Saturday, October 3, 2009

My Visit to the Mauthausen Concentration Camp- 10 Years Later



 
Mauthausen

I have tried and tried hard to find a hard copy of this article since I wanted to make sure that Loyola University's Blueprint for Social Justice got credit for the reprint, but all I can find is this low resolution scan of the article.  Accordingly, the text of the original article is below.

Since joining Bernstein Osberg-Braun & De Moraes just three weeks ago, life has again been full of serious intellectual challenge.  Roger and crew are pushing me harder than I've pushed myself in many years, and it is odd at 48 to both feel the resulting exhaustion and the exhilaration. Put simply, I am having a ball.  But one of the most enjoyable sidebars on the whole experience has got to be that of spending my days with a group of very intelligent, very passionate "immigration folks" who, like me, have lived and breathed this fascinating topic of human migration, tolerance and intolerance, for all or most of their adult lives...the collateral discussions are wonderful.

Without a doubt, the one individual who gets as fired up and indignant as yours truly is Mike Braun, the firm's investigator, a seasoned ex-Fed who quite possibly reads more than I do.  This week's running discussion between Mike and me involved his relaying of an abundance of historical anti-Semetic policies of which I knew nothing...the conversation resulting from the most recent  nuclear news from our delightful Holocaust-denying friends in Iran.  Mike's knowledge of history is basically encyclopedic and every day, it seems, some historical "given" of his is news to me.  These discussions, led to my mentioning to him an article I'd written years ago, and how this whole "Nuclear Iran" deal has me squirming inside.

A decade ago, when Alex and Danny were 10 and 7, we took a day off of snowboarding in the Alps to visit Mauthausen in Austria, the most horrific Nazi concentration camp which never became a household name, like Auschwitz.  A number of friends were mortified that Leah and I would take two young boys to a place like this but we were convinced in the legitimacy of the belief that the only way to never permit these things to happen again is to never forget the past.  And so we went.

My sons are both at UF now, intelligent young men with compassionate hearts; looking back on this visit and rereading what I wrote a decade ago, perhaps my friends were right: perhaps subjecting those two little boys to witnessing hell itself was premature, perhaps even selfish of me.  One thing is for sure...none of us will ever, ever forget.

On the Price of Intolerance: An Editorial from Jose E. Latour



2/23/99

[Originally published in "Port of Entry", Jose's prior daily online column, and reprinted by Loyala University]



 MAUTHAUSEN,AUSTRIA-  The snow is blasting on the windshield
as Leah pulls the rented VW Passat out of Mauthausen, onto the road which leads
us back to the beautiful village of Enns, with its funky
medieval storefronts. It is 1 p.m. but the car's very cool blue dashlights are
aglow, casting a strange hue on our faces. The car is very quiet as we head
eastward, the not-so-blue Danube, broad and
mighty, alongside the road. The sky is gray and so is the mood in the car. The
boys sit in the back, blankly staring out the window. We are supposed to be
heading west, toward Linz, the provincial
capital of Upper Austria, for a final day of
sightseeing. But the plan has changed. We pull into the first and only
McDonald's for some pommes frites (yes, I know, but that's what they call them
here, too...) and reflection.



 That Friday was our last day in Austria,
on our first trip to that beautiful part of Europe.
My little business trip had turned into a week-long family vacation with three
days of skiing the Austrian Alps and two action packed days of sightseeing. The
snow had been sublime, the bed and breakfast arranged for me by a client,
outstanding. As usual, I was the oldest snowboarder on the mountain, but the
kids were far more polite to me than the helicoptering, megapierced lunatics
airborne in the great American West. In fact, we were the only Americans in a
part of the Alps so remote that all the other
tourists were German and Austrian...met one other American in an entire week in
the country.





 We had three days on the mountain, and the snow was so heavy
that we didn't see the moon, the stars, or the sun for the entire week. My Caribbean soul found this a bit disconcerting, what with
my nightly habit of greeting Orion, the Pleiades, and the Moon, but, hey, the
snow was soft and forgiving and my spectacular wipe-outs went unpunished.
Besides, it was only a week. For the other two days, we had to choose
carefully: picking two, day-drive destinations in Austria is like picking an
ice cream flavor at Baskin-Robbins or a cigar at Mike's in Miami...too much
good stuff to choose from. We settled on Salzburg,
the birthplace of Mozart (among many other things) and Mauthausen, a preserved
concentration camp which, in World War II, was amongst the most notorious Nazi
camps in all of Europe.  Leah and I told Alex and Danny that it was important for us to see
first-hand what the Holocaust was all about, and that another day of skiing was
not more important.





