By Fyllis Hockman
The four central European capitals we visited on our Danube River cruise — Prague, Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest — overwhelmed with their impressive history, expansive promenades and architectural grandeur. But it was an experience in Linz in Upper Austria that made the most impact on me — a visit to the Mauthausen Concentration Camp, one of the first to be built and the last to be liberated.
As a teenager I first experienced the horrors of the Holocaust in some newsreel depictions of the liberation of some camps after the war — the emaciated survivors with their sunken eyes and gaunt bodies. My mother had told me of the Holocaust my whole life, and I said, "Mom, I finally understand." Now six decades later, I would come to understand even more.
Mauthausen, one of the largest of the camps, was built high upon a hill in Linz, where Hitler was once a resident, near a large quarry. The rationale behind concentration camps evolved over the war years from imprisoning people, enslaving them and engendering fear among the general populace to simply one of extermination. Mauthausen was considered a Level 3 Camp, where the guiding principle was that no one left. Everyone was to be killed by the SS officers who excelled at methods of mutilation and annihilation.
The roots of genocide, according to our guide, were fostered in anti-Semitism, an us-versus-them mentality, a dehumanization of others who are seen as "less." It was hard not to draw some parallels to today's world.
Many bodies engulfed "the stairs of death" that led to and from the quarry where malnourished and mistreated prisoners were forced to carry heavy stones up high stairs, often dying in the process. Others were simply pushed down the steps. It was difficult to hear the stories when they were so visually enshrined.
Other cases involved prisoners forced outside during winter over whom cold water was poured — a particularly appealing entertainment for the guards who delighted in "showering" people to death, even outside the actual gas chambers. Because any SS who shot an inmate trying to escape got extra days off, a favorite party trick was to entice prisoners into situations where they might appear to be escaping — and then shoot them.
Others, sick and beaten, died during daily roll call, a grueling process of standing in the heat or cold for four to five hours at a time and being forced to do exercises when most of them could no longer stand. I was overcome by a sense of helplessness and disbelief that these things actually happened — and no one stopped them.
Hundreds were housed in such horrendous conditions that the term "unsanitary" does not begin to describe the degradation. On the wall is a quote depicting the "wheezing, hissing, moaning, sobbing, snoring" that filled the nighttime air in 20 languages. "The noise fused into a single, terrible sound produced as if by a giant, monstrous being that had holed up in the dark." Another quote: "Anyone who hadn't been brutal when they entered the world became brutal here."
And then we went through the gas chambers, where thousands were killed and then the ovens where their remains were disposed of, with a side visit to the infirmary where unspeakable "experiments" were carried out.
Neighbors and the surrounding community ostensibly didn't know what was happening, despite being within earshot of the thousands of prisoners suffering and screaming. In fact, some complained about the noise but not about why it was occurring. The grandmother of our guide, who was 7 at the time, said she could smell the stench of the burning bodies; she knew something bad was happening but nobody talked about it.
Of the 200,000 prisoners who occupied Mauthausen from 1938 to1945, about half were killed. There were only 20,000 survivors when liberation finally came on May 5, 1945, with another 80,000 already too ill to benefit from the end of the war. Not surprisingly, the liberators were shocked at the condition of the prisoners.
Visitors had written signs on the walls in multiple languages: "RIP," "Never again" and "You won't be forgotten." Most touching to me was a simple drawing of an eye with a tear coming from it.
Most of the guards went home after the war suffering no consequences, and little was said about what they had done. According to our guide, it took Austria four decades to acknowledge its part in the Holocaust.
Multiple school groups of teenagers were there when we were, and I was grateful that they were learning about what happened here, but soon there will be no survivors to recall it, and the Holocaust will be relegated to the status of other historical occurrences students will learn about in school but to which they will not relate. There will be nothing to keep it from happening again. I only wish I could call my mother and tell her once again, that now I REALLY understand.
WHEN YOU GO
Our visit to Mauthausen was part of an itinerary arranged by Grand Circle Cruise Line: www.gct.com.
Fyllis Hockman is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
"The stairs of death" led to and from the quarry where malnourished and mistreated prisoners at Mauthausen Concentration Camp in Austria were forced to carry heavy stones. Photo courtesy of Victor Block.