Walking in the Footsteps of Ghosts

by Gwendolyn Bodner

The customs line at the airport: what a perfect opportunity to daydream as you stand in the same place, the weight of your body making a permanent imprint in the industrial carpet as you wait to have your passport stamped. As I fight a losing battle with the carry-on that is slipping from my drooping shoulder, I imagine the country I left behind just a plane ride ago. In vain, I try to imagine myself back in Salzburg, Austria, where I delighted in walking through the Old Town, taking in the picturesque scenery of people milling about the Kapitelplatz and Mozartplatz while the Hohensalzburg Fortress stood protectively over the rooftops of this quaint town. I remember the thrill of sliding down a wooden miner’s slide in the salt-mine in Hallstatt. The notes of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony linger in the memory of spending my 21st birthday attending a concert at the Musikverein in Vienna. I chuckle to myself as I remember my trip to Berchtesgaden where I walked through Hitler’s Bunker and saw his Eagle’s Nest. Although I couldn’t talk the other Susquehanna University students into recreating the scene from Sound of Music where the children and Maria dance along the edge of the fountain, there was no better way to spend the last day of the trip than to stroll through the Mirabell Gardens at dusk. Yet, among all these delightfully fond memories of an unforgettable trip, it is the trip to a concentration camp that gave purpose and meaning to my GO experience.

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I have always been very interested in learning about the Holocaust and I’ve made a point of reading memoirs and autobiographies about the genocide. I’ve always found documentaries and movies about the Holocaust fascinating. Since reading Anne Frank’s Diary in fifth grade, I’ve been intrigued by the psychology of the genocide. In every account of the Holocaust I’ve read or watched Adolf Hitler has been described as a little man with a funny mustache. It seems inconceivable that this funny little man could be responsible for the horrifying deaths of millions of people. Even more inconceivable is the number of people who believed in Hitler and helped him execute the attempted extinction of millions. Although I went to the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C. when I was thirteen, I always dreamed of being able to go to a real concentration camp and see for myself what I’d read about in such graphic detail. Granted, this is not a trip that many thirteen-year-old children dream of. In fact, it’s not a trip most adults dream of. However, my desire to visit the museum was motivated by my curiosity about Holocaust and how we could allow it to happen. Knowing that the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C. offered one of the most uncensored and authentic account of the genocide, I thought visiting it would supplement the literature and documentaries I’d so far used to inform my research on the Holocaust.

During our lunch, Andrea and I ended up talking to one another and having quite a meaningful conversation about the Holocaust and God. Andrea is more active in her practice of religion than I am, but we both pondered the question of how a supposedly omnipotent, omnibenevolent, merciful god could allow such a genocide to happen. I felt that visiting the concentration camp was an important experience to watch the introductory video where survivors of Mauthausen gave testimonials about their experiences. I almost dreaded the experience of watching the video, fearful of the effect watching the video in a real concentration camp would have. It wasn’t the first such video I had seen, but perhaps actually watching it at a concentration camp made it a more profound experience. It was horrifying to learn about the stairs that prisoners had to climb while carrying heavy boulders. Even more horrifying, was learning about how prisoners had to carry heavy rocks up stairs, only to be pushed off those same stairs. The reason for pushing the prisoners down the stairs? To impress the SS officers who would come to observe and assess the camp. There was one man who said there was a guard who would have the prisoners lay against one another in the cold, wet, mud to form a bridge over which he could walk so he didn’t get his boots dirty. “Inhumane” doesn’t seem to be an adequate word to describe the horror that people experienced in concentration camps like Mauthausen.

I think I liked the tour the most because the young woman who led us through the camp brought a new perspective to the experience. I was nervous about how to react as an American learning about the Holocaust from such a young person who is part of the culture that contributed to the genocide. I acknowledged that this was part of her job as a citizen of Austria, but I was curious to see how she talked about this event in history. She seemed to be comfortable talking about this darkness in her country’s past, though she appeared nervous as well to speak to a group of Americans who obviously had their own preconceived notions based on what they were taught about the Holocaust. It was humbling to compare myself to someone who has more reason to be troubled by her past than I did and to reconsider my own beliefs and perceptions of the Holocaust and those involved. The enormity of how complex humanity is was emphasized perhaps in the length of the tour than in all the literature I read about the Holocaust.

