This blogging thing is getting into my blood. It may finally be the way to get Ryan Dobson to write consistently. I wonder why that is? Maybe because I feel like it's journaling, but into a conversation. The assumption being that people are reading this... and you know what they say about assuming...
I love rain - and the typical absence of it in SoCal intensifies that feeling. I was walking back from coffee this morning, listening to Gold from the "Once" soundtrack (P.S. - a GREAT song to listen to if you're walking through the rain, holding a warm cup of coffee and wearing a corduroy sportcoat), wondering, "What is it that about rain that I like so much?"
I think it's like Creation being contemplative. It's nature way of walking into a little hole-in-the-wall gallery, sipping bordeaux from a nearly bowl-sized glass, and listening to neo-folk music on an acoustic guitar... Rain makes me feel like painting even though I'm not a painter. And all this is achieved by the environment's grey brooding...
That's the context in which Sarah and I drove up on Mauthausen Concentration Camp (Mot-house-en) on Sunday, October 28th, 2007. I'm going to tell that story now and I'm going to ask that you try to emulate my context as well as you can. It may not be raining where you are - but you can imitate what rain does: put on that song, turn off the TV, close the shades. Whatever. I suggest "Home" by Foo Fighters... but you do whatever you need to.
So, Mauthausen. It was grey and cold and drizzly and exactly how it should be when you go somewhere like that. Mauthausen sits on a green, Austrian, rolling hillside. Because of the twisting two-lane road, you don't see it until you're there; it's grey stone walls looming at the crest of the knoll. The parking lot sits directly in front and was almost empty, as it was the lull in the tourist season. Next to the parking lot, the respectfully minimalistic ticket office was empty as well... we saw neither lines nor other visitors. After receiving our audio guides, we walked toward the main entrance to the camp.
When you visit a place like Mauthausen now, you anticipate a strange mix of imbued reverence and intrinsic touristy-ness; because it is simultaneously a memorial to the Holocaust and a visitor destination. But that day it was as little a sightseeing memorial as possible - it was a ghost town.
We walked through the main gate and the camp was truly empty, the way you feel it should be.
I'm not sure how to describe this... I wrote in my journal that day: "I am a person who will try, but will be fundamentally incapable of understanding the Holocaust." But it was like God was trying to help me conceptualize the gravitas of this place. It was cold - you could see your breath and we kept blowing on our hands to keep them warm.
Originally a prison... [Mauthausen was] converted into a Concentration Camp for the prisoners who were not to be rehabilitated: most died in the Camp. Until death, prisoners were used for backbreaking work in the Stone Quarries... (source: http://www.shoaheducation.com/camps/mauthausen.html)
Outside this barrack window, skeletal, forgotten, tortured people stood in the cold rain for hours on end - typically for no reason other than torture. At one point, not long ago, human beings died, outside this window, because of their race or sexuality or political affiliations.
Facing the barracks were the "medical" buildings, housing the gas chamber and crematoriums.
As we walked around the camp and listened to our audio guides, we heard accounts of women being brought into the camp and raped by the SS officers; about prisoners who were stripped, shaved, disinfected, and made to live outside in "quarantine" for weeks; about people lured outside their barracks on the pretence of having their photo taken, only to be lined up and shot.
It kind of seems like I'm being melodramatic now, but with just a little attempt at empathy, the entire experience is overwhelming. You can feel the weight of the place.
After the gas chambers, the audio guide ends by leading you out through the main gate onto the grassy hill outside. As you walk, it tells you about the camp's liberation:
The camps of Mauthausen-Gusen were the last to be liberated during the World War II. On May 5th, 1945, the camp at Mauthausen was approached by soldiers of the 41st Recon Squad of the US 11th Armored Division, 3rd US Army. (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mauthausen-Gusen_concentration_camp)
(photo from wikipedia - US tanks entering the camp on May 6th, 1945)
As we listened to the account of the camp's liberation, we walked through the gate pictured above and the most amazing thing happened; the clouds cleared and the sun came out. It was the first time we'd seen the sun since we'd arrived in Europe a week earlier. It was also the first time we'd really seen just how beautiful the surrounding Austrian countryside could be.
The photo above is taken just outside that gate, looking out over the stone quarry where prisoners-made-slaves died by the thousands.
Outside the camp, every nation represented by one of their imprisoned citizens has built a memorial to those who perished inside.
Again, I have to be careful to not over-state this... I'm hyper-sensative to the fact that I'm a well fed, very free, white American male... But walking out of that camp - the desolation and depravity and despair that it represents - and into the vibrantly colorful hillside, was a hallmark experience in my life.
It is remarkably easy for us to see these atrocities as "then", which would never happen in the "now." But those were all just normal people - the Nazis: fundamentalists who were willing to put the importance of an ideology above the value of another person... something we see often today. The Prisoners: Jews, Czechs, Homosexuals, Women and outspoken opponents of the Nazi regime who were victimized by a cycle of violence that cycloned out of control.
And you stand there, where those people stood, you realize how possible it is; how not-so-far-away we are from the "Then."
But then, there's also hope. There's also the sun breaking through the clouds. There's also the other side of the gate, looking out on green fields and farms and autumn colors.
They will beat their swords into plowsharesAnd their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Every man will sit under his own vine and under his own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the LORD Almighty has spoken. (Micah 4:3)