A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit Mauthausen, a concentration camp east of Linz, Austria, where I am studying abroad. Refi, the program at my university for exchange students, packed more than eighty exchange students from all over the world into one double decker bus for the 40 minute drive into the countryside. Without knowing that the camp was there, I would have described the area as incredibly scenic. From the top of the hill, you could see countryside for miles to your left and on the right the Danube River. However, when we drove up the winding road to Mauthausen, the only thing I could focus on was the massive stonewalls and barbed wire of the camp.
Our tour guide walked us through the grounds first before we entered into the actual camp. He showed us the large field outside where prisoners would stand in all weather while nearby SS guards would play a leisurely game of soccer. The tour guide gave us a lot of insight into the mindsets of the prisoners, guards, and the surrounding farmers witnessing the tragedy. We continued to walk the perimeter of the camp and came upon a lookout point where you could see down into the granite quarry and the “Stairs of Death”.
Prisoners were forced to go into the quarry and carry large granite blocks on their backs and back up the steep stairs. On the way up, many were taken aside and beaten. On various occasions, one prisoner would be pushed down the steps, causing a domino effect on the rest of the prisoners. Once they were injured, many were shot on the spot or left to get sick from infection and filth.
Once we took a moment of silence looking at the memorials outside of the camp, we made our way into the compound. The tour group walked in the footsteps of prisoners when they came to the camp. We were guided to the wall where they stood and were told to strip all their clothes and belongings. SS guards often made the prisoners stand in the same spot all night long in the freezing cold with no food or water. Next, they went to the cellar of the “laundry” building and packed in 100 people into a shower room. They were showered with freezing cold water and given a number badge they had to wear at all times. The process they took coming into camp was in order to demoralize them and make them feel like just a number.
It was hard to imagine the reality of the situation inside the camp because it was so incredibly empty. When the camp was in use, the rooms were packed 150-300 people deep. The beds they slept in were sardined in a small room, with at highest capacity, three people to a bed.
It’s impossible for me to describe to you the heaviness of the Mauthausen prison camp. I had a pit in my stomach the whole time visiting there. However, the place where I felt most moved, and quite frankly very upset, was the basement of the “hospital.” This was where the prisoners were put to their death by breathing in gas or by a bullet in the head. As you descended the stairs into the basement, you walked through a memorial of the entire camp and a timeline of the events that happened there. I wish I had a chance to read everything in the museum. There were artifacts from individuals living there and evidence of the atrocities committed every day.
From there you were led into a room of memorials of the individuals that perished in that room. There was a glass case of photographs of men who were murdered in the camp, many of whom did not reach the age of 30. Countries from all over the world left memorials there for citizens of their countries who were murdered. Families wrote stories about their family members who were held there. One of my favorite ones was from a survivor of the camp who went on to move to the Chicago Area. He was forced to dig his own grave three times, starved, and suffered experimental surgery. He was liberated in 1945, lived to have four daughters, and lived to the age of 76.
After the memorial room was the Room of Names. The names of the people who died there were illuminated in a dark room on the walls and floors. There were also three books full of the names in very small print. They only know the names of 80,000 people who perished there but there are estimated to be 320,000 people who died there. However the tour guides said that upwards of 800,000 people went through Mauthausen at one point.
A list of 80,000 known names of those who perished in Mauthausen, only a quarter of the actual number who died in this concentration camp
The trip to Mauthausen was an experience I will never forget. It wasn’t a happy time whatsoever but it is something that I believe every person needs to see in their lives. In the United States, it is hard to actually sense the tragedy and horror that the people went through in concentration camps because we are so separated from the rest of the world. I hope that the camps will always stay open to visitors to witness in order to prevent such a travesty to ever happen in our world again. The experience also inspired me to look to other places in this world that are going through horrors right now. People are suffering all over the world and I have been living in a bubble. If anything has come out of this trip so far, it is that my eyes have been opened to the world around me.