by Mardith J. Louisell
As a resident of many camps, I can say that Guzen was the worst. This is not to say that the conditions at the other camps were not dreadful. Compared to Guzen, however, one might almost say that those camps were paradises.” Rabbi Rav Yechezkel Harfenes, Slingshot of Hell (BeKaf HaKela), 1988
I had never wanted to go to Austria because of its Holocaust history but when my partner received an award at an arts festival in Linz, I went. If I had to go to Austria, maybe I could gain a small understanding of how the horrific ethnic cleansings of today occur. When I saw an audiotour of a concentration camp in Linz, I signed up.
But when the bus arrived at the site, instead of concrete walls and barbed wire, I saw a yellow church steeple on a hill and beige houses with geraniums in window boxesthe concentration camp was now a middle-class housing development dotted with parks, newly built houses and remodeled camp buildings on roads like Gartenstrasse where I would soon walkas nondescript as the small town in which I grew up.
Fifteen km from Linz, the Gusen complex is the only extermination camp of significant size not memorialized as a site. Administratively the Gusen complex was categorized as a satellite of Mauthausen, but the three Gusen camps covered an area large enough to include four towns and in 1945 held 25,000 inmates, double the number of Mauthausen.
Audiowalk Gusen, The Invisible Camp, is an art project by Christopher Mayer who grew up in St. Georgen an der Gusen which adjoined Gusen II; Mayer’s grandfather had joined the National Socialist Party and his parents still live in St. Georgen. Mayer hadn’t known about Gusen until he was fourteen years old and a neighbor asked him if he knew the town had been a labor extermination camp. In not knowing, Mayer wasn’t unusualAustrians didn’t speak of Gusen for decades.
The interwoven voices on the audio belong to Gusen camp survivors, past and current residents, former air force soldiers and SS camp guards, all of whom Mayer interviewed.
Mayer sets me up with my IPod. Two blocks separate each audiotourist so I walk alone. I press the IPod button and hear a narrator provide directions.
Walk in time to the footsteps on the tape. Turn left at the end of the road. Keep walking.
Beside a stone wall that lines the main business road of the village, I see terrain that seems innocent, orderly, even boring, but walking alone into a strange town with earphones, I can be singled out, almost as though I were wearing one of the ugly yellow stars of the Reich. How quickly I absorb what I imagine is the prevailing norm. I feel I’m braving peer pressurea nice person doesn’t investigate the detritus of other people’s neighborhoods. I try not to make a wrong turn on the spotless road.
Turn left here. Continue. . . . Stop, here at the iron gate.
Two surveillance cameras. No Trespassing signs. A clean gray garbage bin on wheels, except for color exactly like one in San Francisco.
This was the gate to the camp. Prisoners were deposited and informed the only way out was through the chimney of the crematorium.
At first, the camp worked prisoners to death in stone quarries; later, inmates excavated cliffs to build a factory to produce jet fighters. When inmates’ bodies were spent, they were exterminated, usually within four months of arrival.
The iron gate rests between two stone columns, probably supports for the original camp gates. A two story affluent house rises on a hill at the end of the long driveway.
Look up to the top. The basement of that stone house was the camp torture chamber.
Nothing suggests its past. Only now do I notice that the stonework seems slightly older in the lower left portion of the house. The owner had wanted to tear down the basement, but “It’s a good foundation,” his engineer said. “Use it.” Is it now a breakfast nook? A family room? Who walks down those steps and watches television there, perhaps with a cup of good Austrian coffee? On the tape two men argue about whether the walls remember. One thinks the walls do, another thinks notit’s just a building.
Continue walking down the road to the right. Stop here. Number 14. This was the whorehouse.
I imagine Austrian guards walking into a small cubbyhole to have sex. With German prostitutes? Camp prisoners? Jews?
I was done with my shift, time for someone else’s. I walked up the four steps to the brothel.
A small gray plaque neatly outlined in white, 14 UNTERE GARTENSTRASSE. One window of the barracks-style house ajar in the casual way of early fall. White petunias. On the front porch table, a green and white checked cloth. Two chairsthe owners’ hope for a last meal outside before winter. A man walks out the door and down the four steps. I look at him. He looks back. His face betrays nothing. Keeping my face also expressionless, I avert my eyes as though what I’m hearing has nothing to do with him but it’s his story on the tape.
After we moved in, we wanted a party room so we tore down the walls because the rooms were so small. Getting a reasonably priced house in Upper Austria was a lucky break. Now I would never live anywhere else.
Silence on the tape. Then footsteps.
I got my first job at the camp. Back then, everyone had been poor. The working people, even factory workers, had so much more with the Party. They could take their families for picnics on boats down the Danube, something no one had even dreamed of before.
They could also take weekend trips to Munich, train trips to Lake Garda and cruises to Madeira, all thanks to a Party sponsored tourist agency that kept costs low.
