We left Spitzkunnersdorf early this morning. Juergen and Gerlinde fed us a delicious breakfast. We will definitely miss the family feeling at mealtimes - Gerlinde is an excellent cook. Juergen commented that Jared could probably learn to speak perfect German in about three months (he does have a knack for languages.). He also called me a “spy”, saying that I understand way more than I let on. I don’t know if that’s entirely accurate - I do think I pick up on conversations decently well in German, but I don’t know that I can attribute that to my understanding of German so much as picking up on the odd word here or there and figuring out context enough to make a decent guess. Learning new languages has always been a struggle for me. I think some would find this ironic, given my love of language, but the reality is that I rely so much on English for communication that I don’t think I’d ever learn a new language unless I was completely drowned in it, with no choice to come up for conversational air unless I learned to swim.
Whatever the reality in my understanding of conversations the last few days, I’m glad that I was at least able to pick up on some things or I think I’d have gone mad from silence. Being silent in a conversation has never really been a forte of mine.
Today was mostly a travel day. We drove through the Czech Republic and into Austria where we will stay in Salzburg for the next several days. On our way in we decided to stop at Mauthausen, a concentration camp outside of Linz in Austria.
I’ve done a bit of reading on Mauthausen tonight and am truthfully quite shocked I’d never heard of it until we did that bizarre and demented google of “good concentration camp to see near Salzburg”. I think most people who’ve studied the Holocaust have heard of camps like Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Dachau. Mauthausen has never been on my mental list of “major camps”, but the research I did tonight has left me feeling utterly ill. I am no novice when it comes to World War II research and Holocaust literature (Jewish culture junkie here), but there were things done at Mauthausen I’d never heard of before.
The sickening irony of Mauthausen, I suppose, is that it is in the most beautiful location. It is situated on the top of a hill overlooking a peaceful, rolling valley of farmland. It was chosen as a work camp shortly after the Anschluss because of this prominent location - it was supposed to be visible and intimidating. It is. It still is. Where Dachau is mostly torn down, Mauthausen is still a fortress with many of the buildings still up just as they were when it was a prison. Mauthausen became the center of the camps in the area - there were several hundred smaller ones, but Mauthausen was the largest and was designed to be the worst. Prisoners that were sent to Mauthausen were ones that had committed the worst crimes against the Reich, which meant that these prisoners were likely to be extremely intelligent individuals that the Nazis wanted to completely break.
Prisoners at Mauthausen were forced to haul extremely heavy granite rocks up what were known as the “Stairs of Death”. Prisoners would have to run as quickly as they could up the stairs and pray that the prisoner in front of them didn’t fall. It was common for a sort of domino effect to happen where one would fall and cause those behind him to fall as well. Those who survived this treatment were often led to the edge of the cliff where they were either shot into the quarry below or told to shove the person next to them into the quarry. The average weight of the prisoners there was something like 88 pounds.
Stepping into the gas chambers was like having all the wind knocked out of me. There were marks on the walls of prisoners writing last messages to their families. Claw marks trying to get out the doors.
Mauthausen today stands as a truly beautiful monument to those who fought. Because of its location, Mauthausen housed prisoners from dozens of countries. The yard where prisoners were once forced to work is now a memorial garden, where each country or group has erected a unique memorial to honor their citizens. There are some triumphant Hungarian men, standing together with their arms raised in defiance. A monument to the children who were brought to the camp where the figure of the child is a slide. There is an enormous menorah covered in rocks to honor the Jewish prisoners. The garden was peaceful and serene and healing.
It was hot today. Swelteringly hot. I was miserable after about ten minutes and dripping with sweat in the humidity. I’d left my water behind on accident in Juergen and Gerlinde’s car and I could feel the dehydration setting in. It felt a little petty to complain of such things in such a short time after so many had suffered more deeply than an hour of heat that would be solved with an air conditioner.
The actual death toll at Mauthausen is incalculable - so many of the records were destroyed that estimates range from 110,000 to more than 300,000. We’ll never know for sure - at least not in this life - but visiting places like this is important to me. We need to see Dachau and Mauthausen. We need to visit slave quarters in the southern states. We need to visit Internment Camps in the west. We need to see these places so that we can touch them and know that they are real. We need to look at evil through the glass darkly so that we can avoid looking at it eye to eye and do nothing about it. Visiting places like Mauthausen remind me to be more compassionate, to fight more intensely for the rights of others, and to stand up more firmly against institutions or individuals that threaten the rights all citizens should have to worship and live according to the dictates of their own conscience.