by Karen Rubin
It’s that moment when you walk through the showers – into the gas chamber and see the physical means of extermination, that the unfathomable, becomes real. This is the experience now at Mauthausen Memorial Center, the infamous concentration camp in Austria. But the experience we have that is so mortally affecting, will soon be ended because the administrators intend to close the gas chamber to the public – visitors will only be able to peer through small windows. They plan to introduce a “new concept” in the way Mauthausen is presented, one that is less “emotional” and more focused on “historical” interpretation of the unimaginably horrific events that went on here.
That means you would not actually see the shower room, or the oven that is right outside, and you are only going to be able to peer at the actual double-oven where thousands and thousands of human beings were incinerated through the shielded, distorted screen of a window. And you won’t be able to see how the walls are lined with photos, letters, tributes and memorials to loved ones snuffed out as if they did not deserve to exist at all.
You would not have the utter shock at how small, how ordinary the shower room is or see the stained white tile, low ceiling, cramped room, the pipes hung from the ceiling.
You would not have the horror of seeing the oven that also looks ordinary, like you might see for baking bread, without knowing its purpose.
You would not fully be able to appreciate how, in a separate room, where two of the original crematoria are located, people have laid flowers and trinkets on the open oven doors.
The photos and letters and tributes that line the walls would also be closed – the photographs of faces, the feeble attempts to remind you that these were people, with families, who were reduced to nonhuman things.
Pietr, a guide, tries to explain that the reason the crematorium is being shut to visitors is because school children who are brought on field trips to visit the “memorial center” are ghoulishly eager to see the gas chamber.
The solution, then, would be to not bring such young children through the crematoria.
But to close off this first-hand, face-to-face encounter with history to adults – perhaps the survivors of those who were murdered and cremated there – is adding to the crime, making the pledge “Never Again” more hollow.
Detour From the Danube Bike Trail
Of course, I had heard of Auschwitz, Bergen Belsen, Buchenwald, Treblinka, but I had never heard the name “Mauthausen” until we were setting off on our Danube Bike Trail from Passau, Germany to Vienna, Austria, and were being prepped by the bike tour outfitter, Justin. He was laying out the route – which side of the Danube the trail was best, where we would be staying each night, and important sights to visit along the way.
Mauthausen Concentration Camp, he said, and showed us how we needed to find the road leading up to the site.
Mauthausen? It was the biggest in Austria, he said, the place where prisoners from dozens of countries were sent, especially in the last days of the Third Reich. It was the last concentration camp liberated, so that in the final days of the war, it was a frantic killing machine.
And it turns out this is where Hungarian Jews were exterminated, very possibly my family among them.
There are just two original barracks left of 14, the shower room, coal room and gas chamber. The building is behind the woods, which were planted there after the war, he tells us.
We do not make it there on the day we traveled past because we linger too long in Linz (ironically, where Hitler grew up, though I only realize that afterwards since that was no mention of him in the city).
But we are determined to visit, so on our third day, we backtrack, reaching Mauthausen by 10 am and wound up spending more than four hours there, even doing our best to “rush” through in order to get to our next night’s lodging by nightfall.
The camp is on the hilltop high above the city, amid pastoral landscape and charming homes. We learn that it would have been much the same then – the families of the SS and the bureaucrats who worked at Mauthausen would have lived in the town and in the surrounding farms; after the war, when the camp was closed, there was a scramble for developers to come in and build homes. One of the SS family’s farms is a biergarten today, I find the sign I pass along disturbing as I contemplate what I will be seeing.
To get to Mauthausen by bike, you have to climb and climb and climb and climb, up a 14% grade – extremely difficult to bike (though David and Eric manage), and even to push the bikes up the winding mountain road. I am sweating as I push my bike, and imagine how they would have gotten the materials up this road to build the camp.
Finally, at the summit of the hill, this massive fortress comes into view. You think that it must have been here for hundreds of years, built, you imagine, over a period of years.
