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Visiting a Nazi concentration camp for the first time: Why we must bear witness

One of my most emotionally raw moments of this year was unexpected: A friend offered me her house to catsit at.   I readily accepted, however my research into the area led me to discover that the Mauthausen concentration camp was nearby.

Visiting a former Nazi concentration camp for the first time was difficult, however it was something that I had to do.  I hope that this article helps you prepare for your visit.

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I have been in touch with the KZ Mauthausen foundation regarding this article and received permission to publish.

Growing up in New York, you learn about the Holocaust early on and know that it’s far from yet another chapter in history; it’s intertwined with the stories of many New Yorkers.   You hear numerous stories of lives cut off at their peak, distance relatives whose stories only read as dates with no details about their lives, and entire villages lost to history.  You also meet survivors with the distinctive tattoo on the wrist; many who prefer to not discuss this period of history.

I’ve deeply struggled with the legacy of the Holocaust and I’ve still felt guilty that I felt my emotions take over when I decided that I wasn’t strong enough to visit Terezín, a ghetto created by the Nazis intended to hide the extent of the genocide to the international community.

I’ve been to Holocaust museums, however it’s not the same as seeing the concentration camps with your own eyes. While in Austria, I was close enough to the Mauthausen Memorial / Concentration Camp that I knew that I had visit to bear witness and grapple with my own family’s past.  

Mauthausen is one of the first concentration camps that was also a slave labor camp.  It was also one of the last concentration camps to be freed. Its history is not just of that of the Jewish people, but others who stood up to the Third Reich and those rejected by the Third Reich.  

Those imprisoned inside included political activists, communists, socialists, LGBT people, Romani, Jehovah’s witnesses, prisoners of war, and anyone who spoke out against the Nazis. Some assume that it was only Jews who died in the Holocaust, however many others suffered and died at the hands of the Nazis.

I’m not writing a guide on visiting Mauthausen although I encourage you to bring some tissues with you regardless of which former concentration camp you visit.   It’s hard to know how you’ll react and I needed the tissues.  I ended up leaving after two hours and I needed to have an extra day to process everything. 

Etiquette of visiting a concentration camp for the first time

You need to be respectful.  Although some react to upsetting events with laughter, silence is often appreciated by others while visiting the site of a concentration camp.   If you want to talk, try to be quiet to not to disturb others.

Similarly, I strongly encourage you from refraining from selfies, smiling photos, or photoshoots as they can be offensive to others.  It’s often okay to take a photo of where you are, but I’d recommend avoiding posing or any kind of jumping shots. 

Bloggers take note:  In several European countries, including Austria, members of the press are requested to ask permission prior to publishing any articles on the internet about Holocaust history or places related to the Holocaust.  (I contacted the foundation prior to writing this article.) 

Many people choose to take a guided tour or to rent a headset for a couple of euros (at Mauthausen), however if your goal is to absorb what happened, it might be too much. It’s emotional enough walking next to the barracks surrounded high walls that effectively isolate you.  Even with a smattering of people, it felt cramped (to me) and too easy to imagine the life of the prisoners here, especially as you go through the museum on the property.

Even if you know what happened in detail, there is nothing to prepare you for visiting a concentration camp.  If you’re knowledgeable about the Holocaust, the sheer cruelty will shock you, even if you’ve learned a lot about the Nazis.  At Mauthausen, there was a cliff next to the quarry where prisoners would be pushed off the edge to their deaths by guards.

Mauthausen has one of the best preserved Nazi concentration camps as the many of the barracks are still original and you quickly feel the camp’s presence whether you intend to or not.  The camp was actually built by some of the early prisoners. For me, the heaviest moment were looking down towards the Stairs of Death where prisoners were forced to carry heavy stones down a steep staircase.

Nothing can prepare you for looking into the gas chamber and seeing the ovens.  I spent a while standing outside, however once I entered the room, my heart dropped, I felt heavy, and my body started shaking.  It’s one thing to see the photos of the ovens, but it is another to see where so many countless people were cremated without ceremony.  

Afterwards, you walk into a room full of the names of the decreased carved into stone. It’s heartbreaking running your fingers over the name of a single one of the names trying to imagine each life.

The surprising part of visiting the Mauthausen memorial is that it’s surrounded by a stunning town, picturesque rolling hills with stunning views over the nearby countryside. 

I visited from Mauthausen (reachable by bus from Linz) and did the forty minute walk uphill towards the former concentration camp that prisoners were forced to do from the train station.  As you walk towards the camp, you pass beautiful houses with blooming gardens, soccer fields, and the Danube itself.

If you have any faith, I encourage you to say some parting words to honor those who did not have the chance for a proper burial.  If you are Jewish, consider saying the mourner’s kaddish for those who did not get a proper burial.   

At Mauthausen and many other concentration camps, there’s a memorial for Jews who died in the Holocaust and a meaningful act in the Jewish tradition is to put a stone on top of the memorial, as you would a grave. Unlike flowers that can wither, stones remain steadfast. 

Similarly if you are Christian, consider bringing a scripture to be read in private in honor of the many Christians who perished here for their steadfast beliefs.  Simply, no matter your religion, consider saying something in honor of those who perished here.

My experience visiting this Nazi concentration camp was emotional, however genocides do not happen in a bubble: we allow them to happen by not listening, not believing, and not being vocal enough.  

I believe that it is important to bear witness to the painful history of World War II.  It is not easy, however we cannot forget those who perished here and those who were tortured here.   Going to concentration camps forces us to remind ourselves of the unspeakable acts that humanity is capable of and to encourage us to do better.  It’s one thing to read about history; it’s another to see it for yourself.

All around the world, there are genocides occurring at this very moment. Even when it came to Rwanda, it took us many years to recognize it as an active ethnic cleansing and I hope that we do not make the same mistake again (and again).   Look up what is happening in this world.  It’s certainly a start to making the world a better place.

I leave you with the words of Martin Niemoller:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Have you visited a Nazi concentration camp? 

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