In this village where people flirted, gardened and took boat trips down the Danube, where everyone wanted to fit in, inmates were gassed, beaten to death, bathed to death in cold showers until they died, drowned, and given heart injections (420 Jewish children between the ages of four and seven in February 1945). In the winter of 1944/45, more inmates arrived than the work consumed so new prisoners were left at the train station in locked railway cars. Left to freeze, they died in days.
Where could a villager intervene? Could one give food to prisoners? On the tape, an old man said that as a boy he tossed an apple core into the woods; when a prisoner grabbed it, the man was killed.
Walk down Gartenstrasse. To your right you see the cement walls of the quarry where prisoners dug stone for Munich and Linz buildings. Turn left and continue down the street.
My feet scurry to keep pace with the prodding of the tape’s footsteps. I learn that locals remember dogs and SS on horses chasing men and children, forcing them to run from the camp to the work site.
Look at the house in front of you, # 4.
In 1985, I was twelve, I learned to play the piano there, in the former SS-kitchen barrack.
I turn the corner. Suddenly I see three women chatting on the front sidewalk. They look up and stop talking. I have to decide whether to greet or ignore them. I paste a pleasant look on my face, implying that I don’t judge. I keep moving, head bowed, to keep some tacit agreement I hope I have with them, although I’m not sure what it is or that they feel the same. Most of them were children during the war. For what exactly would I judge them?
I would like to condemn these people but I have to consider my own desire to fit in, the small events where I didn’t speak up for fear of sticking out, the time I asked if it was really my responsibility to act. Of course, because I might not have behaved with courage doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t. Still I wonder how I would have stacked up in St. Georgen in 1943. Because my mother is Jewish, I wouldn’t have had the choice. It’s easy to say people should have objected and fought, less clear when I’m the one who must act. I remember that lynchings were normal in the United States until the 1930s and people went along to the extent that they didn’t stop them.
I feel uncomfortably vulnerable when the women look at me but as a villager in the 1940s such vulnerability would have been not merely uncomfortable but terrifying. Some residents must have been horrified but could they say so? To whom? By 1940, the Austrian handicapped had been gassed at Hartheim Castle just 40 km west of Gusen. The gassings, the camps and the smells had inserted themselves until they were part of daily life.
I took the tour hoping to gain insight about how this atrocity happened and the experience has thrown me deep into the mind of a run-of-the-mill Austrian in World War II. I can see how things creep forward, how you don’t know when to say “Stop, enough!” and when you do, it’s too late, you’re in danger. German writer W. G. Sebald, himself trying to understand his countrymen’s actions, wrote that under the apparently inexorable power of the Nazi regime, “a basic stance of opposition and a lively intelligence…could easily turn into more or less deliberate attempts to conform. . . .”
Yet I also know Austria’s history of anti-Semitism, that some were eager for a Reich that would eliminate Jews and that the economic well-being they so treasured came in part from looting the houses of Jews who they knew would not return.
Look on the building on your right. In 1943 I went to get my teeth fixed. We used the camp dentist and when I walked by the front to get to the side entrance, I saw guards unload sacks from a truck and throw them against the wall. I heard screams. I found that guards were smashing Jewish children to kill them.
I look back at the three women. I’d like to stare at, examine them, interview them about their moral compasses. Instead I look down. Pink chalk on the cementkids’ hopscotch. Laughing ten-year-olds whiz by on bikes. It almost seems that Mayer has orchestrated the scene, the contrast between the kids on bikes and the fact that sixty-two years ago Jewish kids were being murdered. I remember the black and white remoteness of war photos. I realize that this war, which I had imagined in grainy shadows, didn’t happen that way at all but in coloryellow water hoses, red petunias, pink chalk.
As I avoid the bikes and slow moving BMWs, I wonder if the camps inform the residents’ every thought. Or are the camps as remote as slavery and the destruction of Native Americans are for some in the United States? Do Austrians think, “It’s true our ancestors killed but that was years ago. We live here now.” I try to understand how landing a house in Upper Austria in a former Nazi whorehouse was such a good deal.
Mayer clearly intended the piece to be a confrontation with the townspeople and at first they refused permission for the tour. He could have sued to gain access to the public streets, thereby generating substantial unfavorable publicity for the town; instead he requested a discussion with the local town council. There the residents made the size of the tour groups the issue. Mayer countered that individuals would walk alone, no more than eight in a two hour period. The real issue was a belief that this kind of remembrance shouldn’t occur but since no one could say that publicly, the tour was allowed.
Continue. This gray concrete to your right was the camp crematorium.
I was a young boy then and I remember when they fired up the ovens, my grandmother paced restlessly. “The smell,” she said to my mother. “I can’t stand the smell. Why do they have to burn them?” “But what can we do?” my mother answered. “They can’t work anymore, we can’t keep them.” “Oh,” my grandmother said, “I guess so. If they can’t work, what can we do?”
