After the lovely town of Vienna, a town made up of charming winding roads, full of dazzling white horses, and bowls of hearty stew that actually chased the frost from your bones, we shifted gears. In Vienna we lived the high life – enjoying operas, ballets, and gourmet meals in government buildings. Our next stop made us appreciate that experience a whole lot more.
Mauthausen Concentration Camp.
When we arrived the wind whistled loudly, a light snow was falling, and all of us were putting on layer after layer – sweaters, scarves, and ear muffs. And as I zipped my coat up to the point where it covered my mouth I had the realization that prisoners of this camp never had the luxury of putting on a coat. And if I was chilled to the bone in my many layers, how frozen were those poor victims? Then to see pictures and know that they not only were lacking warm clothes, but the body fat to keep them warm… well it was a thought that gives me goose bumps whiles writing this post 6 months later.
We watched a film that depicted the living conditions of the camp – the horrible conditions and working the prisoners to death was a fun game to the Nazis. There was a flight of stairs that from the bottom didn’t appear to have a summit. Nazi soldiers would force the weak and malnourished prisoners to carry huge, heavy rocks up the endless staircase, hoping that one would run out of strength, fall, and cause an avalanche of deaths as he took all the people on the stairs below down with him.
We walked through the gas chambers, sleeping barracks, and burial ground. We read stories of people who died and those who managed to hold on until the camp was liberated. We watched video biographies of nearby neighbors who realized what was happening and risked their lives by hiding Jews. The video footage was unreal – the amount of dead bodies I saw during the 5 minute video clip was scarring. The things that these people had to deal with on a daily basis… well the truth is I can’t even imagine it.
The eeriest part was walking through the camp and knowing that you were standing where piles of dead bodies once were. You were in the concrete room where countless human beings were gassed to death. And you looked out the same iron-barred windows that terrified Jews peered through only a few decades ago.
I can’t explain what it’s like to see that terrible part of the human race’s history up close. It’s an experience that I wish everyone went through, but haunting memories I wish upon no one.
I only hope that we can all realize the horrible reality these concentration camps were and learn that history like this may never be repeated. These photographs won’t have the same impact on viewers as those of us who walked through Mauthausen Concentration Camp first-hand, but hopefully they artfully honor the countless victims who lost their lives and were permanently scarred by this horrible tragedy.
Next Stop: Munich