But I soon learn that there was nothing here before 1938. The first inmates arrived at Mauthausen from Dachau concentration camp on August 8, 1938, five months after the annexation of Austria to the German Reich. They built the fortress-like camp and the barracks from scratch.
It is horrifying to contemplate that Mauthausen started as a private enterprise. The location was determined primarily by the presence of granite quarries to supply an SS-owned company, Deutsche Erd and Steinwerke GmbH with building materials for monumental and prestigious buildings in Nazi Germany.
From 1942, the inmates were being used increasingly to work in the armaments industry. At the end of 1942, there were 14,000 inmates at Mauthausen, Gusen and a few satellite camps.
By 1943, the priority at Mauthausen changed again: unlike many other concentration camps intended for all categories of prisoners, Mauthausen was used mostly to exterminate through labor the intelligentsia – educated people and members of the higher social classes in countries subjugated by the Nazis.
From the second half of 1944, thousands of inmates were evacuated from other camps, particularly from the east, into Mauthausen. In the spring of 1945, the satellite camps to the east of Mauthausen and the forced labor camps for Hungarian Jews were closed down and the prisoners driven in death marches towards Mautheusen. By March 1945 there were more than 84,000. This led to enormous overcrowding; hunger and disease increased death rates.
I am surprised to realize that Mauthausen was so international in scope – all told, there were prisoners from 30 countries, including Poland, Soviet Union and Hungary who represented the largest groups, plus Germany and Austria, France, Italy, Yugoslavia and Spain. The large number of Jewish inmates from Hungary and Poland who arrived after May 1944 had the lowest chance of survival.
I didn’t know any of this when we leave our bikes and enter a modern Visitor Center which was opened in 2003. I have to ask for an audio tour (which is included with the admission fee). It is hard enough to process what you are seeing but it would be almost incomprehensible without the audio tour. You can also take a guided tour for an extra fee.
There is also a comfortable (and cool) cafe and an exhibit area, which seem incredibly incongruous to what you experience once you leave the center, and walk through the gate into the camp, and try to comprehend the deprivation and suffering that went on here.
We walk through the first gate and find ourselves in a large courtyard, still outside the actual camp. this would have been where the SS barracks, administrative offices and recreational areas for the SS guards and workshops would have been.
This walled area, the Garagenhof, was used by the SS for celebrations, as an assembly area for inmates during delousing actions, and in the early days of the camp, was where inmate corpses were kept in a room next to the stairs.
We climb the steps. The stone SS headquarters where the concentration camp commandant’s offices were located has been turned into a cafe.
It is only then, that we come to the gate into the concentration camp. There are stone tablets of commemoration by the US Army, “in recognition” for their actions liberating the camp in May 1945, the last camp to be liberated. One of the tablets has a little footnote, “In Memory of All Mauthausen Victims.”
It is at this gate, the only entrance in or out of the camp, where life as they knew it was violently taken away.
Newly arrived inmates had to form up at the “Wailing Wall,” where they were made to wait hours, if not days, in complete terror.
“Some were bound, beaten. They were left there through the cold winter’s night without coat. For many, it was a death sentence.”
The first stop for the new inmates was registration. But the process involved violence and torture, making it crystal clear that they had hit a radical turning point in their lives.
“Heavily guarded and tormented by the SS, new detainees were spanked and humiliated, beaten from the time got off train.”
I listen to the audio tour, as Alberto, an inmate in 1944, recalls “an enormous gate… opened and swallowed us.. barbed wire, electrified, ghostlike creatures…. like shadows in night… apparitions.
“Everything was taken in trade – jewelry from those waiting, promising … removed edibles from luggage.. By daylight the SS and kapos had taken their jewelry.”
It is shocking to hear this commentary because you have the image of people who could not have contemplated the level of barbarity they would face; that they would have imagined they were going to a work camp with some semblance of society.
There would be a line up and roll call, and shouted orders: Left-Right, Left Column, Right. Take clothes off.
