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Steps Back in Time...

September 25, 2015

Today's writing comes after getting back to our hotel from a group visit to the concentration camp at Mauthausen.  The father of a gentleman in my group had served in the 71st Infantry Division, and many of our stops on this 16-day tour have been based on the theme of following their actions and route of advance in WWII.  They liberated a sub-camp of Mauthausen, and while some of the group stayed behind, the history buffs headed out with me to visit a compelling location...

 

 A shot I took over the wall and looking out upon the victims' barracks...

 

I am always endeavoring to soften the blow of first time American travelers to Germany...  without thinking twice, they are prone to blurting out the words "Hitler," "Nazis," and "Concentration Camps" without a hesitation in the world.

 

But suppose you lived in the American South and had hordes of visitors coming in all the time, and the first thing they knew about your beloved home state or city was "slavery."

 

"Where were the slaves sold?"  

 

"Can you tell me what they did with the ships that had all of the dead slaves in them?  Why isn't there a memorial to them?"  

 

"Is the South afraid of facing its past?"

 

Germany is not.  It didn't have a choice, but the current generations are vehemently in opposition to the sins of one twisted and angry generation that brought the world into a savage war...

 

***

 

But Mauthausen...

 

It was stunning to see the vast array of nationalities and political views represented in the memorials to the dead...

 

Cubans

Chinese

Jehovah's Witnesses

Pacifists

 

As well as the slew of usual suspects to the Nazi mentality: Jews, Poles and other Eastern Europeans, Gypsies, Italian, Spanish, French, and Dutch socialists, resistors, and even British commandos who had parachuted into Europe to fight against the Nazis.

 

 

 

But I had a lot to learn today...

 

There were other "parachutists" as well: inmates were forced to jump off the top of the massive rock quarry to their deaths.

 

Mauthausen, after all, was an SS work camp, designed as its own self-contained "factory."  It's product was valuable stone used in the building of fortifications and defenses.  It was the brain child of Himmler himself.

 

 Himmler inspecting the quarry, climbing the infamous steps...

 

 

Mauthausen was classified as a so-called "category three camp". This was the fiercest category, and for the prisoners it meant "Rûckkehr unerwünscht" (return not desired) and "Vernichtung durch arbeit" (extermination by work).  It was a place of death - through a great deal of suffering.

 

 Survivors being fed by American soldiers after the camp liberation...

 

Another account I researched states the following:

 

An eyewitness report from Olga Wormser can perhaps give a hint of the life in the quarries: "Eighty-seven Dutch Jews were sent to the quarries separated from all the other prisoners. There they encountered the effeminate SS men known as 'Hans' and 'The blond Damsel'. These two with pick handles in hand flailed into this pathetic group who were digging in the mountainside. By eleven-thirty, 47 of the 87 lay dead on the ground. They were butchered, one after another, before the eyes of fellow prisoners helpless to do anything. That afternoon, four more were killed. They were taken to the cliff top and told to fight. When two dropped to the rocks below, the victors would go free. Two dropped, but the victors were immediately pushed to join them."

 

In one instance, after three "races" - carrying heavy stones - up and down the long stairway (known forever as the "Stairs of Death"), a group of the surviving Jews held hands and jumped to their deaths in one final act of disobedience to the darkness that had taken over Europe...

 

Another window into the hideous treatment of the prisoners comes from none other than Franz Ziereis, the camp commandant of Mauthausen.

 

 

 

He gave the following testimony on his deathbed, mortally wounded by American soldiers who shot him as he attempted to escape in civilian clothes:

 

 

 

"Himmler gave the order to load a 45 kilo stone on an inmate's back and make him run around with it until he fell dead. Himmler ordered us to establish a penal labor company according to this system. The inmates had to haul stones until they collapsed, then they were shot and their record was annotated "Trying to escape". Others were driven into a fence made of charged high-tension wire. Others were literally torn to pieces by the dog named "Lord" belonging to the camp commander Bachmeyer who sicced it on the inmates. On 30 April 33, inmates of the camp office were ordered to assemble the court yard. There they were shot like wild animals by SS Oberscharfuehrer Niedermeyer and the Gestapoagent Polaska. Altogether, as far as I know, 65,000 inmates were murdered in Mauthausen. In most cases, I myself took part in the executions."

 

"Frequently I joined in the shooting with a small calibre weapon. SS men were trained on the rifle ranges where inmates were used as targets. Reichsminister Himmler and SS Obergruppenfuehrer (Lt. General) Kaltenbrunner ordered me to kill all inmates if the frontlines approached Mauthausen. I had orders from Berlin to blow up Mauthausen and Gusen including all the inmates. All inmates were to be brought into the Gusen mine and blown up. The blasting was to be carried out by SS Obergruppenfuehrers Wolfram and Ackermann. Pohl issued the order "

 

Ziereis was hung by the inmates after he died while giving his testimony...

 

 

 

 

***

 

Most of what I have shared with you I have only discovered in reading as I write this post...

 

All I did know of Mauthausen was that it was one of the most brutal work camps - and that it was home to the infamous rock quarry and steps.  I had seen that photo a hundred times...

 

When we arrived at our bus stop, we walked all the way up the hill to the camp.  My group is full of people in their mid sixties.  It was not easy for all of them, but they were troopers.  It was a good mile and a half...

 

And for this visit and the memory of such horror and hatred, it was most absolutely fitting.

 

***

 

When our group finished touring the barracks and the gas chamber, we walked out to a giant, metal menorah that stood atop the rock quarry bluff..

And I finally viewed the stairs for the first time, in the flesh.

 

"I know you all are ready to head back, but you go ahead," I said.

 

"I have to walk those steps...  the historian in me compels me to do so..."

 

One of the guys accompanied me about halfway down the long, steep, stone road that led to the steps.

 

***

 

About halfway back up the "Stairs of Death," I stopped thinking about getting some perfect photograph for Instagram...  because my phone had run out of batteries.  I finally had a break from our over-connected, social-media-driven whirlwind to turn that noise off and let it soak in...

 

I pushed myself and went up the steps without pause, as though I was an inmate.  

 

 

 

150 was the count of the first, steep set - before four more short levels of steps brought the total to 186.  And that wasn't the end of it.  There was still that long, steep, uneven stone road which wound its way around the rest of the quarry face and back up to the camp gate on the top of the hill.

 

With my very modern American athletic shoes, it still hurt to walk on the stones, which were only softened up by the feet of thousands of laborers - and still to this day, so very uneven, pointed, and painful.

 

***

 

Our introduction to Mauthausen, which I will conclude with, was surprisingly fitting...

 

We took the tram from our lovely hotel on the main square to the central train station.  As we made our way down to the bus station adjacent to the terminal, we saw large groups of immigrants - who you have read or seen news clips about as they pour into Austria and Germany.

 

The police were there in force...  but so were relief organizations, who had baskets with bottled water, snacks, and such for them.

 

There was no hatred.  No shouting.  No ugliness.

 

And the immigrants had coaches waiting to take them to further processing centers.

 

No cattle cars.  No beatings.  No gas chambers awaiting them...

 

 Gas chamber entrance, which I photographed this afternoon...

 

I think I now understand why Germany and Austria have been so compassionate about absorbing in refugees of war...  

 

They have learned a mighty lesson.

 

And I did too...

 

May I never fall into that easy trap of judgment, indifference, and hostility that comes so easily to humans who feel threatened by differences in race, religion, and ethnicity.

 

 

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