Visiting a Concentration Camp
Why everyone should visit a Concentration Camp
by Viktoria Undesser
Why everyone should visit a Concentration Camp
The importance of History
I'm a strong believer in and advocate for learning about the places and countries you visit, about their history and their culture. Part of this is due to how I was raised and educated: While there's a popular meme on the internet that says "Austria's greatest achievement was making everyone believe that Beethoven was Austrian and Hitler was German", the Austrian school system does put a strong emphasis on teaching us about Austrian (and world) history. A big part of that is to work through our countries role in the second world war and to take responsibility for our countries actions. While officially declared "Hitler's first victim" after the war, it cannot be denied that Austrians weren't exactly sad about the annexation ('Anschluss') and that a big part of the country enthusiastically followed and supported his lead and his ideology.
Concentration Camp Mauthausen
Two weeks after the Anschluss, they started building a concentration camp, only about 20 minutes from my home, close to the town of Mauthausen. While big parts of the original buildings were destroyed, parts of it were rebuilt and what still existed preserved and today it is a memorial to those who suffered and died there. I highly recommend everyone who's coming to Austria to visit, not because it's a beautiful place and it'll make you feel good about yourself (it'll not), but because it's an intricate part of Austrian history and it's important to remember the people who fought for a better society and ended up paying with their life.
Mauthausen started as a satellite camp of Dachau in Germany, but quickly became independent, acquiring numerous satellite camps throughout Austria. Prisoners were convicted criminals, "asocial elements" (political prisoners, homosexuals, etc.), anti-Nazis from all over Europe and, of course, Jews. All prisoners were marked "Rückkehr unerwünscht" ('return not desired') and therefore starved, beaten, used for medical experiments, used for gruelling work in the local stone quarries and killed in the gas chambers. Overall, about 200 000 prisoners passed through Mauthausen, 120 000 of which were killed. It's terrifying how close the local population lived and how everyone still turned a blind eye. Heck, the local population would enter soccer championships with the SS and play literally right outside the gates! The memorial is therefore intended not only to remember the dead but also to be a warning to the living.
If this is your first experience, I highly recommend you to take a guided tour. It's almost impossible to prepare for the bleak and earnest experience it'll be and it's invaluable to be able to ask questions and have someone who knows everything about the place and its history be able to answer them.
There's no need for Small Talk
When visiting the concentration camp, keep in mind that there are people with Audio-Tours, people reading, people remembering and people who are trying to process the horrible reality of what happened here. Surely, the question of where to have a beer later can wait? Even when you're outside, try to keep your voice down and don't disturb others.
Emotions are okay
The first time I went to the Concentration Camp was with my school when I was 14. One of the first things they told us was that it's okay to show emotion and to let it out. While we all laughed about it at first, we realized the importance of it the latest when we entered the former gas chamber. Whether you believe in stuff like this or not, some people feel what happened here and some might cry, others might faint and some may not want to stay any longer than necessary and all of that is okay. Others might not feel anything and that's okay, too! Don’t force or withhold anything you might or might not feel.
Why you should visit a Concentration Camp, too
While visiting Mauthausen is not going to be a comfortable experience, it is an important one. It's essential that the events of the Holocaust are not forgotten. It's crucial to recognise humankind's capacity for cruelty, it's crucial to understand our past in order to make sure that nothing alike won't be allowed to happen again.
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