“Other detainees shoved us, into showers. One room had a heap of underwear – the smaller you were, the bigger the underwear and vice-versa.”
At the end of this process, “We hardly recognized each other. There was the shock of admittance.
We were torn from normal lives. Deprivation, mutilation, humiliation, dehumanization. We became a number instead of a name.”
There were regular roll calls, three times a day in the early years and twice a day after 1943. Some lasted for several hours, some for days – once it lasted 3-4 full days – especially on rainy days (another inmate recalls.
Some were like military drills. There would be a sudden order and they would be marched back to blocks.
“Roll calls were about bureaucracy and control. The strategy of power is subordination Attention, perfection, straight rows.”
Executions were performed in the roll call area – inmates who had been caught escaping.
I wander into one of the barracks where there is a special exhibit. Interestingly, it is in English, though it should have been in German – I am jarred by the sounds of beating, and screams and art work by former inmates, describing the torment.
The exhibit turns out to be a temporary display by a Polish group from Auschwitz. It focuses on the strategic destruction of Poland – the propaganda which made being Polish subhuman. At the camp, Poles, Jews and Gypsies are a special class of “non-worthiness”.
The exhibit – with sounds of beatings of dogs, of orders being barked – is chillingly terrifying. It is done with a video of artwork, created by former inmates. My stomach is in knots, I feel intimidated just listening, and looking at these projected line drawings created by survivors.
I continue to listen to the audio tour: Some prisoners worked for the SS. they got better conditions, and had the power to assign some prisoners to easier detail.
To minimize the cost of operating the camp, prisoners had self-administration, which also prevented solidarity among them.
Those who were selected for these roles had better clothes, easier work, and a better chance of survival. what is more, they could select others for better situations in order to give them a better chance of surviving.
The ones who were selected for this role were members of a nation deemed “superior”. They also were chosen from classes of “criminal” or “political” prisoners, especially if they had a degree of brutality, or language skill, or education, or the “backing of political or national party.”
“They engaged in physical and psychological terror….Only a few used their position to help prisoners. They were accountable to a particular SS officer.”
There was sexual exploitation as well – an incentive and reward for special prisoners. A women’s concentration camp provided prostitutes for 6-12 months at a time. Then the women were returned to their camp where they were punished for being prostitutes, forced to have abortions, and not given proper medical treatment.
In 1940, a prisoner could buy from a canteen – those who had relatives to send money or who had earned “bonus” coupon (1943) for working in armaments manufacture workshops.
In what I imagine was the early days, when the camp’s priority was forced labor, prisoners might get an hour of “free” time a day – which was spent lining up for the washroom, cleaning and making bed, visiting the camp doctor, buying or stealing food on the black market.
Once in 4-6 weeks, they had shower; mail was delivered twice a month. In 1942, they were even able to get food parcels.
Barracks 6 and 11 were designed to accommodate 300 inmates. But over the course of the war, Mauthausen became the collecting place for inmates from all over the system. Sometimes up to 2,000 inmates were housed in the barracks, sleeping in shifts.
Barrack 11 was for children and adolescents, 13-19. Children were brought into the camp beginning in 1940, arriving with Spanish prisoners. Ultimately, there were more than 7,000 children, from dozens of countries.
Children were used as slave labor and were not treated differently from adults, though adult companions might help them overcome some of the harsher treatment. Like the adults, who had a hierarchy of status and treatment, Soviet and Jewish children were at the bottom of scale and suffered the most violence.
Some children were used as personal assistants to SS and were exploited, sometimes sexually.
Between 1941 and 1945, Barrack 5 was the Jewish block. Jews were treated much harsher than other inmates – they were given just half the ration and the staff who were their overseers, were drawn from the criminal class, and stole what meager rations they had. The Jewish barrack was fenced in with extra barbed wire. From work, instead of having an hour “free time,” they were marched straight back to the block. They wore different clothes and had no coats in winter, no access to medical treatment. They were victims of medical experimentation throughout. The conditions were designed to systematically exterminate them. Most Jews were killed soon after arrival.
