Before Mauthausen, we were just a group of 48 rambunctious teenagers from New York on a trip half way around the world. After, we would never be the same again. I will never forget the day that I visited Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. The second my People to People tour group and I stepped off the bus and looked at the front gates of what was once a place of suffering and death, we went completely silent. It wasn’t just any old silence; it was an eerie, terrifying silence. You could almost see the SS officers walking around with their loaded guns poised to kill for no good reason other than your religious affiliation. It was amazing the contrast between the busy and bustling town of Linz, Austria just below the death and horror that occurred at the site of the camp just 10 miles up the steep hill.
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It is almost unimaginable that anything bad could have happened in such a beautiful place. It seems as though they tried to find the prettiest most serene place to build such an awful place. There are beautiful green rolling hills and fields of wildflowers just overlooking a winding river, but right in the middle is a place of overwhelming despair. Walking through the front gates of the camp I tried to imagine myself as a Jew being taken away from everything thing you’ve ever known in life, being stripped of your identity, and knowing that you would never walk back out of those massive, strong gates. At the first room we were shown the disgusting living quarters for the prisoners of the camp. They slept in small wooden bunks with no pillows or blankets and were sometimes confined to a small 2×5 area they were forced to share with 3 others. The bathroom was literally a hole in the floor of a cement room.
Then finally we came to the most infamous part of all concentration camps, the gas chambers. Just walking in was breathtaking, I felt as though I couldn’t move let alone stand. As we stood in the room there was a presence, a presence of the ones who were lost. Intense images flash through one’s mind as they try to comprehend what took place not so many years ago. You could almost hear the screeching cries of mothers and their children slowly and painfully being poisoned by the lethal gas. But what do they do with all of the bodies? Well, they burned them in large human sized ovens, which was another sight to see. My Jewish friend, Evan, was right beside me the entire time in the camp. Evan tried to compose himself while in the camp, but as soon as we witnessed the gas chambers and the ovens he lost it. Never, in my lifetime, have I seen a man so touched by simply looking at a room. We immediately embraced in silence; what was there to say?
History class doesn’t prepare you for an experience like this one. Textbooks simply cannot capture the pure hatred, and disgustingness of some humans. Everyone should be able to experience what I did on this day. It has brought me to a new and deeper understanding of what is really important in life. The only way to not repeat the past is to learn from it and to confront it. Even though we are silent from astonishment, we must never let the memories of the ones who were lost become silent in our hearts.
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