Walk on. Follow the curve in the road.
A railroad track: Trains deposited 10,000 prisoners daily at the underground factories where they manufactured the Messerschmitt Me262s, the first operational turbojet fighter. Sputnik generation American teenagers worshipped this jet, it was “cool,” way ahead of it’s time. However, this glorious airplane was built in factories carved out of stone in thirteen months by prisoners worked to death. Vernichtung durch Arbeit: “Destruction through Work,” used more during the Third Reich than ever before in history. The Reich had planned for production by slaves of 1250 jets a month through the year 1955. The train track, now a leg of the Danube’s cycling path, curves through the countryside of Upper Austria, green and fresh from the past week’s rain. Sixty years ago, the rain would have eased the stench of burned fat from the ovens.
I’ve lived here for sixty-five years. It’s so peaceful here now, isn’t it? Quiet. Hard to believe, almost like the past is no longer true.
In the 1950s, when the terrain was privatized, Austrian authorities planned to raze the crematoria but French, Italian and Belgian survivors purchased the ovens and built a small memorial to those less fortunate.
Mahnmal is a word that means “memorial” and “warning” simultaneously. It doesn’t appear in a dictionary until after the war. At the Mahnmal Memorial against War and Fascism in Vienna, two white stone monoliths represent, on the one side, Jewish victims of the Nazis, on the other, all victims of war and fascism. The figures are generic and stand on a granite pedestal cut from the Mauthausen quarry. Compared to the oversize monoliths, a minuscule bronze statue, the size of a German shepherd and low to the ground, shows a man scrubbing the pavement with a brush.
This man is not generic. He is obviously and stereotypically Jewish, downtrodden, bearded, as clear as a Kathe Kollwitz print. Immediately after the Anschluss, Jews were forced to remove anti-Nazi graffiti from the streets of Vienna with toothbrushes and were forced to eat grass. Onlookers “couldn’t get enough of it,” but the memorial is controversial. It doesn’t mention perpetrators and implies that Austrians and Jews alike were victims. The small Jewish man scrubbing is demeaning, but the sculptor got it rightin Austria, even in a memorial, the worst job went to the Jew.
The one third of all registered Gusen II victims who were Jewish, including children, lived about half as long and were given the worst jobsresidents saw naked children emptying the latrines with buckets and standing in excrement up to their waists. People knew.
Yes, my parents’ generation built memorials, Mayer told me, and Austria now takes some responsibility: “Annexation” is no longer an accurate translation of Anschluss. “Joined,” Mayer said, “not annexed. And Gusen, formerly a ‘labor camp,’ was recently declared an ‘extermination camp.’” But, he went on, no one has done much research on perpetrators and conflicts still smolder about post-war history and what to do with leftover camp buildings. Why, he asked, even now do so few people in Austria talk about Gusen?
Although Mauthausen is one of the forty-five concentration camp names chiseled in the base of Rachel Whiteread’s mausoleum-like memorial in Vienna’s Judenplatz, Gusen is notit was only an auxiliary, although it killed 37,000 personsone third of all victims who died in the forty-nine concentration camps in Austria.
Yes, I was a guard. Hitler did a lot of good things. I don’t feel so bad. You had to have been there. All in all we can say we fulfilled this difficult task of love for our people.
I stop, sit on a bench and look across the field, stalks turning beige in early autumn. Peaceful. I think about parallels in the United States, remember how during the depression Americans benefited from FDR’s policies. Some loved him like he was God, couldn’t imagine not supporting him, no matter what. Would they have followed him had FDR led to the same place as Hitler? What would have made the difference?
Walk across the road to the end of the short road on your right.
Behind me the cornfield, in front the underground Messerschmidt factory hollowed out of sandstone cliffs to hide it from the Allied pilots. It’s an abandoned air raid shelter now, a locked iron gate across the door.
On the IPod, a guard hesitatingly describes prisoners who pick up dead comrades, inmates left to die in the cold, torture. It’s what I’ve been waiting foran acknowledgement of the enormity of Gusen. He talks of guilt. I ask myself how he lives with this. The narrator wants to know as much as I do and presses him.
What else did you see?
But the guard won’t be goaded.
You can’t imagine. You had to have been there. I’ve taken you as far as I can.
The narrator and I crave absolution, for ourselves, for the guard, for humankind. Or is it justice we want? A tilting of the scales a millimeter closer to balanced because the guard suffers. But the guard doesn’t have these illusions.
There’s nothing that can help me. It’s as though I go through a door to an empty room where no one can join me. Then there’s another door. That too, I must go through by myself. And another. And another.
The narrator asks again.
What do you think about now?
You cannot know.