Tuesday, March 9, 2010

An Encounter with Gloom

I promise to return with a much happier and light-hearted story next week, but thought this one important to share. It comes straight from my college photo book, highlighting my time as an exchange student in Austria. While most of the entries and captions are happy and hilarious, this one is devastatingly solemn. When I put the photo book together, this particular entry displayed no photos, just words.

Mauthausen Concentration Camp
October 18, 1992

I suppose the weather was what one would call "perfect" for a trip to a concentration camp - cold and damp, with a constant drizzle falling from the cloudy gray sky. For me, the weather added to the heaviness and gloom that I felt as I walked through the buildings and grounds of the camp. Mauthausen was built beginning in 1938, and was listed as a Level 3 camp, i.e. no return to society. Thousands died in this labor camp under the Nazi regime.

As we entered the camp, the first building our group was shown was a bunker. The rooms in the bunker had wooden bunk beds in them - each bunk bed wide enough to fit one normal-sized man laying flat on his back. The "prisoners", however, were forced to sleep three men to a bed. Even at the extremely emaciated state these men and women were in, this would have been extremely difficult. I'm sure, however, that this must have been one of the only ways they were able to stay warm throughout the night.

Next, we were directed towards the museum, where we were also shown a movie about the holocaust. The things I learned from the movie and museum were disgusting, sickening, and fascinating. Thousands of prisoners were forced to carry large boulders up the steps of the "Stairway of Death." If one of these people were to slip or "get pushed", it would turn into an avalanche of people and stones, killing hundreds. Himler, who was in charge of the camps, stated that he didn't "enjoy" his visits to the camps because they made him "sick to his stomach". While Germans and Austrians usually had some chance of survival, Poles, Russians, and Jews had no chance. Prisoners were usually fed every third day, only three spoonfuls. If they ate more they were beaten to death. When it rained, the prisoners had to lay on the ground and form a human carpet for the S.S. men to walk over so their shoes wouldn't get wet and dirty. No matter what the weather, prisoners had to stand outside from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day.

Towards the end of the movie, I could hardly bring myself to keep my eyes on the screen. I kept forcing myself to watch, however, because it's too easy - in our day and age - to forget the tragedies that occurred so many years ago. It's so easy for us to simply turn our eyes away and not watch. The movie showed piles of emaciated dead bodies; bodies being carelessly thrown into carts; close-ups of bodies covered with flies. The pictures were powerful and frightening. How could any human care so much for dictatorship and so little for human life and dignity? After seeing the movie, I didn't want to be at the camp any longer. Many people came out of the movie in tears.

We continued our tour in an amazing silence - there was absolutely nothing that could be said. We walked through rooms with human-size ovens which were used to incinerate dead bodies, then continued into a room resembling a large communal shower area. The prisoners who walked into this room thought they were going to get a shower . . . instead of water, however, they were sprayed with fatally poisonous gases.

We were led through a torture chamber, and into an area resembling a hallway. This hallway, however, had open spaces on either side, and its walls were chipped and worn. A single sign posted on the wall stated something to the effect of "The chambers on your left and right were once used as storage for dead bodies." I could envision the bodies carelessly piled on top of each other as if they were really there. I stood in that one spot for a long time.

Americans are generally taught in school that the Jews were the prisoners in the concentration camps. However, the Jews were only one of a large number of populations, including black people, Poles, Russians, homosexuals, Germans, Viennese, and many more. Prisoners wore I.D.s which identified why they were in the camp. There were even "special" I.D.s for those who fit more than one category.

After touring the buildings, we were encouraged to walk around the grounds of the camp. Several of us decided to go find the "Stairway of Death". It was raining, and the rocky path leading down to the stairs was slippery. From the path, we could see the cliff that the S.S. would push prisoners off of into the lake far below.

I wanted to take a picture to show my family and friends what this place was like, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. A picture couldn't do justice to what really happened. All anybody would be able to see in a picture would be a lake and a cliff, or steep, rocky stairs, or an empty building ... but, that was not what this place was.

18 comments:

She Writes said...

This is so disturbing to even imagine!

Hilary said...

Thanks for sharing that. I agree....we should never forget. Never.

Susan R. Mills said...

This was tough to read, but thank you for sharing. It really makes me sick that people were treated that way.

Debbie(single;complicated) said...

wow...how quickly we forget!what an amazing post!thanks for sharing!

Danyelle said...

Wow! Thank you for sharing. And you're right--it is too easy to forget, to turn our eyes away. But it's in the forgetting and looking away that makes things like this possible. We need to remember so we never allow such things to happen again.

Niki said...

So incredibly sad and also shocking that this was allowed to happen. Never forget.

Solvang Sherrie said...

It's so easy to not think about this stuff. But so important to remember.

Tabitha said...

Wow. This was hard enough for me to read, I can't imagine what it was like to be there. The things that happened there are horrible in the exponential levels.

Jeff B said...

Fortunately and unfortunately your words depicted a vivid image in my mind.

PJ Hoover said...

I'm really glad you shared this, Kelly. It's heartbreaking but so important.
Thank you.

Dianne said...

this took my breath away
you didn't need to take a photo, your words paint a picture

I came by to thank you for your kind comment on my post about my granddaughter

Susan Fields said...

Chilling. Thanks for sharing.

Suzanne Casamento said...

Wow. I don't even know what to say.

Except, it's good that you posted your story. Like you said, important not to forget.

Lisa and Laura said...

Haunting. I cannot even imagine. Thanks for sharing this.

Kelly said...

You are right, your words tell so much more than a photo would. My mom and sister went there on a trip and said similar things. So horrific and disturbing.

Hilary said...

It feels almost impossible to imagine.. what a horrible and ugly place and time.

Vivian said...

Thank you so much for sharing this. What an impressive experience this must have been for you, to know how important it was to record it in words. May we never forget.

deb said...

Visceral reaction to your words.

I try to think, they do not know, but still...