Wednesday, June 03, 2015

mauthausen, take three

So one of the weirder things about directing a study abroad is that we get to have these once-in-a-lifetime experiences, uh,  more than once. I'm thinking about this as we begin the third program in Vienna. Do we go to all the old favorites or do we try to find new restaurants and experiences each time? One of the essentials is going to Mauthausen, which is about 2 hours outside of Vienna.

The students heading up to the camp.
The first time we came here, I had a 3-year-old and an 18-month-old. I brought kleenex with me because I thought I'd need it. Rob and I visited the camp together and left our kids with their Aunt Betsy just outside the gates (because she'd already been to Auschwitz and offered to forego this one). I didn't need the kleenex. I wasn't sad. I was nauseated. And Rob and I couldn't get out of there fast enough. The karma in that place was so bad that several decades was not enough distance between us. We wanted to get back out to the kids.
Joss hiking up the so-called Stairway of Death from the granite quarry. Prisoners were worked to death here. The had to carry stones on their back up these stairs. And these stairs have been reworked for the tourists like us--they were uneven and dangerous back then. Anyone who couldn't make it up with their load was shot on the spot.

Or pushed off the top of the cliffs here. Occasionally prisoners would jump. The nazis with their dark humor would call them "parachuters". Sometimes whole groups were sent over the edge, like the first Hungarian Jews who came. Actually most Jews who came to Mauthausen were exterminated sooner rather than later. I learned on my second trip that Mauthausen was originally designed as a work camp specifically for the political opponents of the Third Reich. That time I sat outside with a 1-year-old Joss at the new visitors' center during a drizzle. Turned out that I had some of the best exhibits with me. Mauthausen had more diverse inmates than many camps. So it began with political opponents, but also had other groups like gypsies and homosexuals. There were many partisans from places like Italy and Russia. Even Spain. In fact, it was two Spaniards and a local woman from Mauthausen named Anna who smuggled the negatives of SS record keeping photos out of the camp to prove what was going on. They were hidden in Anna's garden wall and used to convict some for the "unnatural deaths" and helped the Americans to find the gas chamber which had been dismantled and hidden before the SS left.

This was a disinfection room (actual disinfection) next to the showers. Inmates used it every 4 - 6 weeks.
I had thought that we went to this camp because of location, but that it was one of the smaller, less important sites. This time I read that Mauthausen is one of the best camps to see in Western Europe. During the war it was ranked according to conditions as a level 3 camp, meaning that it was for the most incorrigible of the thinkers and inmates. It wasn't built as an extermination camp--it was a built to work people to death. And it did. The numbers I read varied from 100,000 to 327,000 who died in Mauthausen and its associated camps (it became the head of about 40 satellite camps).
I also learned that it was the last camp liberated--May 5, 1945; a week after Hitler's death.

We let all of our kids go through this time. They all had audioguides, and we only kept Joss with us. We walked past all of the monuments outside. Each country who had inmates here has posted a national memorial to them. Then we walked down to the quarry. Finally we went inside the camp. Joss was super focused on finding the gas chamber, as only Joss can be. I gave up on seeing anything else and we headed directly there. First we came to this Room of Names.

It was overwhelming in the size and scope. Joss was struck by the blank spot here and wanted to know why they were still discovering people who had died here. Then he took me through that door in the back. It was shorter than usual, which I hate. Behind it was the gas cell where they released the pesticide, and the gas chamber. It wasn't very big.
After we came out of the camp, I took him down to the cafeteria and bought him his first Cappy (orange juice with mineral water). I said something like "That was some pretty sad stuff we just saw. what did you think about that?" to which he responded "Well, the only thing that I liked that wasn't sad was the fish."

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