The country road from Linz to Mauthausen is beautiful and peaceful. My bus stops at small villages and picks up polite and quiet passengers. The landscape is green and hilly. It is hard to imagine I am so close to a place that, for close to a 7 years, was the site of profound human suffering. I’m on my way to the Mauthausen Memorial.The Mauthausen-Gusen Concentration Camp was one of the most infamous Nazi labor camps. During its operation between 1938 to 1945 between 120’000 to 320’000 people died there.
The bus stops. I get off and follow signs up a side road. On the walk up the hill to the gate of the memorial, I pass several beautiful country houses. Later, I find out many of these were built by slave labor for the families of Nazi camp supervisors. I hear a stream flowing beside the road. The sky is grey and I can hear birds chirping before rain. I walk past a beautiful field of wheat. The stalks are dancing in the wind. I see a small red bicycle beside a farmhouse. Life goes on.
Austria’s cultural landscape is shifting. This is my second time in Linz. I first came here 6 years ago to attend the International Conference on Computers Helping People with Special Needs (ICCHP). I am attending the same conference again. Since the first time I came here, I notice many more refugees and immigrants in Linz and the villages that I pass on the way to Mauthausen. Here and there, I hear Farsi Dari (from Afghanistan) and I see a large Turkish flag on top of a cafe with mustached men sitting at the front drinking from small cups of strong tea.
I go up the country road and after a few breathtaking minutes see the camp. Mauthausen is located close to stone quarries. Linz was one of Hitler’s favorite cities and he planned to turn it into a center of Nazi culture and art. In his demented vision, his empire would last thousands of years, and so he wanted the best stones that last forever for his neoclassical imposing buildings. The camps were set here, then, as the perfect site of slave labor that would help build the empire. This changed later on and slowly even this absurd vision was lost. Towards the end of the war, the main purpose of the camp was to kill, especially Prisoners of War (POWs), through labor, deprivation and despair.
At the memorial, I join a small group of people for an English tour. Our guide is a German schoolteacher with sensitive eyes who looks a bit like Alain de Botton. His presentation is heartfelt. While he is informative and accurate, more than anything he helps us reflect: how is this possible? He would not offer explanations for people’s motivations and a few times when people try to over simplify things, he gently reminds us that, “we don’t know”. At one point, when reading the description of the sleeping quarters, he pauses and says, “sorry, I can’t read this. Please search for it online. This is all documented.” I appreciate his silence: this is a memorial and not a museum.
There are many questions about the people who lived in the surrounding areas. They must have known what was going on here. How could they bear it? Our guide is patient and says there was a range of responses. A few complained, some collaborated (most infamously in hunting down more than 480 Russian POWs who had escaped in what became known as the “Rabbit Hunt”) but mostly people were silent. This silence is easy to judge from a distance. A few days after my visit, I found a short video with interviews with some of the local residents years after the war and they described how they felt about living in such an infamous place. Sometimes a better choice than blaming or dismissing is to stay present.
We look down a high hill which is on top of the stone quarries. Prisoners were made to carry stones (sometimes as heavy as 50 kg) up a stairway infamously known as the “Stairs of Death”. Many people lost their lives here. I later walk down the steps and look at the tall silent stone wall. Sometimes prisoners were thrown off this hill to their death. Often SS officers and sometimes the kapos (prisoner functionaries who supervised other prisoners) forced the prisoners to conduct pointless exercises, such as running. Many prisoners died from exhaustion.
In the basement of a large building, we visit shower rooms, gas chambers, ovens. In the airless concrete rooms where many spent their last moments, I feel a profound void. Rather than the presence of evil, I feel the absence of God. A place empty of love, light, humanity. Often, people talk of the mystery of God and love, and how mystics seek to experience that. I am in the presence of another mystery, the mystery of darkness and absence of love. This mystery is also part of our existence, the other side of the coin or the shadow of our collective self. Perhaps, to really experience love, one has to experience the lack of it too.
Now I know why I am here. I feel an old pain deep in my heart: the pain of encountering darkness and having to incorporate it into your vision of the world. Like many others growing up in the Middle East in the 1980’s, I was exposed to war, revolution and extreme sociopolitical pressures when I was a child. In a society where most people have experienced these, you don’t think of them as “traumatic”. They are part of “ordinary” life. I did not get exposed to the worst experiences directly: I did not see death first hand, did not get injured, did not disappear. But I was close enough to the people who did experience these to get second degree burns. The idea that people disappeared randomly and that there were other people out there who wanted to invade and kill us was a reality. I am far from being alone in these experiences and worst ones, as this memorial testifies. Everyday in different regions of the world, but especially in the Middle East as I am writing this, thousands of people face the harsh realities of violent human suffering: the darkness of lovelessness.
I survived. I grew up. I left. I forgot. Or so I thought. Years later, I still feel something painful deep inside: a hidden wound that you don’t know exists but hurts and makes you look for relief in the wrong places, a spell that pushes you towards an unknown point in your destiny, a quiet voice in your ear that says, “everyone you love can disappear in a moment!” These elements have created tremendous pressure in my life. Rather than making me give up, they have forced me to run forward. They have made me thirsty for life, but also afraid of disappearing. They have made me feel grateful for what I have but also afraid of losing it. And this fear is something I would like to leave at this memorial. I am tired of running and want to sit down and rest.
I start to make my way out of the memorial. I start to feel a strong bond with the people who have suffered here and with the ones who have suffered in other places and in other times: a bond of common human pain. I remember a book called “Man in the Search of Meaning” by Viktor Frankl who was a Holocaust survivor and a psychologist. Upon encountering tremendous pain and suffering, Frankl identified the search for meaning as an essential part of the human condition. Until we realize that the “unexamined life is not worth living“, we are like Sysiphus dragging the burden of our meaningless existence up the mountain of time. Perhaps our task is to face the mystery, search and find a meaning, the meaning, to our existence.
When walking in the middle of a dark cold night with sadistic guards hitting him with rifle butts, Frankl suddenly had a realization. I quote his book: “A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth—that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be if only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved.” Frankl looked his heart in the face and found his meaning. In the midst of emptiness, he was able to see the one thing that was left and could not be taken away from him. I am inspired by this idea and I also realize that this meaning is something one has to find, to experience, to live, oneself: while the “song of many poets” are previous road signs, they are not the destination or the road.
As I walk away from the gate, I come by a statue that rises out of the ground by the side of the road. A series of stone human heads are silently peering forward. They are surrounded by growing grass and small fragile flowers. Drops of rain start dropping from the sky. I continue to walk. The essence of the river is to flow.
To live is to love, to feel, to hurt, to hate, to seek, to know, and to love again.