Laura on Pilgrimage

Laura is a sophomore journalism major with minors in art history, photography and human rights. She is participating in the Spring Break Human Rights Pilgrimage to the Czech Republic, Austria and Germany.

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Work camps and death camps

My apologies for not writing yesterday. Yesterday was one of the most intense days we’ve had on the trip thus far, and, to be entirely honest, I felt as if I needed a day to gather my thoughts and think about what I saw and felt as I walked through the places we visited prior to writing.

Today was a quiet day – we drove from Linz into Munich, with a stop at the famous Neuschwanstein Castle on the way. The castle was beautiful, and the drive was as well. The mountains are still snow-covered. It was nice to get to experience some of the natural beauty that surrounds us, despite the manmade atrocities we have seen.

EEUROPE%205%20-%20Version%202.jpgAnyway, like I said, yesterday was draining. Our first visit was to Melk, a small city in Austria where a Mauthausen subcamp was located. Now, virtually nothing of the camp remains except for the crematorium, which we visited (photo at right). The crematoriums are, as you would expect, one of the most upsetting things to see.

EEUROPE%2034%20-%20Version%202.jpgOur next visit was the Mauthausen camp, a labor camp (photo of the Mauthausen prison at left). Mauthausen primarily housed political criminals who were used as workers in the huge stone quarries there. Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer, called for large amounts of granite in his designs, much of which ended up coming from Mauthausen and other camps with quarries. The quarries are located down steep, steep stairs in a gorge. Professor Halperin told us about accounts of SS guards waiting until prisoners were at the top of the quarry with the huge granite stones on their backs, then shooting them in the kneecaps, causing them to fall like dominoes and ultimately, be crushed by the stones they were carrying.

Interestingly enough, the weather while we were in Mauthausen took a turn for the worse. The cloudy skies turned even darker, and we were subjected to rain and windchills in the teens as we walked around the camp. It was timely, considering where we were and what we were experiencing. One of the things that struck me the most was simply the fact that we had the free will to walk out the gates of the camp without so much as a second thought, not to mention the fact that we were bundled up in multiple layers, coats, scarves and boots. Many of the prisoners only had flannel pajamas, if that.

EEUROPE%2072%20-%20Version%202.jpgAfter escaping the bitter cold at Mauthausen, we visited Hartheim Castle (see photo). The name is misleading. While the building was indeed a castle at one point (and a very beautiful one, at that) it was expropriated by the Nazis in 1939 and turned into a crucial part of their Aktion T4 euthanasia program.

EEUROPE%2066%20-%20Version%202.jpgA gas chamber and crematorium were constructed within the castle. During the time it was in operation, nearly 20,000 mentally and physically-disabled children and adults were murdered. The castle was beautiful, but it was disarming walking through a gas chamber in such a gorgeous place (see photo).

Our last stop was way up in the mountains in a small Austrian village called Ebensee. Ebensee was the site of another Mauthausen subcamp. Prisoners at Ebensee worked to build tunnels into the mountains where they constructed rockets. Ebensee was liberated by the United States on May 9, 1945, but not before 20,000 were worked to their deaths.

We are in Munich tonight, and tomorrow our trip culminates with a visit to Dachau. Then, we fly back into the United States on Sunday morning.

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