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.

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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‘Nie wieder’ – Never again

Today, unbeknownst to us until yesterday, is a very special day in Austria. March 12 marks the 70th anniversary of Austria’s anschluss.

The anschluss is the day when Austria was unified with Germany under the Nazi regime. Even though much of Austria was in support of this, it has now become a very important holiday for the Holocaust – or as many of the Jewish people we have met prefer, the Shoah.

EEUROPE%2075%20-%20Version%202.jpgA special memorial was held tonight in the Heroes Park near the Austrian National Library. The memorial honored the 80,000 Austrian Jews murdered in the Holocaust. The victims were represented by 80,000 candles spread throughout the lawn of the park. The site was incredible, and many people moved their candles into various formations – some were shaped into important dates, text spelling “Never Again” (Nie Wieder) in German, fleur de lis, Stars of David, etc. Much of the speeches were in German, but an orchestra played intermittently, and all in all, it was a beautiful sight.

Prior to the anschluss memorial, we had a relatively quiet day in Vienna in preparation for our visit to the concentration camps tomorrow. We visited in synagogue in the city – one of the few that wasn’t destroyed during the Kristallnacht. The synagogue is hidden in an inconspicuous building in Vienna’s Jewish Quarter.

Unfortunately, it has fallen victim to terrorist attacks. Therefore security was very tight. It was like entering a federal building, not a place of religious worship. The thought of having to remove my coat and bag and walk through a metal detector to enter such a sacred place was disarming and saddening. Are we not considerate enough of each other at this point to at least respect the religion that one chooses to worship?

Our guide was a young university student, and we were joined on our tour by a German couple, an Austrian man, as well as Jewish man from somewhere in Europe – I can’t remember which country he was from.

Anyway, we had a question-and answer-session come up, and the camp Mauthausen was brought up in conversation. The two men begin to cry. I have never felt so much pain as I did when I watched two grown, elderly men tear up about something that occurred nearly 70 years ago, but was obviously still a very fresh, very raw wound.

Once again on this trip, I am amazed at how prevalent the effects of the Holocaust still are within these countries and continuously shocked about the anti-Semitism that supposedly remains here in Austria. My eyes are opened more and more every day that I am here.

I feel that tomorrow will be a difficult day for everyone, as we will be traveling to Mauthausen and two of its sub-camps, Grusen and Ebensee. The death toll for Mauthausen is estimated at approximately 300,000.

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Trebic to Vienna: quiet preparation

EEUROPE%2027%20-%20Version%202.jpgThis morning we woke up and left Prague for Vienna. On the way, we made a stop at a small Czech town called Trebic (photo at left).

While very few have ever heard of this miniscule town, planted in the middle of the countryside, its significance is great. Trebic is the only Jewish UNESCO World Heritage site outside of Israel. Both the Jewish Quarter of the town and the St. Procopius Basilica are registered with UNESCO.

The Jewish Quarter includes synagogues, schools, homes, and businesses. There is also a very old Jewish cemetery (the oldest grave dates back to 1633!) with almost 4,000 tombstones.

Even a town as isolated as Trebic was still not immune to the horrors of the Holocaust. All of the city’s Jewish inhabitants were deported to camps during the War. Only 10 survived; none returned to Trebic. No Jewish population remains in Trebic today.

A lovely Czech woman was kind enough to invite us into her home to view the well that is in the middle of her house in the Jewish Quarter. The well has been there since the 18th century and was in use up until several years ago. The woman was a very talented ceramic artist and sold beautiful dishes, vases and figurines that she had fired herself to use as souvenirs.

EEUROPE%2055%20-%20Version%202.jpgWe made it into Vienna in the early afternoon and walked around the Jewish Quarter in Vienna, visiting the Holocaust memorial there along the way. Our group placed a candle on the platform of the memorial in honor of the Austrian Jews murdered in the Holocaust (photo right).

It was a quiet day, but interesting nonetheless and a perfect day for gathering thoughts and preparing for the second half of the trip, which is primarily constituted of visits to concentration camps.

