|Wednesday, 27 November 2002|
Behind the barbed wire of Mauthausan
by Lalitha K. Witanachchi
We drove along the left bank of the Danube past green meadows, cottages and quaint towns. Atop the mountains were perched castles, sky high. A multitude of russet and yellow trees formed a single mass of forests that stretched for miles. It was a stunning sight.
We drove 120 kilometres from Vienna and then took a sharp turn and came to Mauthausan, the former German concentration camp, Elizabeth, my Austrian friend parked the car in the parking lot where several other cars and vans were parked. I had the impression I was visiting a beautiful place. Everything was clean and neat and quiet. A long high wall, well constructed with stones of equal size stretched for several hundred yards, broken by a gate through which was entered. Above the gate was a wooden platform and on either side were two towers. On the left tower there was an iron chain, grim reminder that once through the gates we were in the grounds of the Mauthausan concentration camp.
Inside the camp
Within these walls more than 206,000 people were tortured and forced to work in quarries. Inside the camp more than 110,000 had perished. Within these walls of shame the soil is soaked with the blood of innocent people.
After the end of the Second World War the Austrian Federal Government transformed this horror camp into a worthy memorial to commemorate the dead who sacrificed their lives in the struggle for their homelands. It is a place of warning to all those who cherish their lives and their homelands that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.
We entered the roll call grounds where prisoners were counted three times a day. On the left were wooden huts where prisoners were housed. Rows of wooden bunks served as beds.
Six prisoners had to share a bunk. At the far end were the quarters for women and prostitutes. 2600 Jewish political prisoners were housed in the Jewish block and almost all of them were put to death. Mauthausan was not exclusively for Jews. There were people of various nationalities including Gypsies.
Once the prisoners were brought to camp they lost their identities. Names were eradicated. They were given a serial number. A coloured triangle worn on the chest indicated to which national or racial category they belonged. Jews wore the yellow star of David. Within these walls were students, artists, intellectuals, priests and children. One could not but be impressed by the cruel efficiency of the SS.
Every person was categorised and every name was recorded. On May 5, 1945 when the first US tanks drove into the camp to liberate the prisoners there were 64,000 men, 1,734 women and 15,000 non-listed prisoners in the camp. They included people from all nationalities - Albanians, Austrians, British, Yugoslavs, Belgians, Bulgarians, German, French, Dutch, Italians, thousands of Poles, Jews and Hungarians, and even a few Arabs, Chinese, Indonesians and Americans. But all the Gypsies, those strange people out of Asia who were here, had been annihilated for a bizarre reason.
Rosenburg had preached that Gypsy women had the capacity to produce healthy babies and experiments were carried out to find the secret of Gypsy women that could be applied to German women and so produce a master race of strong Nordics. Thus experiments were carried out on their child bearing processes, but it was said nothing came of these experiments and so these happy, talkative people who sang beautifully were lined on the hill and shot. Later their names and numbers were registered with bewildering efficiency.
Hut No. 20 was known as the Death Block. Between April '44 and February '45, 4300 prisoners were kept under strict isolation. Most of them were Soviet officers who had escaped from prisoners of war camps. They were recaptured and called 'K' prisoners. K stood for 'Kugek' which meant bullet. They were to be executed by a bullet in the back of the neck.
We came to the room where the condemned were lined up and one pistol shot snuffed out their lives. "It is incredible", said Elizabeth. "But all this happened and people were afraid to talk about it."
As the men were lined up however not all of them trembled with fear. There were those brave ones who stood erect, almost defiant in the face of death.
One section of this camp has been converted into a museum. One can hardly talk within its precincts and if one is so inclined it will only be in a whisper, in honour of the dead.
We descended into the Bath House. I could not but be impressed by the high standard of these bath houses built more than fifty years ago - tiled floors and walls as in a hotel, wide corridors and showers placed evenly against the walls - reminding one of Nazi efficiency. Here the tragic columns of prisoners were ordered to line up and undress.
