Thursday, July 7, 2011

Day 15: Mauthausen Concentration Camp

Instead of spending our only full day in Vienna looking at museums, palaces and concert halls we traveled two and a half hours West of Vienna to Mauthausen Concentration Camp.
This concentration camp was one of the first opened by the Nazis in 1938 and one of the last liberated in 1945. While initially of the prisoners brought to this camp were political and ideological opponents, as the war went on prisoners of war and Jews were also brought to this camp. At the end of the war Mauthausen housed more than 19,000 prisoners. In the time the camp was open almost 200,000 people were deported to Mauthausen in the seven years it was open.

This labor camp had one the highest death rates in all of the concentration camps. Around 100,000 inmates died in this camp and the satellite camps from beatings, being shot, freezing to death, being executed in gas chambers and being worked to death.

When Diana brought up the idea of going to the camp to me I told her I wanted to think about it. Initially I wasn’t really sure about the visit. I was scared of something. I’m wasn’t sure what. Partially I was worried of how I would react but more than that I was intimidated at the idea of visiting a place of such devastating tragedy.

After thinking about it for half a day I told Diana that I though it would be a great idea to go. Any emotional challenge, cost in money or traveling time is barely a shadow of the ordeal people went through in this place. I had a feeling that this was something special and something important.

I couldn’t imagine telling people that I had the chance to go and chose not to. While I’m not proud that the potential reactions of other people motivated me to go, part of me feel that it’s okay. Going to this place might be as much for the people in my life as it is for myself.

After two gloomy and half-raining days in Salzburg we were greeted at Mauthausen with blinding sunlight. Amongst fields of wildflowers stood this fortress, this place of evil and tragedy. As my eyes squinted to adjust to the brightness of the sunlight, it all seemed like a dream as Diana and I walked up to the camp.

Behind the camp there are a series of memorials from different countries. They are beautiful, honorable and heart wrenching. Most of all they are silent. This whole place is silent. While there were visitors all over the camp, all you heard were some birds and insects traveling through the wildflowers.

As I walked through the main courtyard where prisoners stood for roll call for honors on end, I couldn’t help but think how benign this place felt. It was just a huge wall with a series of rectangular buildings in it. But the knowledge of what happened in this place transformed it into something very powerful. More than that, there was something in the air. And as I walked down into the crematorium that feeling almost became suffocating.

The crematorium was the place where they disposed of the bodies. At first they cremated one body at a time but later the Nazis ruthlessly threw in as many as ten bodies at a time. This was not motivating by respect as modern cremations are but rather by a need to dispose of bodies in the quickest and least public way.

I walked through one room that had one oven and another that had two. Each was decorated with plaques and flowers honoring people who had died in the camp. There was a room with a stone slab in which dead bodies were laid down so that the golden teeth could be removed. The main gas chambers were closed that day but I walked through one of the smaller chambers where others were murdered.

Walking through these rooms I felt a mix of emotions but more than anything I felt gratitude. It was an honor for me to come into this place and be able to remember the dead by visiting these rooms. It was a privilege for me to be in this place and I’m truly thankful to the people who made sure this place was maintained.

After leaving the crematorium I knelt down and picked up a small rock from the ground and turned it over in my hand. It felt real. This place was real. I never doubted the horror of these camps but the tragedy was incomprehensible for me. Being here, touching this place made the unbelievable seem less foreign and impossible to ignore.

Some say that we remember the holocaust to make sure that it will never happen again. While I agree with this sentiment I also believe that it’s important that we remember this tragedy for another reason. This camp help us understand the potential for the evil in our nature and reminds us not take for granted the peace and love that we share with each other every day.

It’s taken me some time to process this experience and it probably will take more time for me to understand what visiting Mauthausen really means to me. Any closing comment I write just doesn’t seem to capture this place, so I will leave you with an image.

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