Saturday, April 10, 2010

Mauthausen Concentration Camp

By Claire and Chuck
Today was gray and cold, just right for visiting this notorious slave-labor and death camp. More than half the 206,000 prisoners died here, mostly of starvation and exhaustion.

Mauthausen was located at a quarry—the inmates quarried stone for vast Nazi building projects. The long, steep stairway connecting the quarry with the camp and its stone depot was called the “stairway of death” by the inmates.

They were fed the bare minimum to continue working. If you couldn’t carry a slab of rock on your back up the stairway all day long, you were shot on the spot. Most died within a year of their arrival.

Inside the arrival gate was the roll call area. This occurred several times a day, no matter what the weather. This is where the inmates were humiliated and beaten each and every morning. For example, the inmates would have to lie down in the mud so the SS Guards could walk over their bodies, keeping their boots clean. The Nazis had a very formalized way of doing things; among other actions, many salutes were required; partly this involved removing their caps over and over again. The evening roll call went on for hours, in every kind of weather; this was a way of debasing the men and breaking them down. I am telling you these things in a very unemotional way. Inside, I am so heartbroken for these people. It's just beyond comprehension that this could have occurred. If you have any doubts that it could happen again, read about the Stanford Experiment that took place in the Seventies in Palo Alto, California. Or, watch the movie Das Experiment, a German film that is based on the Stanford Experiment.

Roll call area

Women prisoners were brought in and forced to work as prostitutes. They were a reward for the Jewish inmates who were in charge. If they contracted a sexually transmitted disease, it was left untreated. If they became pregnant, they were forced to have an abortion and received no follow-up treatment. Many did not survive the operations, which were performed under primitive conditions.

We used the audio guides included in the €2 entry price. I wish we hadn’t. The descriptions were too lengthy and we found it difficult to find the corresponding numbers for the area where we were to listen. It was very cold, which made it even more real for me. When the new inmates were brought in, they were stripped naked and beaten—some to death—all their possessions taken from them, then forced to spend several hours (or even the entire night) at the “wailing wall,” so named by the prisoners, often in bitterly cold weather during winter. As each guard came by, he would kick the new prisoners.

Wailing wall

We went inside and toured the barracks, then downstairs to the gas chambers. There was an Italian delegation there, honoring this place as a memorial, I suppose. There were flags from many countries left behind.

Gas ovens

I found the door to the gas chambers the most chilling—there is something about that eye hole that really says it all.

We made our way back to the new museum where they show a 45 minute film every hour. It’s hard to categorize this film. The narrator’s voice sounded ironic to me, describing the SS men as family men with gardens, obsessed with efficiency, even when it involved death. Turns out it was more efficient to bury the prisoners than to incinerate them in gas ovens. It’s a numbers thing. I found it interesting that the Austrian people interviewed told their heart wrenching stories in a very unemotional way while the one American soldier who was interviewed, aged about 75 at the time, completely broke down when describing his experience in the liberation of this camp. Perhaps the Austrians were numb by this point.

We walked down the path to the stairway of death. The uneven stone path made it all the more possible to understand how difficult, if not impossible, it would have been to load large slabs of rocks up those stairs and up this path. But, is it really possible to fully know what it would feel like to be starved, beaten, exhausted, freezing, hopeless and weak like these men were? I’ve been to Dachau twice—the first visit was very difficult, I almost couldn’t breathe. This camp was horrifying as well. There was one large, blown up photo of a pit of dead bodies. It struck me that the surviving family members, if there were any, would never know what happened or where their loved ones were buried. I've read many books about the Holocaust and the death camps but seeing it puts it on another whole level. There just aren’t enough adjectives to describe a place like this.

Chuck: This was my first visit to a Nazi concentration camp. It was moving in ways that are difficult for me to express. If you contemplate doing something like this for the first time, I recommend that you begin with the movie, to provide context and overview; because of timing, we finished with the film. Like Claire, I was struck by the intensity of emotion expressed by the American—41 years after the event! At Mauthausen, I would next begin the audio tour, but only use the first several narratives: The first, on the wailing wall, was especially poignant; the rest, while informative, tend to be lengthy and—in my case—interfered with my ability to focus on the emotional aspect of the experience. There are both permanent and temporary exhibits; many of the interior exhibits have no English translation, unfortunately. There are computers inside which have historical data and interviews with former inmates; we did not attempt to use these. This camp has been turned into an educational site describing the camp itself and the surrounding satellite camps established during WWII. There was one large German-speaking school group on the grounds while we visited.

I am currently reading Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum; I just finished The Book Thief. Both are interesting and interestingly different in style and content. Both are similar in dealing with experiences of ordinary Germans during WWII.

We drove off in a somber mood, heading for the Wachau Valley, an idyllic area of Austria and our next stop on our journey. This area is so bucolic and as the sun came out, it lifted our mood.

Wachau Valley

House along the way; we were completely charmed

We stopped in the town of Melk, famous for its enormous abbey. However, it was after 4 pm by now and closed for the day. We were OK with that and wandered around the town and outside the abbey.

Downtown Melk with abbey peaking overhead


Classic Austrian house

Driving on, we came to Dürnstein where Richard the Lionhearted was imprisoned on his return from the Crusades and held for ransom. Cute town, right on the Danube (Danou).

