Discretion Advised : The content of this blog is extremely sensitive.
On our drive back from Vienna, we would be going through Linz, Austria. Just outside of Linz are the villages of Mauthausen and Gusen. Within Mauthausen and Gusen is one of the largest group of German concentration camps. Andrew is a huge history buff, and even more so a World War II history buff. His grandfather fought in the war. On December 24, 1944, when he was 18, he was captured and was sent on a POW train headed towards one of these very same camps. The train was bombed. He was able to escape, two of his best friends did not. One was taken to a work camp, while the other one died. He arrived home on January 25, 1945 after walking 200KM in his wooden shoes. He traveled at night and spent the days being hidden by farmers until he reached home.
I, myself, am not as interested in history like Andrew but I always feel it necessary to learn where you came from, and if anything, at least, learn where the world has come from and why it is the way it is today. We both felt compelled to visit a place that had that much history. So we took the exit and went to Mauthausen.
Mauthausen sits high on a hill overlooking the village and from the moment I passed through the big entrance doors an eerie feeling came over me. We walked through, not speaking to each other, listening to our audio guides explain what happened to prisoners in the beginning moments that they stepped foot into the camp.
The first inmates arrived on August 8, 1938, and just like the rest to follow, they were taken to this wall, known as the “Wailing Wall”. Here they experienced the first acts of mistreatment by the SS. Along the “Wailing Wall” now are memorials from various groups, countries, families, etc.
Down the main road of the camp is where inmates participated in roll call two to three times a day. The inmates were known not by name, but by number, which the SS would use to take roll. They were often forced to repeat commands (such as putting their caps on and off), made to stand in the rain or snow, humiliated, and tortured. If they disobeyed they were shot. At times, roll call could last up to 4 hours. At the end they were dismissed to either work or go to sleep in the barracks.
Each barrack served a purpose. There was an orderly room, canteen, infirmary, etc. Most of the barracks were used for housing inmates. These were often separated for different groups. Aside from numbers, each prisoner was assigned a group and had the corresponding symbol below their number on their uniform. Nationality, religion, sexual orientation, and criminal history were just some of the groups.
The housing barracks were designed to hold up to 300 people. At times, these rooms held up to 2,000. Inmates shared beds of 2-4 people. Looking in these rooms, I couldn’t imagine them holding 300, let alone 2,000. The bunk beds themselves could barely fit one person of small stature. I learned that inmates were lucky to get 6 hours of sleep. Most nights they got anywhere from 3-5 hours before they were awoken for roll call and work.
In one of the barracks was a photo memorial and display of what life was like for the inmates at the camp during its operation. For the first time in the tour I couldn’t fight back my tears. The photographs displayed were so horrific and harrowing.
The audio guide provided much information about the operation of the camp. The first inmates were put to work on the granite quarries. They were to provide building materials for SS-owned companies Deutsche Erd- and Steinwerke GmbH for the monumental and prestigious buildings in Nazi Germany. In 1942 and onward, they worked with aircraft manufactures Heinkel-Werke and Messerschmitt and built their production facilities underground to protect them from air raids. Towards the end of the war, Mauthausen became more of an administrative camp. Inmates were sent to satellite camps and would only return when they were either sick or could no longer work. They returned to Mauthausen to die.
For the inmates that were given medical treatment, it most times was not enough to help them or the correct care. Many medical experiments were performed. Doctors were often right out of school and used the camps as a means to gain experience.
Roughly 200,000 people were deported to Mauthausen and the satellite camps between August 1938 and its liberation in May 1945. Thousands of prisoners were put to death in “death bath actions”. 10,200 of those inmates were murdered in the gas chambers at Mauthausen, Gusen, Hartheim Castle, or in a gas van that traveled between them. I walked into the gas chambers and crematorium by accident. They were on the tour guide but I was not sure exactly where they were located and I believed, maybe because of their nature, they were not going to be on display. It was almost too much to handle. I wondered how terrified and helpless the prisoners must have felt. The space put me in a state of shock and was more than I could bear. In the crematorium, memorials were set up for those who lost their lives. Seeing all the faces of people who had been murdered so cruelly and their notes from loved ones was heartbreaking.
Around 100,000 inmates died at Mauthausen, nearly half in the last 4 months. They were murdered in masses and the final plan was to exterminate them all by herding them into the underground tunnels in which they worked and blowing up the entrances. The plan never was successful but thousands died from being worked to death, mistreated, having rags for clothes, scarce food portions, and virtually no medical care.
On May 5, 1945 the camp was liberated by the US Army.
I left feeling heavy and saddened. When I reflect back on our stop at Mauthausen Memorial, I still have to fight back tears. I cannot put into words what this experience was like for me. There are no words and at the same time not enough. To believe that this happened not too long ago in our world history is frightening, and to believe that it still happens today in places around the world is unfathomable. This is something I will never forget.
Never shall I forget that night.
The first night in camp.
Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence,
That deprived me, for all eternity, of my desire to live.
Never shall I forget those moments
That murdered my God, and my soul, and turned my dreams to dust.
Never shall I forget these things,
Even if I am condemned to live as long as God himself. Never.
– an excerpt from Night by Elie Wiesel