Mauthausen: Life in the Details

A bicycle from Poland. Pieces of a Messerschmitt fighter plane from U.S. Air Force archives in Alabama. Camp log books from Caen. An embroidered handkerchief, tossed out a prison window by a woman on her way to execution for helping Allied paratroopers. A rusty watchtower searchlight, unearthed just last year. Wedding rings, watches, and photos confiscated upon arrival here between 1938 and 1945.

On 5 May, two new permanent exhibitions were opened at Austria’s concentration camp memorial at Mauthausen aalong with a Room of Names – all part of an ongoing redesign scheduled for completion in 2018. Leading the media through the new exhibits, Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner stressed the importance of updates, as every year, survivors dwindle. Kurt Scholz, Chairman of the International Forum Mauthausen, described the plans for a “historical region of memory” that will include the former camp and neighbouring community.

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Photo: BMI/Fotoarchiv der KZ-Gedenkstätte Mauthausen/Stephan Matyus

It’s a somber setting. The town of Mauthausen, historically a trading center, nestles amidst the green hills of Upper Austria. Up a winding hill, the pointed roof of a Wachturm suddenly comes into view, towering over walls and wire. Mauthausen was a brutal labour and death camp, where inmates dug gravel from granite quarries for railways, roads and power stations, and the buildings of the planned Führer Stadt in nearby Linz. They split stone from bedrock, sometimes by hand, sometimes with explosives. The difficult work under abusive conditions bred exhaustion, violence and accidents. In the camp sharing the town’s name, nearly half of its prisoners – at least 90,000, died.

The former infirmary houses two new exhibitions, “The History of Mauthausen 1938 – 1945” and “The Crime Scenes of Mauthausen – Searching for Traces”. The first details the camp’s background parallel to the war; biographies and personal pieces are given priority in the new displays, weaving moving narratives and humanising acts often lost with the passing of time in statistics and generalisations.

The bicycle was given to survivor Stanislaw Kudlinski by nuns in Linz after the liberation, on which he set off for his home town in Poland. It returned to Austria from Poznan, as director Barbara Glück explains, along with 130 items collected from near and far – Moscow, Washington, Amsterdam.

Many stories remain untold. New items keep turning up, from excavations in 2011 and 2012 here and at the Gunskirchen subcamp, along with finds from divers dredging the quarry ponds. Sometimes the reality begs belief, like Hana Löwenbein’s baby dress and bonnet, made from fabric scraps donated by fellow prisoners at the Freiberg subcamp where her mother Piri brought her into the world.

Some of the most moving pieces are the drawings, sculpture and artwork of camp activity, preserving what semblance of life or dignity remained. One painting was done in secret and smuggled back to a family in Vienna. Notes from prisoners, often coded, assuaged loved ones’ fears.

Some inmates managed to keep secret diaries, correcting SS-falsified documents at unimaginable personal risk. Crucial contributions also came from survivor Hans Marsalek, co-founder of the memorial, somehow retrieved from the destruction by retreating SS, then by the Allies worried about the spread of disease.

This is called the darkest time in Austria’s history. And yet surrounded by the evidence, there is humanity amidst that darkness, as crucial a memorial as the horrors that we revisit to avoid repeating. Another display covers the prison uniform cap, that was to be doffed in respect for authority and replaced in submission.

The act became a macabre drama, with rehearsals of proper technique and performance at daily roll calls. Details like this depict the pettiness, condescension, and control pervading the camps, breaking bodies and spirits over something as simple as removing a hat.

The second installation, in the basement, prepares visitors to enter the former gas chambers and crematorium. It contains panoramic photos showing the camp fields today – each depicting a former place of mass extermination. Beyond, in the former mortuary, is the new “Room of Names”.

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BMI/Fotoarchiv der KZ-Gedenkstätte Mauthausen/Stephan Matyus

Names of 81,000 known victims, with spelling and characters of their own languages, reel across glossy black glass in rows that fill the room, save for narrow pathways for visitors to pass. Exposed stonewalls and concrete supports keep the rough reality in sharp focus. They seem to carry on endlessly, and begin to quiver and blend together, too many to comprehend. The meaning is driven home, all too clear even as it overwhelms.

The additions are big steps for a country that’s struggled to re-forge a post-war identity while confronting its Nazi past. It’s taken a long time, and Mauthausen’s renovations were overdue in comparison with other camp memorials, as the committee acknowledges. The restructuring hopes most to maintain interest of a younger generation for this history.

“The Republic of Austria bears a special responsibility: to make sure the memory of the past remains relevant to the present,” Mikl-Leitner writes in the exhibition catalogue. It’s never too late. As William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Item by item we confront the past, striving to understand more of what transpired, and to grasp its impact on present and future. And we remember – ensuring that these stories live lives that will be longer than those many of their subjects were allowed.

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