I appreciated the pictures our tour guide showed us in the beginning of the tour. The two depictions of the prisoners carrying the rocks up the Stairs of Death were interesting to study. For example, it was remarkable, the volumes one picture could speak and the distinct impression it wanted to give, just through the omission of the SS officer in the propaganda picture, but the inclusion of the officer in the artist’s drawing. In one picture, the men looked like they were voluntarily carrying the rocks while in the other it was at gunpoint and from a fear of death. The propaganda picture also mitigated the treacherous climb up the steps and the potential domino effect of men falling down them when those at the top were pushed backward.  It was chilling to see the picture of the SS officers standing as a group smiling at the camera like any high school soccer team. How could they live with themselves? What drives a person to commit the atrocities for which these men were responsible? Is there a fair and just way to punish these men and hold them accountable for what they did? Can we hold them accountable?

I wondered how I would react during the tour, whether seeing the buildings and the showers would affect me more than I expected. Perhaps it is the distance of time, but I found that I wasn’t as affected as I thought I would be. After all those years of studying the Holocaust, reading countless memoirs and biographies, and watching documentaries about Hitler and the Third Reich, I expected to be more affected by the experience of walking in the same concentration camp where the horrors took place. I remember standing in the middle of one of the barracks, looking around the empty space and at the worn wooden floors. I remember hearing my own footsteps echo in the empty space as everyone stood in the room in hushed silence. We were all thinking the same thing. We were imagining the prisoners crammed into this space, sharing fatal diseases and sorrow. We knew that the number of prisoners far exceeded the capacity for the room and we tried to imagine what “living” in such conditions could have been like.

And yet,  I felt as though I was working so hard to feel something, that I kept trying to imagine myself as a prisoner in the camp. When we saw all the memorials in the open grass outside the gates of the camp, I wanted to feel something more; I wanted to be more empathetic with the victims of the camp and feel what those who built the monuments felt. I wanted to cry in sorrow for the suffering of Hitler’s victims. I wanted to feel anger toward those who perpetuated atrocities against the prisoners of Mauthausen and the other concentration camps. I wanted to feel something. Feeling anything was better than feeling nothing. I wanted to feel something more than acceptance of the Holocaust as a part of history. I didn’t want to feel like I was standing in the middle of an elaborate replica of a concentration camp. I wanted to feel like I was in a real camp where real people once walked and experienced what I’d only read about. To connect more to the experience of being at Mauthausen, I recalled one of the English classes I took this past spring. In the class, I read a text about the Israel-Palestine conflict and learned about the Jewish tradition of putting rocks on graves. Before leaving the camp, I slowly walked toward the memorial for the Jewish prisoners and put a few small rocks on the cold marble. It was a surreal experience to stand in the middle of a camp through which you know thousands of prisoners passed. It was haunting to stand in the barracks and think of how scared these people were, how they couldn’t even go to the bathroom when they needed to. There are certainly a number of ways to imagine how you would react in such a situation, but I don’t know if is truly possible to know until you are there and fighting for your life. Throughout my whole time walking through the camp, I desperately tried to picture how I would have behaved had I been a prisoner. It was overwhelming and challenging to appreciate the reality of Mauthausen as more than a recreated model of some far away camp that once existed. I was walking the same ground that SS officers and prisoners walked. I tried to imagine the screaming coming from the human test subjects in the hospital building. I tried to imagine the officers playing soccer on the field just next to the barracks where people were put to die; the smell and sight of those buildings. The imprints left in the grass were like scars of the past.

After the tour, when we went to the museum part of the camp, it is perhaps the memorial room with the triangular pieces of granite that have the names of the Mauthausen prisoners etched in white on the surface that made me feel most connected to the prisoners since arriving at camp. Suddenly, there were thousands of names mirrored in the black granite. Suddenly, the victims of Mauthausen were not unknown. Seeing their names etched in stone made each person real, made the lives, families, jobs, houses, and communities they were forced to leave behind real. Seeing my own reflection in the black stone amidst the white names of the Mauthausen prisoners made the whole experience far more personal. I no longer had to imagine the people who walked within Mauthausen. They were all there, preserved forever. Seeing the myriad of names and my own face reflected in the soft lighting of the room was indescribable.

When I finished reading the placards of the other exhibits, I went to see the cremation furnaces, the rooms where they would keep the bodies cold until they could be cremated, the room where they would extract the gold teeth of prisoners, and the gas chamber itself. I will never forget finally seeing these parts of the camp, seeing framed pictures of several victims hanging from the wall of the gas chamber.  This experience has brought so much more meaning and power to the literature I’ve read and studied about the Holocaust. Mauthausen will always stand apart as one of the best–and most haunting–parts of the trip.

 

Read an interview with Gwendolyn here.

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