Friday, February 26, 2016

'The Nightingale' ... Remembering a Trip to Mauthausen

My book club just finished the exquisite book, 'The Nightingale', by Kristin Hannah. When we picked the book, it came with high recommendations ... which didn't stop me from wondering if I would enjoy a book set in Nazi-occupied France during World War II. But, I did love it. I highly recommend it. When it ended, I wasn't quite ready to leave. I loved that it was a book about two very different, but equally strong, sisters. I loved that it was a book about resilience ... in particular, that of women trying to survive and protect and, under the most brutal of conditions, make a difference. And, I loved that it felt real. Yes, it is a fictional book, but the non-fiction woven throughout transported me back in time to my visit to Mauthausen Concentration Camp in 1992. At the time, it wasn't a place I wanted to visit ... but, I knew it was a place I needed to see.

The reflection below 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 was the only one that 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.


Anonymous said...

Moving reflections from your diary. I thoroughly enjoyed the book too!

Sarah Laurence said...

I too was moved by your reflections on that tour. Had my Jewish ancestors stayed in Lithuania, I would not be typing this comment. In this world with growing intoleration to Muslims and refugees, it's important to remember this troubling history and not repeat such mistakes. Thanks for the book recommendation. It's nice to see you back to blogging!

Kelly H-Y said...

Thank you, Ladyfi!

Thank you, Sarah ... so very true!

Rebecca Ramsey said...

How disturbing and sad- and vividly told. I will read the novel you talked about. It sounds fascinating.

Mrhuck43 said...

Your writing of camp is very good. Not being a person of eloquent wording, I can say the feeling is there. As I read this I had the newsreel pictures (some my not know what Newsreel was) flash in my mine. Of the places in Europe I would like to see, a concentration camp and the American cemeteries are on my list. I am proud of your writings.

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