I have wanted to write about my visit to Mauthausen for close onto a year. One factor that was preventing me from doing so was the regard that I simply did not know how to. How do I approach and reflect about my visit as a tourist to a destination that was the epitome of hell and torture for 20 million dehumanised individuals? Another factor to take into consideration is that I am not an historian and put plainly, I do not know much about the Holocaust at all, so there is absolutely no way that I can discuss the facts and figures of such a dreaded and dark part of German history. One thing I do have the qualifications to talk about are my own feelings and experience as a tourist whilst visiting Mauthausen, and why I believe every single person should visit a holocaust memorial site at some point in their lives.
Mauthausen-Gusen Concentration Camp was one of the largest labour-intensive German-controlled concentration camps situated in Europe. Both Mauthausen and Gusen 1 identified as ‘grade three’ camps; hubs for tough slave labour intended for political enemies of the Reich. Mauthausen-Gusen was one of the last camps to be liberated in 1945, and in the meantime housed approximately 85,000 inmates.
On our journey through to Munich, the Contiki coached pulled into a stoney driveway lined with grey brush. The temperature was below five degrees celcius and it was an overcast day. Myself and my fellow travellers knew we were headed here, but I don’t think any of us knew what to expect. For myself, I did not know much about the Holocaust and I was very uninterested in European history, until this day. As the bus wound through the grey trees that the overcast day projected onto the land everyone around me, including myself, fell quiet. As we approached an opening through the surrounding brush, stood in front of us was a large concrete complex perched upon a wide green uneven terrain. If you took away the manmade structures and the destructive past linked to it, the scenery would be classified as beautiful.
We were instructed by our tour guide to be respectful when we disembarked the bus and that this was not a place where an Instagram photoshoot should be conducted, but this was something all of us already understood; you would be a fool to do so. As we walked into the cool, open field we remained quiet. As we walked through the main entrance the quietness persisted, and so it did for the entirety of our visit. I decided to go it alone, as I do so most days now. I made my way down towards the viewing site of the Wiener Graben Quarry, otherwise known as the location of the ‘death stairs’. It’s hard to pinpoint and view, but once you do the site and events linked to it made me uneasy. From there I wondered up past the Dutch Memorial and through to the Barracks.
Walking through the empty barracks, hearing the creaking floorboards and imagining the hundreds of people packed into bunk beds is chilling. Standing in the stony courtyard of the main entrance, freezing in the one digit temperatures, surrounded by the original barracks in complete silence- no birds, no wind, no colour, no life- and imaging the individuals subjected to such horrid and inhuman conditions- no personal space, shaved heads, nakedness, unhygienic facilities, malnutrition and un-consented participation in slave labour and human experiments- really made me thankful for the life I have been given. More so, it made me want to learn about the past events, such as the holocaust, that shaped human history and development.
That is why I believe everyone should visit a concentration camp memorial at least once in their lives. We need to learn as much as we can about the mistakes of our past in order to ensure that history will never repeat itself. The Holocaust is an event that needs to be remembered in order to honour the brave victims and prisoners that endured such pain in a time where we were divided. Today we are fortunate to stand as one for the time being, and we need to do everything in our power to remain peaceful and civilised no matter our gender, race, religion, beliefs and differences.
The Mauthausen Memorial touched my heart and enriched me with the knowledge needed to memorialise the victims of past events.