The day I visited Mauthausen concentration camp, what struck me most about the experience was not what I had expected to. I had been raised on a steady diet of Holocaust stories and personal accounts, and none of what I was told or shown at Mauthausen came as any great shock. Which is not so say I didn’t care – not by any means. But I had already felt the shock, fear, horror, pain and anger than the Holocaust inspires. So visiting Mauthausen was not the emotional experience for me that it is for many others. Walking through the camp, however, standing in the gas chamber, made all the stories, the movies and the photographs a little bit more real. The Holocaust had happened, after all, more than sixty years’ previously, my family had fled Europe many years before, and it had always been more of an abstract than anything else. Almost an intellectual exercise on genocide and morality. And so it took a visit to one of the concentration camps for it to truly strike home.
It was also somewhat of a paradox. I found Mauthausen a deeply introspective place, and I moved through it in almost complete silence and considerable thoughtfulness. But I was part of a group of more than four hundred people, fifty of whom were on the same tour as me. And all of whom appeared to feel the same way as me. So what resulted was a sort of bustle of inactivity, a crowd of people doing nothing but listening and absorbing and thinking but doing it in perfect unison. I was at once surrounded by a crowd of people and truly, deeply alone.
I saw immense solidarity. One girl, a friend of mine, began crying soon after the tour started and had to sit outside for a while. She insisted she needed to be alone. But when it was all over then everyone who had been affected by visiting the camp wordlessly congregated to help each other and be helped in turn. I spent several minutes just holding the girl who had first cried, trying to convey in a single tight hug that it’ll all be alright, it’ll all be alright, and we’d all be there for her.
Everyone gave and received little nods, little touches that wordlessly asked if they were ok, and if they weren’t then this was felt and they were quickly enveloped by a group of caring friends – and some people who had not been friends but had been brought together by what they had seen. We had all been brought closer, and now I realize that perhaps, today, that’s what Mauthausen is for.