May 5 is the anniversary of the liberation of Mauthausen, a concentration camp in Austria. On May 5, 1945, the American military arrived at the camp, setting the prisoners free. Each year there is a remembrance and liberation celebration for Mauthausen, its subcamps and places of Nazi terror. This year is the 65th anniversary of the liberation and celebrations will be held May 8 (today) at the Gusen and Ebensee camps, May 9 at Mauthausen and May 10 at Melk.
Last year I visited Mauthausen twice, once with a friend of mine who lives in the town of Mauthausen, and a second time with my history class on the day of the celebration. The first time was particularly memorable because it was a dreary, rainy day in February and I was visiting with someone who had personal stories to tell about the concentration camp. He recounted the tale of his great-grandfather, a copper. With the ongoing war, he was short on help. After pleas to the government, he was given prisoners from the camp to help with the labor.
I did not know much about the camp before going, so when I encountered the room labled “Gaskammer” and saw crematoriums, I was shocked. I had not expected to see complete structures or the pipes with holes in them where Zyklon B came out. Previously I had toured the Sachsenhausen camp in Orainenburg, north of Berlin. This camp was leveled because the Nazis did not want to leave any evidence, so all that is left are small pieces of foundations and crushed crematoriums. Mauthausen, on the other hand, is mostly complete.
Mauthausen was a work camp with a granite quarry. In 1939, Mauthausen became a camp for political prisoners where they were worked to death. This camp is the location of the Todesstiege, or death stairs, so called because the prisoners were forced to carry large pieces of granite, often double their body weight, up a flight of stairs. Many did not make the climb. Between Mauthausen and its subcamps, about half the 200,000 prisoners were shot, gassed, worked or beaten to death by the Nazis. (In this photo the steps begin at the center right of the photo and can be followed below the trees.)
For more information about the camp, check its website (in English, but if you can read German, the German version is much more informative) or its Wikipedia page.
My second visit was very different from my first. It was a day of joy, with former prisoners, some of the American liberators and diplomats from each country that could have had a prisoner in the camp marching in a parade. I write could, because prisoners from the Soviet Union were listed as only that, so there was no differentiation between someone from present-day Romania or Ukraine, for example. The Italians were the most memorable group from the parade because they had the most people and they sang songs, probably of hope and liberation, as they made their presentation.
Also on that day we went to the Gusen memorial. Most of the remains of that camp have been destroyed, but two crematoriums are still standing and there is a small museum. Here we learned that our teacher’s grandfather was a member of the team that created Zyklon B. We were also told about the camp’s entrance gate and how it has been incorporated into someone’s house. A similar thing happened at Sachsenhausen. The guards’ houses leading to the camp entrance were not destroyed and are now also inhabited.
Seeing Mauthausen in two very different situations was quite moving. Understanding the solemnity of the situation is necessary, but seeing the survivors shows that there wasn’t only death, and that can be a learning experience, too.
Also, I took a couple videos of the celebrations that day and I would like to share two of them with you.
This first video is the opening of the parade when the flag is presented with the years when the camp was in operation.
This second video is of the Italians who were part of the parade.
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