Nearly 140 of us stood in a loose circle inside a concrete room on the last day of the week-long Muslim Jewish Conference — a platform where young Muslim and Jewish leaders from around the globe get together to promote dialogue, encourage coalition building and foster lifelong friendships — held this August for the fifth time in Vienna, Austria. The room with its plain walls, wooden benches, harsh fluorescent lighting and metal and stone fixtures was oddly representative of this place. Somber. Silent. Reverent. Some stood with their arms folded and heads bowed while others held hands, offered a supportive shoulder or leaned against the walls. Each one of us was stunned at what we had witnessed over the past few days.
The silence was pierced by Samuel’s voice, a Moroccan Jew, as he recited a prayer for the deceased in Hebrew. Once he finished and stepped back, Bashar Ibrahim, a Serbian Muslim came forth and recited a prayer, in Arabic this time. As Muslims and Jews prayed together for the departed souls, united by the sheer scale of the tragedy that transpired here, only one thing was clear — no matter what religion, cast, creed or background you come from, some things are just decidedly inhuman.
A confrontation with the past
On the morning of August 12, 2014, participants of the Muslim Jewish Conference travelled two hours by road from Vienna to Mauthausen, one of the largest labour/death camps built by the Nazis. It is estimated that during the seven years of the camp’s operation, nearly 90,000 people were killed at Mauthausen, of which 40,000 were Jews. The vast majority of those killed were Poles and Russians, with Germans, Austrians, Italians, Spaniards and Yugoslavians accounting for the rest. Mauthausen was a Stufe III (grade three) camp, which meant that it was intended to be one of the hardest camps for the political enemies of the Reich. Hitler’s major paramilitary organisation, The Schutzstaffel (SS), referred to it as Knochenmühle — the bone-grinder.
Adina, a Jewish attendee from Australia, lit a candle for her grandfather who was one of the survivors of Mauthausen. PHOTO CREDIT: DANIEL SHAKED
From the beginning, we knew the tour would be emotionally taxing and draining. Each one of us, however, had severely underestimated the power and presence of Mauthausen and the hard-hitting lessons we would learn there.
At the visitor centre that morning, we were divided into six tour groups. Our tour guide, Wolfgang, took us to the outer perimetre of the camp, where you could see houses, barns and other structures of the surrounding town. Prisoners were tasked with building the camp on August 7, 1938, and the location was selected because of a nearby granite quarry. Initially a prison for criminals, it was converted to a labour camp on May 8, 1939. Mauthausen and nearby Gusen formed the basis of the Mauthausen-Gusen camp system, which resulted in 101 camps spread out across Austria by the end of the war. The camp was extremely profitable. For example, in 1944 alone, the Mauthausen-Gusen camp system made a profit of 11 million Reichsmark, which amounts to nearly 144 million Euros today — profits at the cost of unimaginable human death and suffering. Of the 320,000 prisoners incarcerated at the camp system, a mere 80,000 survived.
An aerial shot of Mauthausen from 1944, taken after most of the barracks had been dismantled.
As we took in the surroundings, our thoughts were interrupted by a simple question from Wolfgang. How is it possible, he asked, that a few SS soldiers and officers managed to murder nearly 90,000 people in a period of seven years at this camp, surrounded by a civilian population? The answer to this question would be revealed to us over the next three hours, through a series of revelations, each more harrowing than the last.
“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference”
The first link in this horrendous chain of murder was the indifference and tacit acceptance of the townsfolk of what was happening at Mauthausen. Everyone knew these prisoners were being marched to their probable deaths, as the average life expectancy at Mauthausen was less than three months by 1945, yet no one objected. For the town, the SS were friends, lovers, ordinary folks. The prisoners, and by extension their misery and plight, were practically invisible.
It is customary to write the name of a lost, loved one on a piece of stone since they last forever.
Inside, on the main walkway, Wolfgang traced the steps of freshly arriving prisoners at the camp. Taken in through the main gates, they were first documented, then stripped and shaved from head to toe. Next, they were marched, naked, into the adjacent shower, where they were mass bathed in ice-cold water. A single Hebrew word was painted on one of the pillars inside the shower room. Adina Lieblich, a Jewish attendee from Australia, winced and turned away when she saw it.
“What happened? What does it say?” I asked.
“‘Revenge’,” she said. “It says ‘revenge’.”
Even in a place like this, it was a stark reminder of the mindless hatred that bubbles beneath the surface.
The tiny living quarters where up to 500 people were crammed at times. Many succumbed to suffocation.
Adina, whose grandfather survived Mauthausen, recounted the story of his interrogation. Her grandfather was pulled from the prisoner barracks without warning one day, and brought into one of these rooms with four SS officers. They wore brass knuckles. By the end of it, all he could see was his own blood painted on the walls of the room. During her childhood, her grandfather would have Adina sit on his lap, and place her finger inside his mouth. A wide crack could easily be traced along the roof of his mouth, a lifelong reminder of his ordeal at these hallowed grounds.
