Experiencing Mauthausen: A walk through a concentration camp

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.

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Fences surrounding the outside of Mauthausen Memorial. Farms in the distance. “Stairs of Death” in the bottom right corner.

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”.

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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.

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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.

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The wall where the prisoners stood when first arriving at the camp. Today, this is where countries and nationalities from around the world honor their people who died here.

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The showers in the “Laundry Room”

 

IMG_0743        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.

Photos of men who perished in Mauthausen. Most of them were not yet the age of 30.

Photos of men who perished in Mauthausen. Most of them were not yet the age of 30.

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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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My Dwellings

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I promise that the hall isn’t as dreary as it looks in these pictures! I have the perfect set up for me. Single room with my own bathroom and a huge wardrobe.Click here to visit the website for my dorm. The first floor has a community kitchen which is different for some other floors who are suite style with their own kitchen. I enjoy the community style because it is a sort of gathering place for everyone when they are tired of sitting in their rooms blogging (this girl).I have only been here a week and have spent numerous hours in there playing card games with beverages.

Speaking of beverages, the cheapest wine here is only 2 euros which is $2.28. 

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PROST!! 

First Few Days in Linz

Hello everyone! Sorry it took me so long to update everyone on things happening with my trip.

I arrived in Linz on Friday and since then have been very busy every day with friends. Traveling here went surprisingly well! Knowing my luck, I expected my bags to get lost or some terrible thing like that. But nope!

The first flight was on Thursday from Saint Louis to Newark, New Jersey. Then I spent one night at a nice hotel (with a KING sized bed!) before my flight the next day. The hotel was so relaxing and was nice to get needed rest before the crazy flights the next day.

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The next day, my 7 1/2 hour flight left at 6pm from Newark and I landed in Frankfurt, Germany the around 8 in the morning German time. I didn’t get a bit of sleep but it was a really great flight! The guy next to me was sleeping while American Horror Story was playing on his tablet, so I got to watch my favorite show from the subtitles.

541639_10205768471359338_120580811511857538_nThe Frankfurt airport was one of the largest airports I have ever seen. I had to carry my giant duffel bag and my 40 lb huge backpack from the end of the airport to the other side..about a mile. Like geeze louise. Once I finally made it to my gate, I plopped down at the café. God bless the man behind the counter working because my credit card (that I got specifically for studying abroad) apparently doesn’t work many places in Europe. I didn’t know this until he had already made my panini and my coffee. So, I had to walk all the way to an atm to take out euros. He was really nice about it but when I sat down, I had my first experience being the dumb American. The lady behind me in line giggled with the man and the only word I understood was “American”.

After I recharged at the café, I carried my bags back to the gate my plane was leaving from and met my first friend! Krystal walked on over to me and introduced herself and from there we talked for a few hours until our flight to Linz. She’s a cute little Texan who is so excited when it snows. Austria’s cold has been nothing compared to Kirksville so far, so I have been pretty comfortable every day.

The flight to Linz was only an hour long so it wasn’t too bad but I was so tired from the traveling that I felt pretty sick the whole time. There was also a crying baby on the plane too so that wasn’t cool. But I was too excited to finally be traveling in Europe that I didn’t care all that much.

When we arrived in Linz, Krystal and my mentor, Kara, met us at the airport and piled all our luggage in her tiny little car. She is one of the nicest people I have ever met and has dedicated a lot of time to helping us around. I would have been completely lost without her. The country side outside of Linz that I saw on my way looked a lot like home. Lots of farm land! Once inside the city however, you see the old architecture of the downtown and the tall hills are surrounding us. I’m not sure I will ever want to leave!

8 Things to Do Before Studying Abroad

Preparing to study abroad doesn’t happen overnight, but rather, during the course of a few months. I am the kind of person that always has to have everything laid out step by step, to have everything organized. There is more to the preparation than just packing a suitcase. Most of the time, the “to-do” list is full of small but important items. Here is my list of some of the items you should have on your study abroad checklist.

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  1. Notify your bank of your travel plans.

One of the most important steps to take before departing the country for your semester of traveling is to tell your bank and credit card companies that you will be in a strange place for an extended amount of time. If your credit card provider or bank notices transactions on your card from Vienna when you live in Missouri, they likely will freeze your account. You do not want to be far from home without access to money! One simple phone call could prevent a lot of headaches down the road.

  1. Organize important documents.

Before you leave make sure you have made copies of your passport, proof of health insurance and birth certificate. Leave one set with your parents and keep another with you while you travel. It might be helpful to create a binder with these documents and your flight reservations all in one place.  Keep a paper copy of room reservations with you. If you like detailed plans as I do, create a travel schedule so you never will be late for a flight or reservation.

  1. IMG_0116Bring enough medication to last the entire trip.

Be sure to make an appointment with your doctor to ask for six months worth of any prescriptions you take. This way, you will have all medications in the case of an emergency. Your host university should be aware of all medications you are taking in case something happens. It would be a hassle to try to get in touch with your doctor and get your medicine once you have left the country.

  1. Create a list of emergency contacts.

Keep a list handy of all the people you could contact if you need help — for example, your assigned mentors at your host university, the address and phone number for your emergency contact and the equivalent of 911 in your host city. It wouldn’t hurt to keep phone numbers of your roommate and friends abroad. These should be with you at all times. You never know when you could find yourself in a sticky situation.

  1. IMG_0111Pack for six months in one suitcase.

Packing for my trip hasn’t been easy because I will be abroad for five months, so I have to be prepared for winter, spring and summer. I chose mostly transitional pieces that can be worn in all weather. The suitcase can only be 50 pounds, so I have to leave my heavy sweaters and boots at home. To save room in my luggage, my grandma bought me space bags that I simply can vacuum the air out of. I have the habit of over-packing, so I started planning what I would bring weeks ago. I don’t want to my bags to be overweight, because I either will have to throw away my belongings or pay a very large fee!

  1. IMG_0114Bring a backpack for weekend trips.

During winter break, I started daydreaming about all the places I would travel to throughout Europe. Small airlines like Ryanair offer inexpensive plane tickets to students, but only allow you to bring a carry-on of a certain size. So, for Christmas, my mom spoiled me and bought me a very nice Tortuga backpack. It’s the perfect size for packing the necessities for a short trip.

  1. IMG_0115Research your host country.

As soon as I was placed in Austria, I began researching the country and the city I would live in. I didn’t know much about beforehand. To give you a visual, Austria is the setting of the “Sound of Music.” Picture Julie Andrews running through the hills singing her lungs off — that is going to be me! I will be living in Linz, a city in the northern part of the country. The city is a short train ride from the Alps and only a couple of hours from Vienna and Prague. People speak German in Austria, so I will be taking an intensive German class for a month before classes start to learn the language. Luckily, all my classes will be in English.

  1. Say goodbye.

Last but not least, visit your friends and family from home before you leave! They no doubt will miss you very much while you are gone. If you live with roommates at home, give them enough money to cover your rent and expenses while you are away. Make sure friends and family members know how to contact you and how to read about your trip. Share the address of where you will stay so your friends and family can send you mail. If you plan on blogging, give them the web address of your blog.