Surreal Destinations: Mauthausen Concentration Camp, Vienna
There is no other feeling than to stand in the very place, very room, very spot where an unconscionable number of people lost their lives to evil.
Visiting the Mauthausen Concentration Camp in Mauthausen, Vienna brought me to my knees.
It is estimated that anywhere between a couple-to-a several hundred thousand people were murdered. Being in the presence of where there was unfathomable evil was simply surreal.
My travel group was privileged to have such a knowledgeable and passionate guide. With great wisdom he equipped us with maps from when the camp was in operation and maps from present day then directed our attention to the surrounding environment of the camp rather than start with the tour of the camp itself. Taking a look around, as the camp sat on a massive hilltop, we see typical views of the homes of the locals promptly sitting by next door with extended views of the town nestled passed the trees below.
With homes in such close proximity to the camp it begged us to wonder how the surrounding town did not know of the atrocities happening right next door and why they allowed it to happen if they did know.
The structure of power at Mauthausen, Austria during World War II was made clear to us. One of the first commanders of the camp tried using force and fear to pull the town into submission. This method proved to be a failure and he was replaced. After being replaced a later commander utilized ulterior motives.
By buying the produce from the farming families next door and other business owners in town the SS established themselves as a driving force for the local economy. The produce and other goods were in turn used in the concentration camps. The townspeople became economically dependent on receiving business from the Nazi regime and the establishment of their death camp. Further, the SS worked to establish relationships with the townspeople. The soldiers on the camp had their own soccer team which was a part of the local league – they actually played matches all across Austria! The townspeople were proud to have a local soccer team that was so skilled and won many matches. The locals even climbed to the hilltop where the concentration camp sat to attend soccer matches that were played just outside the walls of the camp. Truly unbelievable. Although the SS sought to keep their most horrendous operations mostly on the “hush hush” there were still occasions where prisoners were led passed to different areas of the camp while soccer games were being played. In these moments prisoners and their deprived lifestyles where exposed. A man, 15 years old at the time, recalled seeing a truck of dead bodies driving out the of camp during a match and it did not phase him. The nature of the camp became a way of life for many.
This isn’t to say the townspeople are absolved of all guilt because of the propaganda and seemingly economic dependency imposed on them. In fact, I am not all too convinced that these reasons are the driving force for the compliance of the locals. There is no reasoning in my mind that allows me to see that to be the case. I can only reason that they were people of such unimaginable hate themselves.
I say this because there are records of how the townspeople responded to prisoners and the treatment of them. A farm owner who sat at a higher altitude with views of the famous “Stairs of Death” submitted a formal complaint to the police department. She lived in the solo standing white house just above the Stairs of Death at the quarry where prisoners were forced to work carrying heavy granite up the stairs. In many cases prisoners died before they could even make it to the top. In summary, she stated that it was inconvenient to her that she had to view the torture and murder of men at the Stairs of Death – that no one should have to witness such horror. She requested that the site of those events be placed somewhere else where she didn’t have to see or that it all be stopped completely.
The audacity for her to feel inconvenienced by the sight of the torturing and murdering of human lives leaves me speechless. Though this goes to show the mindset of the locals at the time period.
Moving into the walls of the concentration camp we see the foundation of the barracks that have been taken down. Looking down the main street way we see barracks that have been left up. Standing inside a barrack I thought to myself: “this entire building is the size of the first floor of my parent’s house and hundreds of men were housed in one room within this building.”
We were told a story from a survivor whose son was imprisoned with him. The survivor awakened one morning to find his son dead and yet he was happy because he remembered his son had hidden away a piece of bread for himself and now that his son had died he could now have the piece of bread for himself.
Men were starved in that building. Men lay sick in that building. Men died in that building. Men lived truly deprived in that building.
We walked through the basements that held the gas chambers and the ovens where more murders happened. In these areas we did not speak. Even if we could there would be no words to serve the feeling that we felt any justice – that would serve the lives lost any justice. We simply looked. We soaked in the moment. We felt many things. We looked upon the memorials placed on the walls and floors of those who lost their lives in the gas chambers and ovens. We looked and walked and felt silently.
We gazed upon a field where the foundation of barracks were mostly overgrown. This area sat outside the camp walls. It was populated by prisoners who were no longer fit to work. They were placed within that compound and food was never delivered within its gates. The men were not to leave unless it was to dispose of their dead starved corpse.
Visiting as a black women I had to ask about any other black people in the area. I was told that there was one black boy in the local town. One of his parents, his father I believe, was a traveling American jazz musician. The boy grew up in the town and ran into very few problems until the Nazi regime came into power.
The lies. The hate. The propaganda. The manipulation. The tilted power structure. It all reminds me of the possibility of this very evil taking over again because it has never left. The evil was never defeated in the war it was only overpowered.
The US Army took over the camp in May 1945. Though the US was on the liberating side taking over the camp the politics of America in the present day compels me to see the evil that lies beneath. Such evils lead me to fear the possibility of future events similar to those of the past. The divisive rhetoric used to tug on a sense of fear from the masses against a make believe common enemy: Mexicans, Hondurans, Guatemalans coming for a better life or Blacks playing the race card because they are tired of seeing unarmed children, teenagers, adults murdered. Even hearing of all the Muslims who are terrorists so those from heavily populated Muslim countries are not welcome yet there are “very fine people” within the political hate groups who have conducted a white nationalist march that led to murder.
Evil has never left any country. It only seeks to grow and retake its power.
If there is no other reason to live in this dark world it is to be a traveling vessel of peace and light.