Bucket list item: ‘Visit a Nazi concentration camp’ to learn more about the tragedy that was the Holocaust.
I love watching historical documentaries, reading historical fiction, scrolling through pages and pages of history memes, debating historical events and being a history teacher. Basically, I’m a bit of a history nerd. With this in mind, it might seem less strange to you to see that visiting a Nazi concentration camp is on my bucket list. My love (obsession) for history isn’t the only reason for this however.
I firmly believe that everyone should visit a Nazi concentration camp at some point during their lives. This was such a significant human tragedy fueled by racism and bigotry that succeeded in decimating entire pockets of minority groups across Europe, and was the key reason behind the development of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet despite this, and the piles and piles of documented evidence of this event, we exist in a world where Holocaust denial is somehow actually a thing.
As a history teacher this is something I strive to fight against in the classroom when I teach students about this event. For me, visiting a Nazi concentration camp was a significant bucket list item because I felt that it would equip me with more knowledge and experience that I could use in my teaching and in my future interactions with people who may or may not deny that this event took place. And while I only spent a few hours at the Mauthausen Concentration Camp, those hours were significant.
The Mauthausen Concentration Camp is located in northern Austria and is one of the most notorious Nazi concentration camp. It was established in 1938 after Germany annexed Austria, and was operated by SS. It’s location was chosen specifically for it close proximity to some abandoned granite quarries. The camp mainly housed political prisoners, Soviet POWs and a small number of Jews from 1941. As the tide of war turned in Europe in favor of the Allies, survivors of the 1944 Death Marches were also housed in the camp, as were a small number of women who were brought over as forced sex workers in 1942.
While Mauthausen did possess a gas chamber and incinerators, unlike it’s more famous counterpart, Auschwitz, Mauthausen was a forced labour camp rather than an extermination camp; though this certainly doesn’t make the conditions experienced by the prisoners any better. Those assigned to work in the quarry were forced to carry 50kg granite boulders up the narrow, slippery ‘stairway of death’ while they were beaten by the guards; and Dutch Jews were pushed to their deaths off the quarry cliffs and jokingly called ‘parachutists’ by the Nazi officers.
In total, historians believe about 200,000 prisoners passed through the camp and about 120,000 of them died while there. The camp was liberated by American troops on May 5, 1945.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I visited the camp. Sure, I was expecting to feel emotionally overwhelmed and I’d seen enough photographs of Auschwitz to have a general idea of what the camp would look like, but what I wasn’t expecting was the bright, sunny weather. For some reason (probably because it is supposed to be such a sad and tragic place) I’d always pictured Nazi concentration camps existing in a dark, cloudy setting. One where it was cold and the wind had a nasty bite to it. So it was a bit of a shock to the system to stand at the entrance gates wearing a light jacket, shading my eyes from the sun, looking over the gorgeous green fields that surround the camp. This feeling continued as I walked through the memorial garden.
I stood at the entrance of the prisoner blocks looking at all of the buildings and just couldn’t decide where to start. Deciding left seemed as good as any direction, I decided to work my way up the left had side and come back down the right. This meant that I started with the prisoner blocks and ended with the museum.
As I explored the empty prisoner blocks, I found it hard to imagine what it would be like to live in such a space, with three other people crammed onto your small, two-person bunk bed. The latrines just made my insides curl up. There was only 8 toilets along one wall and a urinal along the opposite wall. The hand basins were located in another room. The disease that must have swept through these prisoner bunks thanks to overcrowding and poor hygiene must have been horrific.
Eventually I made my way into the gas chambers and the crematorium, and I honestly don’t think I have the words to describe this experience. It was just a dead space, as if all the life was just drained from the people who walked through the space. As if it was just some sort of void. When I walked up the stairs to leave the basement I almost felt like gasping for air as if I’d been underwater for a long time, and again, it was a strange juxtaposition to exit a place of death into bright sunlight.
I finished my visit to the camp at the museum. The museum was really well constructed and housed a large number of artifacts and anecdotes from survivors. Finishing at the museum allowed for a partial degree of separation from the actual site since it was a museum and I know how you’re supposed to act in a museum.
Through my experience at Mauthausen I learnt more about the experiences of those who lived in Nazi concentration camps, and the human condition to both inflict such inhumanity, but also to survive it.
Before I end this post I would like to give you some tips on visiting a concentration camp.
Overall I’m really glad that I went, even if I felt all sad and depressed for a while afterwards. Have you ever visited a site like this? Which site? What was your experience like? Let me know in the comments