I figured I’d post this just to jot a few thoughts down. It’s not a long post, but this past weekend, our class took a trip to Mauthausen Concentration Camp, in Upper Austria. No pictures, because I didn’t bring a camera – I felt it’d be inappropriate to treat it as a tourist site.
I was expecting to be impacted by the experience, but even approaching the concentration camp, which is situated on top of the hill in Mauthausen, I was already emotional; understanding that over 100,000+ people who died in Mauthausen saw their last moments of freedom where I was so leisurely walking was a strange feeling. Over 300,000 people – Polish, Jewish, Russian, Bulgarian, Dutch, German, Austrian, Spanish, plenty of different European nations, different African nations, Cubans, Argentinians, Colombians, and even Chinese – were all taken to Mauthausen, and statistically, over 1/3 of them died in Mauthausen. A group of Jewish troops tried parachuting into Mauthausen (the village) to rescue some Jews being held there – they too, were captured and killed in Mauthausen. The brutality and evil of the Nazi regime had no boundaries; when villagers tried to help by offering food, they were threatened to end up in the concentration camp themselves, and some did.
Over 100,000 people from all around the world died, after living under brutal circumstances for their last days. And this is one concentration camp. It never occurred to me that the victims of the Nazi concentration camps literally came from all around the world – Indians, Chinese, and more, as mentioned, were some of the victims.
However, despite the evil, we heard about stories of heroism and humanity.
We heard about the grandmother, whose family still lives near the Stairs of Death, up which prisoners were forced to carry heavy stones, while being beaten, or where they would be pushed off cliffs to their deaths – this grandmother appealed to the Nazis to stop, despite her own life being on the line for doing so, and of the police officer who took her report, who slightly modified the wording so that she would not be in as big trouble with the Nazi regime.
We learned about the other family, whose matriarch snuck water, apples, and bread to prisoners that were being taken up to Mauthausen, and the SS officer who pleaded with her to stop, not because she was feeding a Jew, but because he knew they would all three get killed – the woman, the officer, and the Jew – if she did not stop. And in response, the grandmother said, “Then turn your back away and pretend you didn’t notice.” And the officer let it continue.
We heard about the soldiers who signed up with the Wehrmacht but were transferred to Mauthausen, and one of whom, whose job it was to kill anyone who tried to escape, who would face punishment and violence for not killing them, and this soldier chased a Jew who had escaped, refused to kill him, and cried for joy for not having to take a life of another human, and thus became the subject of violence and taunting by other guards, to the point that he voluntarily went to the frontlines, where he was killed, rather than having to endure such horrors at Mauthausen.
With Austria being considered the first “victim” of the National Socialists, it is important to understand that while many did not help in the functioning of the regime, some did. This is a controversial topic – some Austrians deny their role in the Holocaust, stating that many Austrians did not know what was going on, which may have been true for some, while others “embrace” it as a point of learning how a country can be swept up into something so horrible, and learning so that it will never happen again: “Nie Wieder.” In Mauthausen, although yes, many people did not see the concentration camp due to barriers, others did know about it; a soccer field was set up on the grounds of the concentration camp, right next to the Russian camp, where Mauthausen’s local FC would play, and where people would watch, looking directly at Russian prisoners laboring in the Russian camp. Without taking sides, it is important to understand, factually, Austria’s role, and particularly Salzburg’s role, in the Holocaust. All throughout the city are “Stolpersteine” – “Stepping stones,” which mark the last place of voluntary residence of a victim of the Holocaust. They are in front of what are now shops, in front of houses, and more. They list the name of the victim, the birth and death dates, and their deathplace.
Factually, Salzburg itself allowed Hitler to enter the city and speak. When Hitler came to Salzburg, he was welcomed with “naturgemäß in Salzburg stärksten und freudigsten Widerhall,” or “the strongest and happiest echo, of course.” He was given gifts, and a valuable painting that was considered central to Salzburg.
Austrians were put on sides in the Anschluss – either they could stand against the Nazi regime, putting their own lives on the line, they could be neutral (and arguably complicit), or they could help out the regime. So, I would argue that Austria can be considered the first victim of the Nazi regime and also a “helper” in the regime. The same thing can be said about the German population – of course, not all German citizens were supporters of the party or terrible people, but some were. Likewise, not all Austrians were supporters of the party or the Anschluss, and not all collaborated with the party, of course, but some did. I think it is important to make this distinction so that it will not happen again – as our tour guide mentioned, once you turn a blind eye to inhumane acts, but you know it is happening and refuse to take action, you are not neutral, but you are instead complicit. Granted, it may be hard to take action, such as having your life on the line for standing against the Nazi Party, but it is important to do whatever small acts you can to stand up for what is right.