Yom Ha’Shoah Post #1: Remembering Mauthausen

04.12.04

LGF posted a letter written by Fred Friendly, a US master sergeant in 1945, who later went on to become president of CBS news, about what he saw when he liberated Mauthausen Concentration Camp:

Mauthausen was built with a half-million rocks which 150,000 prisoners – 18,000 was the capacity – carried up on their backs from a quarry 800 feet below. They carried it up steps so steep that a Captain and I walked it once and were winded, without a load. They carried granite and made 8 trips a day… and if they stumbled, the S.S. men pushed them into the quarry. There are 285 steps, covered with blood. They called it the steps of death. I saw the shower room (twice or three times the size of our bathroom), a chamber lined with tile and topped with sprinklers where 150 prisoners at a time were disrobed and ordered in for a shower which never gushed forth from the sprinklers because the chemical was gas. When they ran out of gas, they merely sucked all of the air out of the room. I talked to the Jews who worked in the crematory, one room adjacent, where six and seven bodies at a time were burned. They gave these jobs to the Jews because they all died anyhow, and they didn’t want the rest of the prisoners to know their own fate. The Jews knew theirs, you see.

[ . . . ]

This is my Mauthausen letter. I hope you will see fit to let Bill Braude and the folks read it. I would like to think that all the Wachenheimers and all the Friendlys and all our good Providence friends would read it. Then I want you to put it away and every Yom Kippur I want you to take it out and make your grandchildren read it.

For, if there had been no America, we, all of us, might well have carried granite at Mauthausen.

I hate to post only an excerpt. Read the whole thing.

Yom Ha’Shoah is in six days. This letter made me think of something I want to do on this site. For the next six days, starting today (six to symbolize the six million), I want to post some sort of story or account to remember the Shoah. Today, thanks to seeing this letter, the story is Mauthausen.

Almost two years ago, on my tour of Europe, I visited the remains of the camp. They’ve turned it into a museum, you see. A museum of death, for us tourists to stop off at in between the beer hall and the white water rafting. Just another tourist attraction.

I had been learning about the Holocaust for nearly my entire life. I heard firsthand accounts from survivors, read books, saw films, went to Yad Vashem and to the Holocaust Museum in Washington… but nothing prepared me for that experience. I hadn’t been before. Not on the March of the Living or on any of the trips that took groups to Poland or Germany or Hungary or the Czech Republic to bear witness. No, there was just this one experience and it caught me completely off guard.

That day, I wrote pages and pages in my journal. I couldn’t stop writing, even for hours afterwards. Every impression. Every detail.

And I also took photos. I debated long and hard about that one. On the one hand, it seemed almost disrespectful to walk around with a camera taking snapshots. But then I realized it was probably the most appropriate thing I could do. To take photos. To write. To see it for myself and to show the photos to as many people as possible as if to say, here, here is proof that these horrors and atrocities happened and the more people who record witness accounts or take and publish photos or write about it or make films about it, the more the world remembers and the better we can counter the propagandists and antisemites who would claim otherwise.

So here are the photos that I took that day. I have a hard time looking at them myself. And these were of the memorials… taken nearly 60 years after the camp was liberated. But I still have a hard time looking at them. And I don’t know if you will want to either. But it’s important to witness, to remember.

Because my sentiment after walking out of the gates of Mauthausen – walking, you understand, free as a bird and getting on a bus and moving along to the next stop of our tour – was the same as Fred Friendly’s: It could have been me.

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