Wolfgang warned us about the memorial section of Mauthausen, saying we could skip this part entirely if we wanted, as most people found the following section exceptionally unnerving and shocking. This part of the complex housed the gas chambers, which could kill 120 prisoners simultaneously, the crematoriums where dead bodies were disposed off and various interrogation rooms. The walls were lined with memorabilia, tokens of remembrance left behind by prisoners and families of the deceased alike. In one corner of the room sat a set of cremation ovens. Inside was a lone bouquet of fresh white flowers.
The main Mauthausen memorial. Almost every nation that lost someone at Mauthausen has built a memorial but each of them is different from the other.
One room was filled with black panels, with names of the identified victims lit up in white across the surface of the panels. There were tens of thousands of names. Registers that were several feet thick also contained an alphabetical list of prisoners, those who survived and those who didn’t.
An interrogation room connected us to the final section of this area — the gas chamber. At least 3,455 people were killed here by pumping poisonous gas into an otherwise airtight, small room. The only thing an SS officer had to do was push the button to release the gas. Every other step was carried out by prisoners, who were forced to strip fellow inmates, pile them into the gas chamber, remove the bodies and cremate the remains. Prisoners, thus, were made a part of the chain of murder at Mauthausen, forced to participate in all kinds of prisoner executions, torture and maltreatment.
Our next stop was the prisoner barracks, small wooden buildings with tiny, cramped rooms, which housed up to 500 prisoners. The two residential sections in each barrack were connected by an entranceway with two washbasins. Prisoners were given 25 minutes to eat and wash up at the end of the day before being stuffed in their rooms. Several suffocated to death as a result.
Nearly 140 Muslim and Jewish participants prayed together for the departed souls at the Mauthausen camp. PHOTO CREDIT: DANIEL SHAKED
Dazed and overwhelmed, our group was led by Wolfgang back outside, to the other side of the prison which overlooked the granite quarry. Ailing and underperforming prisoners were forced to repeatedly march up the 186 steps with a large stone on their backs. Those who survived were made to stand in rows of two at the edge of the quarry and given the option of being shot in the back of the head or to push the prisoner in front of them into the quarry below. Murder was institutionalised in every shape and form at Mauthausen and everyone was a voluntary or involuntary participant. One survivor recounted 62 separate ways of murdering people at the camp that included everything from being beaten to death, icy showers that induced hypothermia, mass-shootings, starvation, drowning in barrels of water, electrocution at the perimeter fence and medical experiments by Aribert Heim, dubbed the ‘Butcher of Mauthusen’.
Wolfgang had asked us a question at the beginning. By the end, all of us had the answer to his question but no one had the strength to voice it. Ninety-thousand people died because everyone, including prisoners and guards, officers and executives, townsfolk and local businesses, either directly participated, willingly or otherwise, or indirectly allowed the inhumanity to continue. Like most crimes against humanity, this one also flourished because of unchecked hatred, tacit or explicit consent and blatant apathy.
There were two wash basins in the barracks for 500 prisoners. Each of them just had 25 minutes to eat, wash and clean.
Bassi Gartenstein, a Jewish attendee from Israel, summarised the entire experience most aptly while quoting renowned political activist, Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel. “The opposite of love isn’t hate, its indifference,” she said. “[At Mauthausen] we witnessed this very indifference which caused the atrocities that mock the promise of ‘never again’.”
Healing in unison
Tragedy can be strangely liberating — it allows those who have witnessed it closely to rise above their differences and reach out to others who may be experiencing the same pain. Something similar happened after the joint Muslim Jewish prayers at the visitor centre. Strangers reached out for comfort and found it in the unlikeliest of places. I found strength in the comforting words of Nadia Randera, a South African. Eilaf Farajullah, a Muslim Egyptian, found comfort in the hands of Gaelle Frischknecht, a Swiss Jew. “I was overwhelmed by how much [emotion] I felt,” she recounted later. “And when my emotions got me to the floor and I reached out, Gaelle was there for me, feeling what I was feeling, and just holding my hand. So I got to make a friend and that was the only good part about that day.”
Gaelle also remembers the moment. “It was just her and me and in that moment we understood that it didn’t matter where we are from or what religion we follow,” she shared. “We were just two people mourning for the pain that others felt. I don’t remember how long we sat there but I know one thing for certain. I found a friend for life and that moment will always stay with me.”
The entire conference was designed in a manner that allowed members of both faiths to communicate openly and understand the other’s point of view. Apart from the trip to the Mauthausen camp, there was also a trip to the biggest synagogue and mosque in Vienna where the rabbi/imam explained how religious prayers worked and also answered questions. Guest speakers such as a 92-year-old Holocaust survivor and members from Combatants of Peace, an Israeli-Palestinian peace-building coalition comprised of former freedom fighters and Israeli soldiers, also shared their thoughts and experiences with the attendees. A projects team helped people connect and launch collaborative ventures such as a short film depicting historical stories of Jews saving Muslims from persecution and vice versa and the Muslim Jewish Cookbook Project. Journalists from the two communities also partnered to exchange stories.
Each one of us came out of this conference shaken to our very core, yet determined to do whatever little we could to ensure such hatred was not allowed to fester, in our minds, hearts and communities. It was a hard-earned lesson, soaked in tears and painful realisations, but one that will stay with us for the rest of our lives.
Zeeshan Salahuddin is an Islamabad-based development professional and journalist. He tweets @zeesalahuddin.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, September 14th, 2014.