Dutch Jews were a large group, 1941-2, only nine months after Germans occupied Netherlands. “They were deported to force capitulation to Nazi control.”
Running behind Barrack 5 was a barbed wire fence electrified with a 380 volt charge. Many inmates died at the fence either by committing suicide or as a result of supposed escape attempts. Inmates were also pushed to their death over the “Parachute Jump”. The SS referred to those who were killed this way as “parachutists.”
A Viennese survivor named Herzler recalled. “Most died a painful death within a few days of transport.”
At the Stairs of Death, “they would have to haul 100 kilo stones for road construction, and were beaten to death or shot if they didn’t keep up. Some committed suicide or were driven to their death – off the wall or into the electrified fence. There was mass killing of psychiatric patients.”
From 1938-1943, most of the inmates were forced to work in the Wiener Graben quarry, where innumerable inmates were worked to death there by the SS.
We wander over to the very back of the camp, a field today, where during the time of the concentration camp, there would have been a whole series of barracks. Beyond the fence, a sign shows were there would have been the ash dump from the crematorium, “the bureaucratic administration of death.”
In the beginning, the authorities “would have issued a death certificate and sent a letter of condolence – with the true cause of death concealed. Ashes were sent to relative for a fee, but rarely were the ashes of their actual relative.
“In the last weeks of war, they burned the records, but some were salvaged by an inmate and handed over to allies.”
The numbers of victims are in the hundreds of thousands, but that did not even include those who died on arrival, or in transport, or on forced march.
Last Days of the Camp
My visit so far answers a question that had always perplexed me: why the inmates, knowing that they would almost certainly be killed, why they did not rush their captors. I realize that at the start, when Mauthausen was a labor camp, they could not have imagined this was the intent, but that from the first instant, they were weakened, dehumanized, and there were these layers and layers of insulation.
Then, I come upon a memorial plaque that is most affecting, and shows that despite all that was done to make sure that the inmates were denuded of any semblance of their humanity, the spark could not be completely extinguished:
“On Sept 6 and 7 1944, 40 Dutch and 7 British special agents who had dropped over German occupied territory were killed here by Nazi and bodies buried. At grave risk, nine of the Yugoslav and Russian prisoners buried the ashes of war heroes at this place.”
The most painful part of the audio tour relates the catastrophe of the last remaining weeks in the camp as you contemplate the feverish pace of needless death.
“The winter 1944-5 was the cruelest in the concentration system. The SS transported tens of thousands from concentration camps in Soviet Union and from Germany and Austria – all to Mauthausen- In mid-winter, on ships on the Danube or forced march. If they couldn’t keep up, they were shot. These were death marches. From Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen….”
In 1944 there were 73,000 here and the camp was overcrowded; then, over 20,000 more added. It was beyond overflowing;
The prisoners were weak on arrival. There was little food, medicine, clothing, or shelter. They tried to accelerate death. Several hundred died each day – the crematoria couldn’t keep up; there was a lack of coal.
There were 100 assigned to a work detail, as one survivor relates, “We shoveled for 12-hour shifts, day and night to make mass grave. At midnight, in the rain, we would eat soup. We used bodies to rest on, during the half hour break.”
A Spanish survivor describes the last few days in the camp before liberation: “In 1945, we had roll call for the last time, then the SS handed over control of the camp to a unit of Viennese firefighters, as two American reconnaissance cars arrived. The SS guards fled.
“The hope of liberation was mingled with fear of return of SS. We spent two nights without sleep, preparing.” They made a welcome banner, 1.5 meters by 20 meters, to greet the arrival of the liberators in English and Russian, and placed flags. We had to work in a hurry.
“We met in a block and decided to persuade the Viennese to give over weapons for our own defense. Almost immediately, the liberators came. News spread. The Viennese, seized with fear, vanished from the camp.
Mauthausen concentration camp was the last to be liberated, May 5, 1945.
