Austria's Mauthausen Concentration Camp: Because Turning Away Shouldn't Be an Option

Yes, of course, the four capitals of Central Europe we visited on our Danube River cruise with Grand Circle ToursPrague, Vienna, Bratislava, and Budapest – were all wrapped in wonder, overwhelmed with their impressive history, expansive promenades and architectural grandeur. But it was an experience near Linz in upper Austria that most impacted me – a visit to the Mauthausen Concentration Camp, one of the first to be built by the Nazis, in 1938, and in 1945 the last to be liberated (below).

By way of a little background, as a teenager I had my first visual exposure to the horrors of the Shoa (aka the Holocaust) in some newsreel depictions of the liberation of some Nazi death camps after the war – the emaciated survivors with their sunken eyes, gaunt bodies and harrowed auras. I remember calling my mother, who had told me of the Holocaust my whole life, and said: “Mom, I finally understand.” Now six decades later, I came to understand even more.

Mauthausen, also one of the largest of the death camps, was built high upon a hill near a large quarry in the village of Mauthausen, now a 24-minute drive southeast of Linz, where Adolf Hitler was once a resident. The rationale behind the camps evolved over the years from imprisoning people, enslaving them in forced labor, and engendering fear among the general populace to simply one of extermination. And that was carried out in so many ways. Mauthausen was considered a "Level 3" camp, where the guiding principle was that no one left – everyone was to be killed in some way or other. The SS excelled at very efficient methods of mutilation and annihilation.

The roots of genocide, according to our guide, were fostered in anti-semitism, an "us vs. them" mentality, and a de-humanization 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” (above) leading to and from the quarry, where malnourished and mistreated prisoners were forced to carry very heavy stones up very high stairs and often died in the process. Others were simply pushed down the steps. It becomes difficult to hear the stories as they became so visually enshrined.

Other cases involved prisoners forced outside during winter over whom cold water was poured – a particularly appealing entertainment for the SS guards who delighted in “showering” people to death – outside the actual gas chamber showers, that is. 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. Stomach churning continues.

Others, sick and beaten, simply 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. It is hard to hear all of this – and my stomach clenched, my eyes teared, and I was overcome by a sense of helplessness and disbelief that these things actually happened – and no one cared.

In the barracks, posted explanations (above) detail the conditions, including hundreds housed in such horrendous conditions 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 night-time 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.” More gut-wrenching and stomach-churning.

And then we went through the gas chambers where thousands were killed and then the ovens where their remains were incinerated (below), with a side visit to the infirmary where unspeakable “experiments” were carried out.

And yet the neighbors and 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 seven 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 over its seven years of operation - their names inscribed on a wall of memory (below), about half were killed; there were 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. I imagine so too were the community members when they were finally exposed to what was really happening in their backyard. At this point, my stomach was in perpetual decompression mode. 

There are inscriptions on walls written by visitors in multiple languages, such as "RIP," "Never Again,"  and "You won’t be forgotten." A simple drawing of an eye with a tear coming down was the one I most related to.

Most of the guards went home after the war suffering no consequences and little was said about what they had done; no one talked about it. According to our guide, it took Austria four decades to acknowledge its part in the Holocaust.

There were multiple school groups of teenagers at the camp (above), and I felt thankful they were learning of the atrocities - many committed by their own ancestors - they otherwise would probably have no knowledge of. I wished I could understand what they were saying about their experience. History will take a turn as there soon will be no survivors left, no one to recount firsthand that this is what actually happened, and the Holocaust will be relegated to the status of other historical occurrences which the young will learn about in school but likely not much relate to. After all, who today really cares about the Crusades or the War of 1812? There will be no visceral understanding. It will have nothing directly to do with them. And there will perhaps be less heartfel motivation to keep it from happening again.

But most of all, I only wish I could've call my mother and tell her once again, that now I really understand… 


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