I went to school about 20 miles from the town where Hitler was born. When I was eleven, I had to go visit the concentration camp Mauthausen. We had to go see the “death stairs”, the gas chambers, the barracks, the beds. The mass graves and the pictures of starved bodies, hardly more than skeletons. I had not known at that point, that humans could look like that and still live. I had seen people decaying alive from leprosy, I had seen begging, starved toddlers in India, but I had not known people could survive a horror like Mauthausen.
It was a cold spring day, I remember it clearly. It has been burned into my soul.
Mauthausen is close the Czech border. It took us almost two hours to get there on the bus. When the day started, I was excited, elated. My favourite Author Werner J Egli would be there. His book about a refugee boy coming to the US from South America influenced me greatly and had been on my bedside table for several years at that point. I would get his signature. I would speak to him. Talk to a real live author. How amazing!
But when we arrived, the atmosphere changed. The gates were foreboding. Something evil was in the air. Death still lingered.
Austria takes pride in its heritage. From the pompous display of imperial buildings in Vienna, and Mozart at every corner – you cannot escape the sense of history, the sense of its importance. But the events from 1938 (when the war started for us) are in a different category. There is a different light shed on them. A cold but clear light. A light that does not hide anything, does not soften the edges. A light that highlights it all, and illuminates the unspeakable. There is shame. There is regret. But there is a profound understanding that this part of history must be owned. By us. By every generation that follows. It is a grim resolve that keeps these centres and museums open. A duty. A duty of remembrance, resilience, and to a certain extent, guilt.
My grandfather’s generation fought in a war. He killed people before he deserted and left the army in the spring of 1945, and made his long and dangerous way across the mountains back to his home town. Several times, he was nearly killed – either by loyalists who saw him as a traitor, or by Americans who saw him as a Nazi.
He was neither. He was a 17 year old boy from a small town in southern Austria, wearing a worn out uniform, relying on nothing but the sun and kind strangers for direction on his long journey from the Serbian battle ground to Styria.
We remember this. We must. He killed in the name of a regime that would’ve put me – his granddaughter – in a camp like Mauthausen in a flash. Because of the colour of my skin. Because I write.
He killed not because he shared the Nazi’s ideology. He killed not because he believed that the group of Serbian prisoners of war that were lined up before him should die. He killed, because a commander yelled at him to aim and shoot. He closed his eyes and shot. He does not know to this day how many he killed.
We arrived in Mauthausen at around 9 o clock in the morning and had an introduction by a sombre and serious looking old man. He explained to us in no uncertain terms that this was not a place to run around in. This was not a place for laughter and fun. This was a place of death. The 11 and 12 year old faces staring back at him nodded. Some ran off, laughing. Some – like me – stayed and looked at the concrete slabs with names on them.
Nazis liked bookkeeping. Names, dates of birth, reason for arrest, they were all well documented.
They were lined up on a grey wall surrounding the back of the museum. I walked past them. Imagined their faces. I felt cold.
Slowly, I made my own way to the front. Mauthausen had multiple “layers”. There were prisoners who were killed immediately upon arrival. There were those who had special and useful skills, they might have been kept on doing light work. And then there were those who were worked to death.
There is a quarry below the camp, where high quality Upper Austrian granite was being cut. 186 irregular, steep and narrow steps led from the quarry up to the main barracks. It was called the Todesstiege – the death stairs. It was one of the main means of execution in Mauthausen. Prisoners had to carry blocks of granite up (and sometimes down) the stairs to tire them out, to wear them thin. To kill them.
I never went down the stairs. Many of my classmates did. They made a race of it, the boys laughed and celebrated their athletic achievement. In my mind’s eye I saw skeletons walking. I saw despair and hurt and pain. I turned away.
We reassembled in front of one of the barracks. The old, sombre man told us about how each building housed up to 50 prisoners. How one of the buildings was a brothel for higher ranking prisoners and guards. How they slept 4, 5 in one bed. No water. The point was to wear them out. To kill them.
We looked at the iron beds. They were painted green, I seem to remember. Many of the prisoners here would have been Soviet soldiers. Many of them would have been men. But not all. Some were women. Some were Jews. Some were children. Some were born there. Or cut from their mothers’ bodies while still in the womb.
The point, one must remember, was to kill them.