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Gestapo Headquarters and a town wiped out

Well, we finally woke up this morning to the sun shining in Prague. It was a treat to see the city in the sunlight, especially considering we leave tomorrow morning for Vienna. While it has not been unbearably cold here, the sunlight did warm the day up significantly!

EEUROPE%2026%20-%20Version%202.jpgOur first stop of the morning was to the famous Prague Castle. This is the huge cathedral and castle complex that you see in most books about Prague. The highlight of the castle was most definitely the St. Vitus Cathedral (photo at left). The sun was shining through the stained glass, making the inside sparkle with all sorts of colors. I have been in Notre Dame, Chartres and a few other historical cathedrals, but I think St. Vitus is by far the most beautiful. The attention paid to detail was remarkable!

After leaving St. Vitus, we had a slightly different stop on our agenda. Our next visit was to the former Gestapo Headquarters in Prague. The building is now some sort of governmental building in Prague, but the S.S. used to hold their offices there. The basement of the building has a small museum-type area, but unfortunately, I doubt it is somewhere that your typical tourist would frequent. It features documents explaining who the S.S. were, what they did, etc. In addition, the torture rooms that the Gestapo used are still preserved and intact. It was a terrifying experience to see these dark torture rooms with wooden cots, bars on the small window and a tiny peephole. It literally was like something out of a horror movie.

EEUROPE%2096%20-%20Version%202.jpgWe also had the pleasure of meeting Miloslavic Sara (photo at right), a delightful older man who had the unfortunate experience of being held by the S.S. as a 17-year-old. Milo, as he’s called, said he hadn’t spoken English in 20 years, but he was thrilled to tell his story – and we were even luckier to hear it!

EEUROPE%20145%20-%20Version%202.jpgOur last stop of the day was a small town outside of Prague called Lidice (photo at left). In 1942, troops were sent to Lidice in retaliation for Heydrich’s assassination. The entire population of the town was taken to a farm in the village. Women and children were then taken to the local school, from which they were transported. The men remained. The men were executed, 10 at a time, until finally 173 dead bodies were lying against the barn wall. 184 of the women were sent to the concentration camp at Ravensbruck, and 88 of the children to Lodz. Seven children were chosen for Germanization and were adopted out to German families. Adolf Eichmann later ordered for the murder of the remaining children; however, the children were sent to Chelmno instead, where 82 died.

After eliminating the residents of Lidice, the town was destroyed – buildings were bombed and bulldozed. Even the dead were not spared, as the remains in the town’s cemetery were dug up and later destroyed. The entire event was filmed by the Nazis. Now, Lidice houses a small museum and walking paths through the site where the carnage occurred. There is a moving children’s memorial and several statues that decorate the grounds. The base of the church is preserved as well. The entire site was phenomenally beautiful in spite of what occurred less than 70 years prior.

Every day, I feel like I am delving a bit deeper and slowly making myself more vulnerable – in a good way. Every place I have visited, every experience I have had, every person I have talked to thus far has had something meaningful to say, and the more I hear and see, the more inclined I am not only to learn more, but also to share my experiences with others.

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From Prague to Theresienstadt: A day of reverence

Today we had a busy day in Prague. Our first stop was the Jewish Quarter, called Josefhov. It dates back to the 1200s, when Jews of that time were ordered to settle in one area of the city. We visited several synagogues and the Old Jewish Cemetery before driving to Theresienstadt.

The most memorable synagogue of the day was most certainly the Pinkas Synagogue, built in 1535. It is unique in that, on every inch of the white-washed walls, are inscribed the names of nearly 80,000 Jews who died in the Holocaust. Their names are painted on the walls, and they are listed by family name. Also listed is the date of birth and date of death. The synagogue would have been beautiful and reverent on its own, but seeing 80,000 names in print really put things into perspective.

Even more heartbreaking, the second floor of Pinkas features an exhibit of drawings and paintings that were done by children in Theresienstadt, before being transported to Auschwitz. Seeing hatred and persecution through the eyes of a child is particularly revealing. I think as an adult, you become a little more immune to some of the horrible things you see, whereas a child – still innocent and developing – feels the full impact.

