By Katie Stanley
We began our journey much earlier than most of us were accustomed to get up on a Friday morning, filing onto the tour bus as usual with almost an air of hesitant expectation. The bus was silent almost the whole two and a half hours. But what could you expect from a day trip to Austria’s most famous concentration camp memorial, Mauthausen?
It is difficult to describe our experience at Mauthausen, just as it is difficult to explain complex emotions and the inner workings of the mind.
I suppose it began three days prior, when a guest speaker, Mag. Viktoria Pfisterer, gave us a preparatory lecture on the history of the concentration camp. Then, we watched a documentary on the subject, and were quite frankly shocked by the images we saw.
So, when we departed for Mauthausen that Friday, we bore these images in mind and were reminded of their horrors as we walked the empty pathways and surveyed the silent grounds.
The guide leading my group seemed himself like a survivor of the cruel camp he described. He walked slowly, speaking in a low voice, with eyes that looked all too wearied for a man of his age. We learned near the beginning of the tour that he had been a guide as part of his civil service and was now working there to stay afloat—but only half time. He said he wouldn’t be able to handle full time again.
Our guide led us around the outside, pointing out the ironic soccer field that had been turned into a mass grave and the “Russian camp” where the sick went to die. Then it was through the park of memorials and to the top of the quarry. We stood there on the edge of the granite cliffs, leaning against an iron sculpture of exaggerated barbed wire, peering into the depths where prisoners had been pushed to their deaths forcedly, by other prisoners. From there we could see the stairway of death: the long, rocky staircase that crawled up the side of the slope which prisoners had been forced to ascend carrying loads of granite.
Standing outside the walls, we were incredibly cold. The air was bitter with frost and the whole sky overcast in its trademark gloom. Perhaps the climate itself had absorbed the misery of which the earth so recently stank. It was cold, but none of us dared complain. How ungrateful could we be, standing there fully fed with the promise of generous lunch, clothed in North Face jackets worthy of Siberia, and yet uttering the slightest of malcontent? No, we stamped our feet and breathed into our scarves and imagined what it would been like back in 1944.
It was a mere splinter of pain, yet I feel it gave us a mental spark toward sympathy that grew with the visits to the inmates’ shower, quarters, and eventually, the death chambers.
You might expect the places like gas chambers and the crematorium to be climaxes of the guided tours, but no, the air was too thick in those cold, damp cellar rooms. They were ominous despite their compact nature, striking though bland and sterile. This is where they killed the prisoners. Thousands more died just outside from starvation, exhaustion, or disease, but this was where the intent of their captors became painfully clear. This is where they stole souls and threw out the shells. And the thought that a human, no, an entire army of humans could take part in such acts filled us with horror and dismay.
We were shown new images as well, taken by the camp authorities themselves and smuggled outside as incriminating evidence as World War II drew to a close. Now, standing in the very spot where these photos were taken, we were even more affected by their subjects. We saw black-and-white facsimiles of the path we had walked in on, but in the photo it was framed by emaciated bodies staring at the cameras with animals’ expressions. There were photos of the washroom sinks we passed on our tour through the quarters, but in the photo a limp skeleton of a man in striped clothes dangled from the pipes, where he’d hanged himself. There were several pictures of that sort, and we were all silent as we witnessed the horror through short flashes of time.
For me personally, it killed me to think that not even the prisoners could commiserate while they were here. They were segregated into races or other groups, set upon each other by the appointment of internal guards, “kapos,” so that they couldn’t trust anyone—couldn’t befriend anyone. The Nazis completed their regime of torture quite thoroughly. This concentration camp—cesspool of greed, brutality, hostility, bitterness, sadism, and isolation—must have been a fair representation of hell.
Yet near the end, we found a ray of hope. Our guide beseeched us, as the new generation, to use this trip, and the emotions which it stirred, for good. Knowing that humans are capable of such terrible things is awful knowledge, but it must be known if atrocities are to be avoided in the future. That, in essence, was a goal many of us quietly internalized. We could begin even in the little things, fostering goodwill within our own communities, and that would at least lay the foundation for peace. If nothing else, some of us decided to never let injustice run without opposition.
That was our Mauthausen experience.