After we visited the barracks, we were left to stray around and look at things as we pleased. I broke away from the group – something I still do often today – to look at the darker corners. I found my way across the barracks and towards a main building. There was a damp smell in the air.
I turned a corner and saw it. A dark hole in the ground. Wonky, concrete stairs leading down. I looked around me, but I was alone. The staircase was broad, leaving enough room for several people to walk next to each other. I walked down alone.
My breath became visible in the air, as I walked out of the light and into the shadowy darkness. The smell became worse. Wet moss on old concrete. Wet corners, with slimy, shadowy plants growing in them. There was barely enough light streaming in from outside, but I carefully made my way forward. An old, bare bulb flickered on.
When a prisoner was first processed in Mauthausen, they were stripped naked, had all their clothes taken, their heads shaved, and their possessions categorized. Then they themselves were categorized: worthy of survival, death by work, or immediate death upon arrival.
Once this was determined, they were taken away. The laundries were the first place these prisoners saw.
They were two concrete rooms, no windows, no decorations. A door like the one on a vault separated them from the still dark hall.
I took a few tentative steps into one of the room and looked up at the bare ceiling.
A David’s star had been carved there.
A tear rolled down my cheek, before I could stop myself. I was already afraid of my peers’ snickering remarks. If I were to be found crying over the carving of a David’s star here, I would never live it down, surely. I wanted to cower into the corner, I wanted to disappear from this place. It was enough. I had enough now. I wanted to run away into the deep and dark woods surrounding this place, and vanish.
But that would do me no good. It had been tried before. 500 prisoners sought to escape this place in what later became known as the “Hasenjagd” – the rabbit hunt. They were all rounded up and murdered. I was certain this would be my fate if I tried to escape.
Once I calmed myself down, I re-joined my classmates on the surface. My teachers would have noticed my ashen face, my hesitance to go back underground. If they did, they kept silent. This trip was supposed to make us feel this way. It was the point.
We were taken down to the laundries as a group, the sombre man explaining everything in detail the point of these rooms, their purpose. I could not stop staring at the star in the corner.
We moved on – here is where the clothes were kept and sorted. The hair was used in U-Boot insulation. Their bodies were made into soap. Very efficient. The point, you must remember, children, was to kill them.
We arrived at the next room. Tiled floor and walls, to make cleaning easier, holes in the walls. A door that could be sealed air tight.
We were welcome to enter the gas chamber if we wanted. I opted not to. I felt my teacher’s hand on my shoulder, and wanted to bury my face in her embrace. She squeezed lightly and let go. I swallowed, closed my eyes and saw David’s stars floating around me.
Onwards, onwards. Another detail. Another bit of information. Prisoners were told their height would be measured. They stood up against a wall. They were shot.
We went onward through the exhibition and finally arrived in a warm room, which allowed sunshine in. But here were pictures. Of hanged men, their bodies oddly distorted. Of piles of starved bodies, somehow still alive. We looked at each and every one of the pictures. I needed to see them, it was a compulsion, I needed to see with my own eyes. I hoped that by seeing the real thing, the pictures in my imagination would somehow become less horrible. Reality would replace the dread I felt inside. But the dread only grew as I looked into their faces. They were naked, lined up on front of the barracks I had just been to, thin hands barely able to cover their genitals. Mutilated by hunger, by work. I saw the point. I understood the point.
When the time finally came to meet and greet and listen to Werner J Egli, I was tired. He spoke words that I had spoken to myself when I first arrived. What a cold place this was. He remembered the first time he had entered Mauthausen, when he was young. How cold he had felt. It had been a winter’s morning. He regretted going it alone. I caught his eye. Somehow, his gaze lingered. I knew, then, that I was to be a writer. That in writing, I could outlive this. That in writing, I could accomplish what this idol of mine was accomplishing now: bring calm. Bring warmth. Bring back reality. Bring back a sense of humanity. Make sense of this.
I got his autograph, then, complimented him on his work. He looked at this eleven year old girl in front of him. Somehow, I think, we knew. We both knew how we had felt, even as the others were chatting away behind me, even as the others laughed and looked forward to the bus trip home.
Mauthausen was the largest concentration camp on Austrian soil. Over 100,000 people were murdered there. A part of my childhood was murdered there, too.