16 July 2010
We visited a concentration camp to experience the dark side of European history, no trip to Europe is complete without such a visit where one can attempt to gain an understanding of the atrocities committed and the hardships people have experienced at the hands of others.
Why is it that people are so inclined to follow, how can people do things in groups or under leadership that they would never normally comprehend doing as individuals?
Mauthausen Concentration Camp was initially setup as economic enterprise in 1938. If you include the sub-camps subsequently setup under the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp system it was the largest and most profitable of all Nazi concentration camps, even exceeding other famous camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is also known for being one of the toughest camps, being the only camp system in Europe lapelled as a ‘Grade III’ camp designed for the “Incorrigible Political Enemies of the Reich”. For the prisoners Grade III meant “Rûckkehr unerwünscht” (return not desired) and “Vernichtung durch arbeit” (extermination by work). It is impossible to determine exact figures as documentation was destroyed by the SS near the end of the war however it is estimated that the camp system held 85,000 inmates in January 1945 and the total death toll is thought to be between 122,766 and 320,000 for the entire complex.
Mauthausen is known for being set on a quarry site with a long stair case which became known as the Stairs of Death. The SS Nazi’s use to load the prisoners up heavily with a granite block and get them to walk them to the top, the prisoners were malnourished and very weak. Eventually a prisoner would fall or a guard would push one and the prisoners started a landslide of humans and granite down the staircase. On arrival at Mauthausen we watched a video where an ex-prisoner gave a personal account of seeing humans and rocks tumbling down the stairs, he couldn’t re-live the experience even after so many years and his voice broke and he sobbed when recalling the horrific memories.
I walked the monuments setup in memory of all the different groups who lost their lives; Jews, socialists, communists, anarchists, homosexuals, disabled, prisoners of war…
I walked the Stairs of Death and tried to comprehend its history. Ray asked us to pick up a rock from the camp, the reason he would explain later.
“Take this stone to remind you of me, whenever you are down or things seem hard just remember that someone somewhere has had it far worse, use this stone to help you find the good in your situation.” – In my own words this is the main part of a story Ray told us of another tour guide’s experience. This tour guide encountered a confused lady outside of Mauthausen a few years ago, in broken English the lady eventually conveyed that she was a survivor of the Concentration Camp who had not been back since the war, she was trying to decide if she wanted to go inside or not. Eventually she decided against going inside but gave a rock from the area to the tour guide as a reminder of what others have been through, something she may be able to take strength from in moments of hardship.