Saturday, May 1, 2010

Mauthausen




This is the day we've all been dreading.  It's one thing to read about Nazi Germany in our history books, to read excerpts from testimonials coupled with the tamest pictures the publishers could find.  It's one thing to know it.  It's another thing entirely to stand on the grounds, surrounded by cold stone barracks, and know that thousands died in this place for no good reason.


The grounds stretch out in front of us, vast, and impossibly still.  There's so much space.  I think back to those pictures in my history books, the ones where stick-thin ghosts are pressed tightly together with barely enough room to breath.  The empty barracks remind me of summer camp.  It's hard to reconcile the two images.


There isn't an inch of this place that hasn't been turned into a memorial.  The walls in the rooms stilled labeled "Showers" are covered in graffiti - hundreds of messages left in dozens of languages, all asking for the same things.  Peace.  Remembrance.  Begging future generations to not let this ever happen again.  The ovens in the crematorium are overflowing with flowers, ribbons, and cards, and in the grass around the buildings there has grown a monument garden, statues for every nation, religion, and political affiliation the Nazis attempted to quietly remove from the world.  




Strangely, the museum affects us more than the actual camp.  I wonder if everyone else is having the same problem as I am - the calm of the grounds masking the unspeakable tragedy.  The air doesn't even move between the buildings.  Maybe nature is trying to be respectful, but it just makes me anxious.  


The museum tells us that most of the people sent to Mauthausen were what the called the "intellgentsia", educated persons from higher social classes - teachers, artists, socialists.  Unlike Auschwitz or Treblinka, camps that specialized in instant extermination, Mauthausen practiced "Extermination through Labor."  They worked their prisoners to death.


The museum is full of pictures, the ones the publishers never put in our high school history books.  Bodies stacked high, waiting to be burned.  Men and women so thin you can't tell them apart standing naked outside the barracks.  Piles of personal belongings - glasses, scarves, watches, wallets.  There weren't many children sent to this particular camp, but in the corner of one photograph is a small pile of stuffed toys.  


There is one picture of the prisoners standing in line for roll call.  I can look out window and identify the building they are standing in front of, but it still doesn't feel quite real.  Maybe it's shame - I feel slightly dirty standing in this place, gawking at the aftermath of this tragedy, like because I don't have any relatives who were killed in the Holocaust (or like one girl in our group, relatives who did the killing) I don't deserve to be here.  But I'm shaken, like the rest of them.  I can't wait to leave.


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