Mauthausen Concentration Camp

Trip Start Aug 02, 2012
Trip End Aug 02, 2013

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Flag of Austria  , Lower Austria,
Friday, October 26, 2012

The concentration camp is located a couple of kilometers out of the main town and perched on top of a hill. This camp location was chosen because of its proximity to a stone quarry and as such was more of a labour camp, as opposed to a pure extermination camp. The result was usually the same except the cause of death was usually more prolonged: overwork, execution, torture, malnutrition, diseases from the unhygienic conditions. The nearest train station is a few kilometers away and so all the prisoners were marched from the train station to their almost certain death.

We were given audio guides and a map of the camp and we were there right till closing, for nearly four hours. Unfortunately, the museum in the center of the camp was closed for renovation but I guess it worked out because we wouldn't have had time for it anyhow. Over the past few weeks, I definitely felt that I was making up for lost time since I hadn’t taken any history in high school. So all the details of WWI/WWII, and in general European history was all new to me and I was just soaking it all up wishing I had a better memory to retain all the facts. The tour began by taking us through the gates of the administration yard. We could see where the eagle statue of the Reich had existed until the Americans had liberated the camp. Going further into the yard, we were up a set of stairs and to our right, went through the gates where prisoners would have entered. Immediately on the right, we saw what is now termed as the "wailing wall". Prisoners from all nationalities and ethnic backgrounds – basically anyone who didn’t fit into Hitler’s grand plan, would be made to stand here for hours, even days in some cases, chained to rings on the wall as they awaited processing. This was done intentionally to keep the new arrivals guessing, disoriented and in a general state of confusion. It was all part of the methods used by the Nazis to break their victims.

When they were eventually processed, they would be stripped of all their possessions and their clothing and then made to enter the shower rooms to be cleaned. When we visited the camp, it was around 8 degrees outside with quite a strong wind blowing. We were well bundled up and we were still really cold so I can just imagine that the weather alone would have broken down many a prisoner, at least physically, even before they knew the fate that awaited them was much worse. We then saw the inhumane barracks where the prisoners slept for a few hours each night. This was a labour camp so all inmates worked the stone quarry from sunrise to sunset – and once they were physically unable to work, they were shot. We wandered through the various buildings of the camp, which surrounded the main courtyard where roll call took place twice a day.  From there we wandered past the courtyard to where the majority of barracks had once stood. The Nazis were masters of propaganda and as part of this had devised a clever “self-rule” system whereby prisoners could aspire to ranks of “power”. These positions put the holders in some favour with the Nazis but also meant that they usually had to demonstrate that they were willing to step over their fellow inmates to do so. This essentially created a hierarchy that allowed the guards to control the bulging population and also meant that they had insight into what was happening within the barracks. This also served to show outsiders that they were affording “privileges” to their prisoners. Some of those who rose to ranking positions in this system actually used it to benefit their fellow inmates by bartering for some luxuries such as cigarettes, getting mail delivered or some extra food.

We saw the electric barbed wire fence next to the Jews Block which was where many people decided to prematurely end their terrible fate but more often than not, these “suicide attempts” were actually the result of guards who forced people to walk into the fence at gunpoint – either because they had violated some rule or simply because they felt like it. Right past the barbed wire fence is the site of a mass grave where bodies were dumped when the crematorium in the camp couldn’t process the sheer number of those being sent to their death. Beyond the mass grave, was the site of the “tent camp” which became an extension of the main camp when the main camp could no longer handle the sheer volume of prisoners. The tent camp was even more overcrowded. We then walked downstairs into a building that was known as the execution block. It had a gallows and also a gas chamber. It was absolutely haunting to walk through that gas chamber, which by design, had been made to look exactly like the shower block so as to trick the prisoners into entering calmly. There was a memorial beyond the chambers honouring those that had perished in those chambers.

We didn’t linger there and I was literally sick to my stomach imagining the terror and mass murder inflicted by the Nazis. I couldn’t fathom how anyone could have been party to such crimes and I hoped that those that were got the punishment they deserved ten fold – I was to later learn in Nürnberg that unfortunately, only several hundred Nazis were tried and convicted and the majority escaped trial or were even acquitted in many cases. We then proceeded out of the camp and to the theatre hall where we watched a short documentary showing footage of the war, the camp, interviews with people who lived in the nearby town and had to service the camp, and its eventual liberation. From the theatre, we walked back towards the camp but this time kept walking past it and around to the stone quarry, which is the reason that the camp existed. We learned in Nürnberg that Hitler, as part of his world domination, had monumental building plans for major cities throughout Germany including Berlin, Munich and Nürnberg. The building materials, such as the stone mined in Mauthausen,  supplied some of these construction projects.

We walked down the “Stairway of Death” into the stone quarry. The stairway is aptly named because individuals had to carry granite blocks weighing around 50kg each and if they couldn’t manage to carry these blocks anymore, they were deemed worthless and therefore killed in a variety of means.  The quarry worked year round, regardless of the weather and with the prevalent malnutrition, you can imagine why being sent to Mauthausen was essentially a prolonged death sentence. The sign explaining the stairway in one of the photographs is roughly translated as the following:

“The steps of this staircase which today are even and of the same height, were in the time when Mauthausen was a concentration camp, made of blocks of rock of different heights and shapes, and laid out randomly. Sometimes, up to a half-metre high, they required huge effort to climb them. The SS took pleasure, among other games, to make slide, by kicking, the last rows of a column who were descending so that the first ones who fell would bring the rest down, and fall down the stone steps in a mass. While at the end of the work day, the prisoners started to return to the camp carrying stone blocks on their shoulders; the SS would follow behind and hit and kick those lagging behind. Those that were not able to follow died on the stairway of death.”

We were the only ones in the entire quarry and the fall colours and the surrounding country side almost seemed surreal for a place with such a brutal history. In a way, it reminded me of the Verdun battle fields where it was hard to imagine it barren and a place of such destruction. From the bottom, we also saw the cliff from which guards would force prisoners to jump to their death and then would mock them as being “parachutists”.  [We walked solemnly back to the parking lot from there, passing a number of memorials around the grounds.  It was nearly dark as we drove away from Mauthausen and I was filled with mixed emotions: glad to have visited the site and understood more about the Nazi regime and the holocaust yet sickened by the atrocities committed. I now understood why these memorials are so important -both to serve as a remembrance but also to hopefully instill the underlying message with each visitor: Never Again. 
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MYL on's sad knowing that these atrocities are still happening in the 21st century.

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