“They were liberated too late – many died within weeks or months of liberation.”
Among the inmates liberated from the camp was Lieutenant Jack Taylor, an officer of the Office of Strategic Services who managed to survive with the help of several prisoners and was later a key witness at the Mauthausen-Gusen camp trials carried out by the Dachau International Military Tribunal.
Another of the camp’s survivors was Simon Wiesenthal, , an engineer who devoted the rest of his life hunting Nazi war criminals.
Out of approximately 320,000 prisoners who were incarcerated in various sub-camps of KZ Mauthausen-Gusen throughout the war, only about 80,000 survived.
Near Demolition of Camp after Liberation
What we see today of Mauthausen Concentration Camp, now the Mauthausen Memorial Center, is very much changed from the way it was, and the transformation began immediately, even before Liberation, May 1945.
In the days before liberation, the SS attempted to remove the gas chamber and the Execution Site.
Prisoners took pieces away; the Americans started to dismantle the camp and then the Soviet Army, which controlled the camp from 1945-46, dismantled much of it. By June 1947, when the Soviet occupying force handed over the camp to the Republic of Austria, most of the inmates’ barracks, the still-existing SS barracks and the quarry installations were removed.
In 1948, the site was sold and buildings demolished to allow for residential development.
But there were those who wanted the camp to be preserved as a memorial. The Mauthensen Memorial Center was officially opened in 1949 with five of the original buildings still standing.
In autumn 1949, France unveiled the first national monument on the site of the former SS administrative barracks; a number of other nations and victims groups also put up monuments.
I find myself in a Church chapel, wondering whether it was there during this unholy period, until I learn later it was erected in 1949 in what would have been the laundry barracks, above a cellar where there would have been showers, a disinfection room and the heating system. It only adds to my general disorientation and confusion in this place, now mostly vacant, open, sanitized.
Beginning in the 1950s, groups came back and set up memorials.
9,860 bodies were found in a mass grave. In the early 1960s, a cemetery was installed inside the Mauthausen Memorial and the remains of concentration camp victims were transferred there from the SS mass graves and from the American cemeteries in Mauthausen and Gusen. More than 14,000 victims were buried in camp II and the area of inmate barracks 16 to 19.
There are only a few barracks that are standing – a couple house exhibits which are either in English (and should be in German), or in German (and should have English translation), so it is hard to gather more than a superficial understanding of what they are about. I see a display with numbers and a Star of David that says “Schicksal der Juden” and learn later that means “fate” or “destiny” of the Jews” but the numbers still don’t make sense, and what happened to Jews was hardly “destiny” or even “fate.” Individuals made a decision to exterminate an entire ethnic group.
Other barracks are completely stripped clean and have light streaming in from windows, so it is hard to even begin to comprehend the conditions that people lived in.
This is why seeing the gas chamber and cremation ovens is so important. It is the real evidence of what transpired here. But the authorities plan to shut down the gas chamber and crematoria to visitors in favor of a more “historical” less “emotional” presentation.
Memorials from Many Countries
Outside that horrible gate, such as you would see at a castle or fortress, and the Wailing Wall, there is now a garden-like setting for memorials. It is here where you comprehend the numbers of nationalities, ethnic groups that were persecuted: Italy, Greece, Hungary, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Soviet Union. the Italian memorial is crammed with photos and mementos.
At the far end, overlooking the countryside, but where I think the quarry, the Stairs of Death and the Parachute Jump would have been, is a tall menorah, the memorial for the Jews.
People treat the memorial as they do a tombstone to a loved one, and place a rock there, a tradition which shows we are never finished building the monument to the deceased, to show visitors that follow that others have paid their respects, and to show in the only way we can, the continuing presence of love and memory which are as strong and enduring as a rock.
I place my own rock on a pile. At this point, my body convulses and I sob as I did at Yad V’ashem, the World Holocaust Center in Jerusalem, where there is a separate chapel room for the million Jewish children slaughtered.