After driving about 45 minutes outside of Prague, we reached the town of Terezin. It was once a fortress, built in the late 18th century by Joseph II. The Gestapo set up their prison in the smaller part of the fortress in the summer of 1940, but later converted the larger fortress into a walled ghetto as well.

Theresienstadt’s original purpose was to concentrate Jews from certain areas in one particular city. These Jews were then to be transferred to extermination camps. Sadly enough, Theresienstadt was also the “model” camp that the Nazis used when organizations like the Red Cross came through to visit.

EUROPE%2094.jpgEven though Theresienstadt was not an execution or labor camp, the death rate was still nearly 50 percent. We saw barracks smaller than my apartment back home – which is pretty small – that slept over 100 people. Malnutrition and disease were rampant. Over the course of four years, 141,000 Jews were deported to Theresienstadt. 34,000 died there, and another 88,000 were transferred to death camps. (In photo: the barracks at Theresienstadt)

We also visited the crematorium in Terezin where bodies were burned. The original ovens remain as well as the dissection rooms, where gold teeth, jewelry, etc., were removed from bodies prior to their cremation. Disturbingly, the main room where the ovens were still smelled of burning, and the dissection rooms smelled of a hospital. It was one of the most disturbing things I’ve experienced.

On our way back into Prague, we passed the assassination site of Reinhardt Heydrich, the Nazi Chief of Security. Heydrich was often considered to be a potential successor to Hitler. His wounds were not fatal, but he died from shrapnel injuries in a hospital literally across the street from where he was attacked.

All in all, it was a day of incredible reverence, and I am sure just a precursor of what’s to come.

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A stop in Nuremberg, Germany

We landed safely today in Frankfurt around 6:45 AM. We were all exhausted, but glad to be off the plane. Even though we flew into Frankfurt, our final destination for the day was Prague, which is about a 4-1/2 hour drive from Frankfurt.

On our way to Prague, we made a stop in Nuremberg at the Nazi Party Rally Ground. The site has a new, huge museum and is for the most part preserved. The museum was beautiful – it was modern and was built as an addition to the Congress Hall that Adolf Hitler was in the process of building for the Nazi party. The museum chronicled the Nazis’ rise to power and ended with their eventual demise during the trials of Nuremburg.

PRAGUE%2047.jpgSo much of this area was very well-preserved, which made some of us feel uncomfortable. How can life go on normally when you are living less than a mile away from the very spot where Hitler rallied thousands of hate-filled people? A few of us went up on the very platform where Hitler stood on the Zeppelin Field (photo at left) and looked onto what are now soccer fields, but once, a place where thousands of adoring people cheered. The experience provoked something I’ve never felt within myself and likely won’t ever again. It was an experience that was literally physically distressing for me and several others.

We arrived safely in Prague early in the afternoon and after a nice rest, had a good dinner at a local restaurant. Our hotel is just across the river from the downtown area, so after dinner, I took the subway into the main part of town. Prague is gorgeous – I can’t wait to see more of it.

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Preparing for the Human Rights Pilgrimage

Right now, I am in mid-flight to Frankfurt, flying somewhere near Quebec. While I am flying, crammed into a small space with several hundred other people, I am left with ample time to reflect upon this trip, my personal reasons for going and all of the things I am going to experience in the upcoming week.

However, while I am undoubtedly going to bear witness to the sites of countless atrocities, I must remind myself not to lose sight of the current state of human rights in the United States, or rather, the world.

Just because millions died under the Nazi party’s rule doesn’t make anyone immune from the possibility of it happening again. The current states of Darfur, Nairobi, Cambodia and Iraq should be sufficient proof of that. All over the world we are facing a critical time in the development of human rights.

I also must remind myself as I walk through hallowed buildings, sites of executions and cemeteries that we are not any better than we were during the 1940s, nor will we ever be until we all embrace the idea that encompasses all human rights – there is no such thing as a lesser person.

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