As part of a recent trip to Austria I visited Linz and the small town of Mauthausen where the Nazis opened a concentration camp at a nearby granite quarry. Here I share my thoughts on the visit with you.
When I arrived at the train station in Mauthausen, I was already apprehensive about the visit I was going to make. I knew that this train station was the same station that prisoners would have arrived at. I was literally going to be walking in their footsteps. As I was leaving the station I noticed a plaque on the wall, a small thing that most people would have probably walked past and it was only a quick search on google that told me that actually it was there in memory of those thousands who had arrived at the station. The plaque was made of 51 old pieces of railway each with the name of a victim, symbolic of the thousands. It was only placed there in 2007.
I had planned on walking the 4km to Mauthausen Concentration Camp from the station however in the heat I decided to get a taxi instead. The taxi driver told me, as we were driving through the picturesque town, that we were following the route that the prisoners would have taken. They were marched through the centre of the town in plain sight.
When I arrived at the site of the camp I picked up an audio-guide from the information centre. The tour started at the camp gate that was mainly used by the SS but is the most recognisable thanks to pictures taken at liberation of camp inmates pulling down the ‘The Reichsadler’ (the Imperial Eagle atop a swastika). The tour then took me around the main camp walls and looked out at what is now just a large field surrounded by trees. During the camp’s operation it was the location of the camp infirmary, in reality the site of the death of thousands due to little medical care, which was next to the football pitch. The SS had a football team that entered the local league and the pitch became the host to many visiting football teams. The local citizens of the nearby towns were invited to watch the popular matches in the camp grounds.
The next section of the camp has many memorials that have been placed there since the liberation of the camp, the first was only a few months after the camp had been liberated. The first memorial wasn’t clear which country it was from, however, after finding the name Peter van Pels, I realised that it was a memorial to the Jews deported from the Netherlands. Peter had been in hiding with Anne Frank before they were discovered and had been sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. In the last months of the war Peter was forced on a Death March to Mauthausen where it’s believed he died in the last few days of the war.
There are many memorials in this area of the camp and the politics of them are clear to see. Many of the memorials are very masculine and it wasn’t until the 1970s that a memorial for the female victims was erected and it was only in the 1990s that one for the Roma and Sinti was placed there. The most impressive was a large sculpture in the shape of a menorah. However, the most moving in my opinion was the memorial to the Slovenian victims – a sculpture of a skeletal man reaching to the sky for freedom.
Although it wasn’t accessible to the public, due to the current state of the stairs making it dangerous, from the edge of the camp I could see the ‘Stairs of Death’ leading into the quarry. The camp at Mauthausen was built on the edge of a granite quarry so that the forced labourers could work in the quarry. The German occupiers even created a new company to export the granite. The quarry and the Stairs of Death became the site of the death of thousands. Many died on the Stairs as they carried large granite blocks up to the camp, or simply collapsed from exhaustion and starvation. Others were abused and murdered in the quarry. The guards would force them to walk off the edge of the quarry and nicknamed them ‘the parachutists’. They even forced other prisoners to push each other over the edge.
I entered the main camp through the entrance that most of the prisoners would have used and where they were processed on arrival. The barracks that are in the camp now are reproductions as the camp was destroyed after liberation, as were the barbed wire fences. The barracks were designed to hold around 300 prisoners, but from early 1944 they held over 2000. The camp guards placed ‘superior’ prisoners in charge of each block. In many instances these guards were just as brutal, if not more, than the SS guards. The camp even had a brothel where female prisoners brought from Ravensbrück concentration camp worked. They had been offered their freedom if they did so, but this never happened. Some of the prisoners (non-Jews) were allowed to access the brothel if they had pleased their captors. On the other side of the barrack that was used as a brothel was the wire fence. The electrified fence was where many prisoners ‘escaped’ their imprisonment by committing suicide, but it was also the site of murder when guards forced prisoners to walk into the fence. A rubbish dump on the other side of the fence became known as the ‘ash-heap’ after mid-1944, when the crematoria could no longer handle the ashes of those being killed and so they were dumped with the rubbish. Today a simple cross marks the spot. Next to the ash-heap is the field that was known as the ‘tent-camp’ where, from 1944, thousands of Hungarian Jews were placed in tents after marching from the Hungarian border to Mauthausen whilst they awaited their death in the gas chamber.
The museum at Mauthausen explains how the camp grew from a small camp holding political prisoners to a camp that held countless forced labourers, which killed thousands in its gas chamber and through hard labour. The museum had lots of artefacts relating to everyday life in the camp, the victims, the perpetrators and the Holocaust in general. One thing that the museum does very well is that it doesn’t shy away from the fact that the general public knew what was happening at Mauthausen and that they chose to ignore it. Alongside newspaper cuttings about the SS football team was a marriage certificate of one of the SS guards to a local girl. In the final months of the camp, hundreds of Soviet POWs escaped, but only 11 survived as the locals helped track them down in an event known as the ‘Mühlviertel Hare Hunt’. Here, it could be argued, that the locals were not only bystanders but collaborators in the murder of thousands at Mauthausen.
The final part of the museum is in the basement and leads you through the ‘Crime Scenes of Mauthausen’ which explains how prisoners were tortured and killed in the camp. At the end of the exhibition there are the three crematoria that still remain. Around the crematoria, family members have placed photos and plaques to their relatives that were killed there. After the crematoria there is a dark room known as the ‘Room of Names’ where the 81,000 known names of victims are written. Many victims’ names are not known. The final room is the remaining gas chamber. The small room next to the chamber is where the gas was administered into the ventilation system of the small room. The ventilation system and the pipes, disguised as showers, can still be seen. Thousands lost their lives in this small room. I can’t really put into words how I felt standing there.
The day that I spent at Mauthausen was incredibly hard and emotionally draining but so important. Educating about where prejudice, racism and xenophobia can lead is incredibly important in today’s world of intolerance. The sites of the camps are essential in doing this because, at these sites, millions were killed for having the wrong colour skin, being born into a different religion or ethnicity, having different political views, because of their sexuality, or for simply ‘not fitting in’.
Hannah May Randall