Touched by the Holocaust

Many years ago, after our first year of teaching, my wife and I spent the summer camping around Europe. We had picked up a rental car and a tent in Paris and drove to Florence, Rome, Venice, Vienna, Salzburg, Copenhagen, and Amsterdam. In 1967, the Renault had no seat belts, and only one rear view mirror in the middle of the windshield.

While driving on the Autobahn from Vienna to Salzburg in Austria, I attempted to pass a car slower than us, but as I pulled into the the left lane, ZOOM! came a car from behind out of nowhere, and I quickly pulled back into my lane, started to fishtail, and rolled over several times, sliding to a stop on the roof. With no seat belts, we had violently bounced around the interior, acquiring lots of cuts and bruises. My wife had a pulled muscle in her back and spent the night in the hospital. The car was a total loss, but it was insured.

One of the policemen who helped with the accident spoke English. He was very kind to us, and helped me find a room in a Gasthof in the center of the nearby little old town of Enns on the Danube river. He said he had learned English as a prisoner of war under the Americans during The War. They had treated him kindly, and he was happy to return the kindness.

Wife was returned to the Gasthof the next day, but spent the next week in bed, on a straw mattress on the third floor of the 400-year-old inn. The walls were stone, and even the floors were stone. As I remember, we were charged $7 per day for the room.

Clock Tower in Enns, Austria

Clock Tower in Enns, Austria

While she was recuperating, I went for walks around town and would come back and tell her stories of my adventures. I climbed the old clock tower just down the street from our Gasthof and watched a boy ring all the bells. A plaque on the side of a house in the town declared that the building was the birthplace of composer Anton Bruckner. Further investigation found that he had been a choirboy in St. Florian, a nearby town, and for most of his life had been the Kappelmeister there, and was entombed there.

On another walk, I found a church that was being renovated. With the floors removed, I could see that it was built over some ancient Roman ruins. Next to the church was a cemetery. Many of the monuments in the cemetery had photos of the people printed on porcelain and attached to the stone. One picture still stands out in my memory: a young man about my age (mid 20s at the time), wearing a Nazi uniform. Next to it was a picture of his real grave in Poland, showing a simple swastika. The monument said he was a home owner and coal handler in the town, as his father had been.

My mind was spinning! How could this beautiful and peaceful Austrian village with such kind and charming people, provide Nazi soldiers to the War?! How? The same way that American towns provided soldiers to the War. Had we met before the War, I was sure that man and I would have been friends. But the War… I prayed that he was conscripted as a soldier, and not one of the SS guards who ran a concentration camp.

When our week there was ended, we arranged to rent another car. It was a small DAF with a two-cylinder engine and a two-speed transmission. Wife was still very leery of any car, and I had to promise to stay off the Autobahn as much as possible. The folks in the Gasthof had told us how to find Bruckner’s church, and also suggested we visit Mauthausen, which had been a concentration camp during the War.

The church was lovely, with a high ceiling that created a ringing echo for Bruckner’s music. He created a set of short motets and I have since conducted two of them, and both had a section of soaring crescendo followed by a sudden and dramatic grand pause to allow the church to sustain and amplify the chord and send it to heaven. Many years later, my choir sang his “Ave Maria” motet in the Baroque cathedral in St. Galen, Switzerland, and memories of that beautiful music and the vibrant grand pause in the sanctuary still bring a lump to my throat and tears to my eyes. American churches tend to quash the sound of the choir.

We visited the old concentration camp at Mauthausen, where the horrors of the Holocaust became more vivid than we could have imagined. The granite quarry there was an important source of stone for Hitler’s building projects, and was also planned as a final destination for many thousands of prisoners.  In fact, 14,000 victims are buried on the grounds, and many more thousands were disposed in the crematoriums.

Mauthausen Concentration Camp

Mauthausen Concentration Camp

The quarry was lined with cliffs from which the SS guards would throw prisoners who were too ill to work. The steps carved into the cliff provided access to the bottom of the quarry. They were called the “186 steps of death” because prisoners would be forced to transport 50-pound stones on wooden racks balanced precariously on their backs as they climbed the tortuous, steep, high, jagged, and uneven steps. If a prisoner stumbled with a load on their back, they would tumble down the steps, taking other prisoners with them. Sometimes the guards would roll stones down the steps to see how many prisoners they could destroy with one stone.

An estimated 197,464 prisoners passed through the Mauthausen camp system between August 1938 and May 1945. At least 95,000 died there. More than 14,000 were Jewish. – Holocaust Encyclopedia

In May, 1945, the U.S. Army liberated 40,000 prisoners in the Mauthausen camps. In the weeks and months after liberation, several thousand of them died because they were too ill or weak to survive, despite receiving food and medical care. The Army had to burn some of the filth infested and disease-ridden barracks to protect the survivors.

When we were there in the summer of 1967, there was a memorial to those who suffered and died there, then in 1970 a larger memorial was built on the grounds. During the Holocaust of World War II, the Nazis killed six million Jews from many countries in Europe, and about 20 million Russians, Poles, Czechs, and other Europeans.

When the concentration camps were liberated by the American Army, General Eisenhower insisted on preserving the event in photographs because otherwise, no one would believe this had actually happened. (Search for “Eisenhower’s Proof”)

After we left Austria, we drove along the back roads through Germany, sort of tracing the border between East Germany and West Germany. The border would remain in place until the reunification of Germany 20+ years later. We followed one road that went towards the East until it came to an end with a simple wooden barrier followed by a deep ditch with a tree planted in it. About 10 yards beyond the ditch was a chain link fence about 10-feet high with razor wire coiled along the top. About 20 yards beyond that fence was an identical fence, then a ditch with a tree, and then another wooden barrier and the road continued into the countryside beyond. Between the two fences was bare ground with coiled razor wire and no vegetation. Beyond the border were some trees and farmland.

I remember thinking that I could easily get around that barrier and across the ditch, and perhaps even scale the fence, but decided that would be a dumb idea. We drove by a border crossing a few miles north where we could have turned right and conceivably crossed into East Germany. We kept going North instead but picked up a pamphlet that described how the border was structured. It showed that the bare ground between the fences was a live mine field, and that there were watchtowers hidden in the trees.

When we got home and developed our pictures, we could see a watchtower partially hidden in the trees on the other side of where we were standing. A Stasi or Russian soldier with a gun probably had me in his sights as I looked at the wooden barrier and pondered…

For more info:
St. Florian Church and Monastery
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Mauthausen Concentration Camp
Fortifications of the inner German border – Wikipedia

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