Walking In Your Footsteps

This summer, I spent a month on the road in Europe, as part of a summer field school in Austria and Italy. For the last little while, I’ve been posting a series of self-indulgent essays, inspired by the slice-of-life wisdom that only travel brings. Today, however, is a little different.

Because today is Remembrance Day.

“they say the meek shall inherit the earth”
Walking in Your Footsteps, The Police

July 6, 2014

Dear Jan,

Yesterday, I went to see the place where you spent the final days of your life: the site of the Mauthausen Concentration Camp.

And you are not one person named Jan. You are many. Far too many.

You came into Mauthausen from Poland, and so your name is Jan. But if it was Italy, you’re called Giovanni. If you were born in the Soviet Union, it’s Iwan. Holland, Johannes. France, Jean. Spain, Juan. And on it goes.

You share a first name with my own beloved father, who was called John, although he was just a boy the day you were marched through the gates of this hell on earth.

It took me a couple of hours to get there from Vienna, on the train. I was nervous. Mauthausen was one of the most lethal concentration camps in Europe. I expected to feel an aura of evil rising up out of the ground. I’d already made the decision not to take any photos.

Instead, what I found was a quiet, solemn place of memorial. A memorial to you and to the legions whose lives were stolen on this small tract of land, overlooking a quarry. One row of the barracks you lived in has been preserved. I can walk into the rooms and see the very beds you slept on.

It’s all strangely benign and I find this disturbing. I tell my companion that I feel like I’m walking through an interpretive display in one of Canada’s national parks. I have to keep reminding myself that my feet are falling on the very same ground as yours, Jan. The same ground as thousands upon thousands of prisoners.

As a Canadian born in 1961, I’ve only experienced WWII in movies and history books. As surreal as it feels, Mauthausen is not a movie.

There’s a pattern to how we visitors are guided through this site. Once we’re past the barracks, the path leads us into another building that houses a museum. Here, the spaces are filled with artifacts that are much more personal. A prisoner’s glasses. Another’s drawings. And one that momentarily takes my breath away — a filthy pair of the infamous blue and grey striped uniforms that prisoners wore. No, this is not a movie.

In another room is a chapel. It’s clean and sparse. I’m confused. Why did the prisoners have a chapel in this building? And then the tumblers in my brain click into place, unlocking the answer. It wasn’t for the prisoners. This was a chapel for the SS to worship in. I make a spitting motion towards the pews. “You bastards” I hiss under my breath. “What did you think you were doing with a chapel?”

Eventually, we come to a set of stairs that lead us to the lower floor of this building. Down here are three rooms, each housing a brick crematorium. They have been left much as they were the day that the Americans liberated Mauthausen. The first two are a disturbing sight, but the third is heartbreaking.

For in that third crematorium room, every square inch of the walls is covered in photos and memorials. To you, Jan. And to Giovanni and Iwan, to Johannes, Jean and Juan.

And now, I do begin to cry. There’s just so many of you. So many.

And every one was someone’s son, brother, friend, husband, lover … every one of you has somebody who made the pilgrimage back to this terrible place, to lovingly hang your picture on the wall. How can they have been so brave?

Once I leave, there are just a few rooms left on the tour. Two of them, I can’t bring myself to walk into. One is the autopsy room.

The other is the gas chamber.

In hindsight, I realize that there’s a wisdom to how this site has been laid out. Mauthausen didn’t grab me by the scruff of the neck and shove me face-first into the ungodly horror that was the Nazi’s “final solution”. Instead, it led me, step by careful step, on a two-hour journey into its own heart of darkness. And this is wise. For if Mauthausen had simply beaten me up, perhaps I would simply do my best to forget.

And that is the goal, I believe. To make sure that I remember. To make sure I remember that these were people, not statistics. To make sure I remember that Adolf Hitler was democratically elected. And that the power to create another Hitler lies in nothing more than the hands of ordinary people casting votes.

When the U.S. Army finally liberated Mauthuasen, on May 5, 1945, there were 20,000 prisoners behind its walls. One of those prisoners was a man named Simon Weisenthal, who had been marched to Austria from the Janowska concentration camp in Poland, as the Nazis fled from the advancing Red Army.

Weighing less than 100 lbs., Weisenthal was so weak that the Americans didn’t know if he would survive. But Weisenthal did live. And then he became a legend. He dedicated the rest of his life to hunting down Nazis and bringing them to justice. Today, his legacy is the Simon Weisenthal Center, a global human rights organization, based in Los Angeles, which teaches the lessons of the Holocaust for future generations.

Rest peacefully, Jan. Simon Weisenthal didn’t forget you. Neither will I.