “found” by Fritzl on his own doorstep with yet another note that he had forced Elisabeth to forge. In it, she asked Fritzl and Rosemarie to look after the child – and this was evidence enough to convince the authorities to allow the Fritzls to formally adopt her.
Elisabeth gave birth to four more children during her captivity. Two of those – Monika, born in 1994, and Alexander, born in 1996 – were likewise purportedly abandoned by Elisabeth prior to them being brought up by the Fritzls. Alexander also had a twin brother, Michael, who passed away before he was even a week old; Fritzl burnt the baby’s corpse in a furnace. And a final child, Felix, was born in 2002 and stayed in the basement, too.
Elisabeth gave birth to all of these children alone in her underground prison, with no one to aid her either medically or emotionally. And for all those years, she lived without natural light and with no company but that of her children. Fritzl came down to the dungeon every few days to give his daughter food and to rape her.
The contrast between Fritzl’s two families – the basement family with Elisabeth and the upstairs family with Rosemarie – was stark. Social workers even reported that the Fritzls were “very loving with their children.” However, in the basement, Elisabeth’s children knew nothing of the world outside their prison except for what they saw on TV.
Josef Fritzl was 73 when he was brought to trial in 2009. He faced charges of rape, incest, wrongful imprisonment, slavery, coercion and murder by negligence. Subsequently, he pled guilty to them all and, on March 19, 2009, received a life sentence.
Elisabeth gave evidence at the trial via pre-recorded video. However, she did attend the court in disguise. In fact, according to Fritzl’s lawyer, Rudolf Mayer, her presence was what persuaded the defendant to plead guilty to his crimes. Mayer told The Times, “Josef Fritzl recognized that Elisabeth was in court and, from this point on, you could see Josef Fritzl going pale and he broke down.”
Elisabeth and her children now live under new identities in an unnamed village in northern Austria. All we know of her new life comes from Fritzl’s sister-in-law, who in 2010 told The Independent, “She loves jeans with glitter pockets and she passed her driving test without difficulty… The kids are all going to school and working hard.” This apparent return to normality is a moving tribute to Elisabeth’s extraordinary will to survive.