Mauthausen Concentration Camp: Never Forget
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.