They were told they were being given a medicinal shower to kill the lice they may have caught in their long incarceration in other prisons and in their long journey in box cars from various parts of Europe to Mauthausan.
They would stand here packed closely in their nakedness, pale skinned men, women and children. They were drive into the bath house. The doors were locked. Two blasts of Zyklon B gas were released along the pipes that ran round the room. "Only 19 minutes" they said... Then Gestapo men in gas masks tossed the naked bodies into trucks waiting outside.
It took less than twenty-five minutes for those who arrived in Mauthausan to be dead.
Adjoining the bath house was the dissecting room where gold teeth were extracted from dead bodies. Next was the crematorium where stood the brick faced ovens with the gas jets below.
The mouths of the ovens were open. These ovens were crammed with dead bodies and when full the doors were locked and the heat was set to do the job of incineration.
After a while when only ashes and bones were left other prisoners who would soon take the place of the dead, had to collect the ash with long handled shovels, as indeed their ashes too would be collected in like manner, only to be dropped over the slopes to be used as fertiliser some time later.
I felt an emptiness as though every ounce of my blood had been drained from me.
There were show cases in the museum holding various exhibits. Prisoners' uniforms - large shirts like pyjama shirts and baggy pants in purple and white stripes, a cap, wooden clogs which were the footwear they used even in the bitter cold winter. Other memorabilia included photos of executions, objects such as heart syringes, cowhide whips, blue crystals of Zyklon B gas, drawings, letters and poems written by the prisoners. In minuscule writing I deciphered these words:
'To feel, to eat, to rest, to sleep, to dream....'
Then there was this poem written by John Aldstorm, 'To my friend Tadek from a Britisher, the first to come to gusen, Zanufe. 6.10.44.
God bless our native land,
The adjoining room was another Bath House which I had no wish to see but I had to go through that door. So, hesitantly I took a few steps in and to my surprise I found that it had been converted into a chapel.
Spontaneously I knelt at the altar and said a prayer of nine words.
"Dear God, never again must this happen. Never. Never". Out of the chapel we climbed a few steps and came to the wailing wall. Here new prisoners were chained to iron rings. They had to stand for hours facing the wall and were given the most brutal treatment by SS guards according to their moods. We walked to the cemetery to the mass grave where bodies of 9800 prisoners are buried and further on another grave where 1227 lay buried.
"The soil of this cemetery is soaked with the blood of thousands of innocent people" read a plaque. Only the rustle of the leaves of a linden tree in its autumn splendour, the whisper of the wind and the threnody of a black bird broke the awesome silence. And up above was a deep blue sky, as pure as a child's heart.
We then went to the Wiener Graven quarry which was the real reason for sighting the camp at Mauthausan. The quarry ran several hundred feet deep into the mountain. Here prisoners spent hours at gruelling labour carrying large blocks of stones up the 186 'Death steps" on a diet of a bowl of watery soup with no meat, and a small cube of black bread. Starving prisoners fought and killed for a crust of bread. We descended 50 steps and I looked down the precipitous slope of the Parachutist cliff down which prisoners were frequently hurled over its sharp face.
I was overwhelmed with grief and could proceed no longer. I sat down on a step and felt something round. They were pebbles. I examined them closely. Their angularities had been smoothened by the passage of time I put them in my pocket to serve as a grim reminder of this concept of suffering or Dukkha.
We traced our steps and came to the magnificent monuments erected by the Austrian Federal government as well as other governments whose people had lost their lives in this camp. Notable among these is the memorial for the Jews, the Hungarian memorial of men with hands upraised crying "Never again!", the Sarcophagus in the centre of the roll-call ground, the Bulgarian one showing defiance, and the German memorial of the Motherland - a sad woman looking aside.
A quotation from Bertold Brecht reads 'O Deutschland, our Mother. why did you turn aside.... that we should not look down in shame before the eyes of the world?"
Silently I left Mauthausan, profoundly sad that men and their systems could be so devoid of human characteristics that men could be so cruel to their fellow men.
Produced by Lake House