Beautiful Blue Danube

Chuck: Back in the summer before entering 8th grade, I read about Ivanhoe and Robin Hood and also saw the respective movies (Robert Taylor, Errol Flynn) about the same time. I loved that stuff! I still do.

Captivity site of King Richard?

Lovely Austrian house, Durnstein

Church, Durnstein

We ended our day in the town of Krems at a wonderful campground of the same name as the one in Klosterneuburg (Vienna), Donaupark Camping, €13 and right on the Donau. We viewed the castle across the river up on the mountain and watched several barges go by this evening while making a very Austrian dinner, (vegetarians look away at once!), bratwurst, mashed potatoes and broccoli. This is the 3rd time we’ve made sausages, thanks to Michael, on Paros, who made them for one of our dinners while we were visiting. We enjoyed them so much, we rushed out and bought some for ourselves (he showed us the package, which helped a lot). We are now confident shoppers of the various kinds of wursts.

A destruction, an annihilation that only man can provoke, only man can prevent. ~ Elie Wiesel


Karin said...

I give you credit in going to (any) concentration camp. We were thinking of going to the one outside Prague called Terezin - a supposedly "model camp" to show off how well the Nazi's treated people! But it was a "cover" and horrible things went on there as well. I spent so much time in the cemeteries in Prague that by the time we thought of going I was absolutely not in the mood for more sadness. The cemeteries tell a lot of history....and what WWII and Communism did to Europe is beyond imagination. In a lighter mode: I liked your pictures of Melk! Interesting name, like milk? Did you see cows? Ha, ha! And those beautiful Tyrolean clothes! Don't you just want to wear some and go up into the mountains and yodel? Do the Austrians yodel?

Karin on Paros

Chuck and Claire said...

We talked a lot about how to handle this day, knowing it would be grim. We decided on the drive through the Wachau Valley so we could decompress. It turned out very well with the sun coming out and the beauty of the small towns along the way. There is always hope.

Elisabetta said...

This is the first time I've gone public with this.
My mother was a surgical nurse, a first lieutenant about to become captain in a field hospital outside of London during WWII. According to her doctors she was top-notch.
She saw everything, she never flinched. Later she confessed to me that when no one was looking, she wuld collapse on a chair somewhere.
The soldiers from the Battle of the Bulge w/black feet, the cadavers of Mankind from concentration camps on their way to N.Amer and other points: she saw them all, and D-day too.

You saw worse than the average American, those who saw LIFE mag exposes w/ General MacArthur vomiting a few steps from Eisenhower while touring camps after the Americans had liberated them.
Why did it take so long for American involvement? Anti-semitism has been pervasive in the New World, too.
Ask Noam Chompsky who got beaten up every day going to school in NY.

My mother married a half German/ Hungarian who was born in Kurtos during the era (1910)of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; he grew up/educated mostly in Budapest, Jesuit schools, also at the Sorbonne. Spoke five languages, maybe more as needed. Spent 3 yrs in Brazil as a civil engineer.

I have no clue as to how they met, but I do know that like so much of the pasteurized, homogenized history we are fed as children, the story I was told was written by the victors, and was false. According to my sources he was brought in on a Swiss passport, and there is no paper trail. Later he was exiled in Havanna for 3 yrs when an angry woman told the U.S. govt he was a Communist! If only!

I do know that while caring for my mother during her last days at home, my father also made weekly hospital visits to a gay Jewish man who was withering with Alzhemiers in a mental hospital, with no one to visit him.
When I was I was a teenager, David liked to drop in unannounced and entertain us at the piano, sometimes playing "Deutschland Uber Alles" just to yank Laszlo's chain! What a joker!
Did Laszlo repay his karmic debt? I hope so.
Talk about clean and organized.
Clean-and-organized is what you have left to convince yourself you are worthy of human status when you've lost the guts and grit of your humanity. It makes you feel superior to the sweaty masses, whether or not their sweat and blood is under the torture of your own regime. "Alles in Ordnung" - "Everything in Order," systematically, right down to the last atrocity.
Very much like the Romans, known for their cruelty both in and outside of the Colloseo. Or Mussolini, who embraced Hitler as a brother. (He did make the trains run on time, how familiar.)

A note of humor: (this is my Italian spirit!) When my first husband and I were renovating our 2nd home, my father's comment was that our house was "worse than the prisoner of war camp I was in." Well ha-ha it had been an American camp! He'd been shot out of the sky, a flight engineer. And up there in the sky, after an upbringing of beatings-into-submission, one believed what one had been "endoctrinated" to believe. Not-seeing made the atrocities "American propaganda." And it took a beloved wife and U.S. army nurse to "debrief" him as to the truth. Sickness-of-soul took up residence within him for decades thereafter.

I think about Orinda, Calif. where I raised my children, where most of the names on the school roster were German in origin, just like our original space program scientists.
I have had conversations re: this topic with my Yogi here in Magione, Italia, and wonder how both of you are dealing with this. (I had originally written "spiritually" but then what other way is there??)
I'm behind in reading ur blog,so by now you may be in a cafe' mit schlag, mozart and chopin to brighten your hearts! I'm proud of you both for your courage to NOT LOOK AWAY. OUTSTANDING WORK, CARRY ON. "NOT TALKING" IS THE REASON IT HAPPENED.
E* I hope you publish this.