Mauthausen was distinguished because it had prisoners from 30 different countries, who were identified by their uniform, by colors and letters and triangles as to who they were and where they came from, and where they were on the hierarchy of abuse. Jews, distinguished by the extra yellow star of David they wore on uniforms that were a different color from the rest, were the lowest rung, and singled out for extra abuse.
The figures that are provided do not indicate how many Jews were here – but of the 200,000 or so prisoners (it is unclear how many prisoners were here altogether), the largest group, 20% were from Poland and Hungary (part of the Poles and all of the Hungarians were Jews); less than 10% were from Austria and Germany; then France, Spain, Italy and Yugoslavia.
If there were such a thing as ghosts, surely this place would be haunted, the souls of the tormented, those whose lives were sucked from them so brutally, would continue to howl.
It is hard to find your way around – it is very disorienting when you arrive – I didn’t realize that there was a see-through plastic sign outside a structure which had a number on it that corresponded to the audio. – didn’t even know where the gas chamber was until Eric took me there. He had been there earlier, and now found the entrance closed, and he was unnerved by that.
There are various exhibits which are very affecting because of their photos, but they are either entirely in German, or entirely in English (that is the one that was most affecting, the temporary exhibit from Auschwitz, which should have been in German).
It is almost as if there is an ambivalence surrounding this place, which can be explained because of Mauthausen’s location, in such proximity to the town below and farms around, which would have existed in during the Holocaust, as well.
Pietr, one of the guides here, reflects, “Mauthausen was a typical small town. The houses where SS officers lived, today are where regular people live. Their forbears lived here when the concentration camp was built and when it operated. It is a heritage that people would rather not herald, or even remember.”
But some people did stand up to prevent it from being turned over to a housing development, and made it a “memorial center.”
Peitr, the guide, tells us how got interested in the Mauthausen. “At 18, I could either go to army or do civil service, so I did this, and then I wanted to carry on.”
Visiting here is very different from Auschwitz, which gets about 1.5 million visitors a year. “Auschwitz is so iconographic, so much of a tourist place,” Pietr says. “Some come to Auschwitz just to take a photo at the entrance and leave.”
“Auschwitz is such a shocking place. You can’t see the end of the camp. There, you have three main camps.”
Buchenwald has two miles of empty space. Buchenwald is so huge “you get lost there,” he says.
Mauthausen, though, has a more powerful emotional impact, he says, largely because of its setting and size.
Mauthausen, which gets about 300,000 visitors a year – a fraction of the number who visit Auschwitz – is well known to Europeans, because its prison population was the most international, and anyone who would tackle the steep, winding road to get here wants more than a picture at the gate.
ou see that in the memorials that have been constructed, and in the signatures in the visitor book - people from Spain, Italy, France.
Pietr explains why the decision is being made to close the gas chamber to visitors: “The plan is to make it less emotional and more historical experience.
“It’s hard for kids of Austria to have that emotional connection – it was their grandparents who weren’t the prisoners but the ones in the towers.”
The plan is to develop 4-5 new exhibits over the next 5 years, he says.
The visitor experience, though, could be improved by an introductory video in the Visitors Center, better maps and guides, more translations of material into English and other languages (as well as German translation for the exhibits that are in English), and clearer numbers that conform more to a walking-tour route.
Be sure to ask for free audio tour, or take a guided tour, 9E extra) – ask for Pietr – who knowledgeable and passionate and can put what you see into context.
Much of what I learned I researched after my visit, but the visit sparked nagging questions.
The visit charges you with responsibility: you become a caretaker of the memory and the deliverer of the message.
Mauthausen Memorial (KZ-Gedenkstatte Mauthausen, open 9-5:30 pm, last visitor admitted 4:45 pm, adults 2E, students with ID, 1E, family ticket 480E, free admission for relatives of survivors; Erinnerungsstrasse 1, A-4310 Mauthausen, +43 7238-2269-0, email email@example.com, www.mauthausen-memorial.at).
See more photos at slideshow
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