Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Mauthausen Concentration Camp

I've been struggling to write this post for a little over a week now. Last Saturday (25.March.2012) I took an excursion to Mauthausen, a nearby concentration camp. It was a very moving experience, and it is definitely worth a trip if you are ever in this region of Europe.  I have tried more than once to write this post, but I was not sure how to go about writing it. I wasn't sure if there was a certain line I should draw at gruesomeness, so I have decided to just write about what I learned and how I felt when I learned it.

The first thing that I want to say about this trip is that I learned so much more than I thought I would. I had always been under the impression that Concentration Camps were built out in the middle of nowhere, hidden from society, something totally separate from the daily life of everyone else. This is not the case at all. Mauthausen was only about 20 minutes from the city where I go to school. Not only was it close to town, but locals would actually come to the camp on a semi-regular basis. Right in front of the camp there was a large soccer field that a league team would often use to play their games. Hundreds of people would come to watch these soccer games, cheer on the teams, and then leave as though nothing was going on to the right of them where the camp was located. What is even more striking than the fact that they were just outside of main camp is what was located immediately next to the field: the sick camp.
The Sick Camp, with the Soccer Field located just behind that tree on the left.

The Soccer Field and Seating

There was an area about the size of less than two soccer fields sitting on the same stretch of land as the soccer field. Years ago, this area was packed full of barracks; you can still see the footprints of old building foundations. Whenever a prisoner would become too sick to complete any work they were sent to this area. Approximately 8000 people "lived" in these barracks at one time, although it can hardly be described as livable. 8000 people in an area just bigger than a soccer field. Think about living in that type of filth and sickness, with everything being so crowded. On average, 200-300 people died in that one section of the camp each day. Meanwhile, anyone who was well enough would hobble to the fence of the sick camp and watch the soccer game. This was possible because there was not a wall blocking the sickness from view. Everyone could see, everyone knew. There are even accounts of the ball being accidentally kicked over the wall into the camp. The prisoners would throw the ball back over the fence and the game would continue. It absolutely blows my mind that people could just sit there and do nothing while so much sickness and injustice was right there by them.  If sick prisoners could watch the game through the fence, you must know that the spectators could see the prisoners just as easily. Just as they were spectators of a soccer game, they were spectators of a killing game. I hadn't even gone into the camp yet and I was already blown away with the injustices.

Once we did enter the camp one thing caught my attention constantly: the barbed wire. It was rusty and it  was everywhere. The whole place was really eerie, but the barbed wire just seemed to resonate with me.  I  noted that the amount of barbs on the wire varied throughout the camp based on how far away the ground was on the other side. Smaller drop=more barbed wire. Larger drop= fewer barbs. It just put some gruesome thoughts in my head. Very few people actually escaped from this camp. there was once recorded a mass escape of 500 people; only 17 lived. Overall approximately100,000 people died at Mauthausen. About 20,000 bodies still remain on site in a mass grave. Most people died not in the gas chambers, or by being hung or shot, but by every day life. Life was meant to be hard there. 800 people lived in one barrack that had 8 toilets and 2 large sinks that could accommodate about 10 people each. 24 of these Barracks existed in the camp. As you can imagine, hygiene levels were not great. To further the terrible living conditions, food was limited and of poor quality.

      As more and more camps were built, an effort was made to build them next to areas rich in natural
resources. This way slave labor could be utilized and  money could be made. Mauthausen's particular
resource of choice was a rock quarry (granite I believe). There was a huge staircase carved into the rock itself that is known today as "The stairs of death". Everyone who was working would have to walk down these stairs, and then all the way back up with huge slabs of rock on their backs. This was not only used to build the very camp they lived in, but also buildings in nearby towns. There are even buildings in central Linz built with stone from this quarry. It was not uncommon for people to drop dead of exhaustion on those stairs. A surviving prisoner said in an interview that if that were to occur, they would be expected to just step on or over those who had fallen. He also noted that sometimes the guards would push someone at the top of the stairs down. Since everyone was packed so closely together for "efficient" work, people would tumble down like dominoes, but with giant slabs of rock tumbling with them too. I walked down those stairs to the quarry, and got out of breath walking back up. All I had on my was my camera and wallet, I can hardly even imagine carrying a big slab of rock on my back too. Next time you feel like complaining about going to work, I would urge you to think about working like this for even half of a day. Stepping over corpses. Being shoved down stairs. Getting hit or yelled at for not moving quickly enough. Carrying huge rocks up what seems like a never ending hill. Your job shouldn't seem quite so bad.

          I stood inside the very rooms where murder and dehumanization occurred. I saw the real showers, and the gas chambers cleverly designed to look like showers. I saw the room where people were hung, with a corner of that room devoted to shooting people in the back of the head. I saw the crematoriums. The mass grave. The barracks. The Stairs of Death. The open courtyard for roll call. The multitude of memorials erected at the camp, all of it. We all know that what happened is gruesome, but nothing can really get it into your brain like actually going to a Concentration Camp. I urge you all to make time for a trip like this at some point in your life. It is imperative that we truly understand what has happened in the past. Having enough textbook knowledge to pass a test in high school is not enough. There are real people, real stories, real hurt. That is something I knew before, but never truly felt connected to until I visited  Mauthausen. So please, make the time to get there at some point in your life, and be thankful that things are not like that now. If you had any questions or wanted to know more, please feel free to ask me.

Memorial- Large Barbed Wire Statue

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