Our trusty Frommer's Austria Guidebook described the trip to
Mauthausen as "a sobering outing." The trip from Vorderstoder, high
in the Alps, to Enns and across the Danube to
the camp took about an hour and a half. (Incidentally, until reading the
history of the camp, I had no idea just how much Austria had cooperated with the
Third Reich when the Germans came in. However, as Leah noted, what could a
bunch of rural farmers do to resist at that stage? To Austria's
credit, they have faithfully preserved the camp and memories, acknowledging the
responsibility that comes with having this place on Austrian soil.)





 We prepared the boys by telling them that the things we had
all learned in school about the murderous Nazi's, their delusional desire to
"cleanse the race," and their atrocities would now come alive in
images we would not soon forget. We told them about intolerance, about the
arrogance of presuming racial superiority, and about the human tendency to
create "us and them" dichotomies. We talked about how Judeo-Christian
teachings emphasize the Golden Rule, treating others the way we wish to be
treated, and about how the American forefathers perceived accurately that
"all men are created equal." We discussed how things in Europe had gotten
out of control, how one madman's political agenda had turned into genocide, and
wondered how people had agreed to the underlying "logic." We talked
about the politics of hatred and the strength of such frightening bonds.





 We were one of about four cars in the parking lot. We made
our way through the snow and ice covered entrance, through the great gate and
stone footings. The vast camp was a virtual killing field for the Nazis: in
addition to murdering thousands of Austria's Jews, thousands of
"undesirables" including homosexuals, gypsies, Spaniards, Russian war
prisoners- you name it- were put to death within these walls. The total number
of Nazi murders within these few acres: about 200,000.





 We toured the grounds and museum and an attendant led the
four of us to a screening room where we sat and saw the English-language
version of the story of Mauthausen. I then led Leah and the boys, with our
little English handbook, through the camp and we saw it all. All of us cried at
one point or another. We saw:





 - the photos of
the naked living skeletons denied food...men, women, and children...



 -the gas chambers
where they were herded by the dozen, and the fingernail scratches on the stone
ceiling, and photos of those killed there left by family members.



 -the custom built
gallows for quick hangings.



 -the
"medical" office where prisoners were told to line up facing the wall
to have their height measured, and a bullet was fired into their forehead.



-the mass graves



-the photos of
men dangling, dead, on the concertina and barb wire



 -the brothel for
the camp's commanders



 -the human
experimentation records where atrocities were committed in the name of
"science"





 We heard in the video various recollections of liberation
day, when the U.S.
forces came in through the front gate. Several freed prisoners recalled the day
with the precision and cold description that can only be delivered by someone
who has faced the demons every night since, and who has somehow found a place
to file it all away and stay sane. Not so with one of the American servicemen
recalling that day. He starts off calm and then breaks down and cannot stop,
describing what the people looked like, how they continued to bury hundreds per
day after the liberation, because the dying were too weak to eat. Because, as
he put it, "we were too late".





 We saw it all, but what we saw most were numbers. Numbers of
prisoners from each country. Number of homosexuals. Number of deaths this month
and that month. Numbers of days chalked on a cell wall. Numbers of bodies
buried or cremated at the virtually 24 hour a day crematorium, where workers
were ultimately killed by the Nazi's in an effort to keep them from ever
telling anyone what they had seen. Death and snow everywhere you looked. Two
hundred thousand lives.





 I know what you are thinking right about now: that's SOME
vacation for your kids, Jose. But my kids are learning about the world, and
their vision is clear. The visit was devastating to the four of us but it was
necessary. We're back in America
now, where the U.S. Congress is proposing a moratorium on immigration. Although
the chance of passing is very remote, it certainly is an indicator of the
thinking and mood of the American public. And it all uncomfortably ties
together in my head...the proposed immigration moratorium, Mauthausen, the
dragging death of the black man in Texas, the
shooting of the unarmed African man in New
York...what does it all mean?





 If you ask the sponsors of the Moratorium Act, I can tell
you the catch phrases: "control our borders," "protect American
workers," "control population growth"...all admirable goals and
very real in this day and age. I'd be a liar if I didn't tell you it bugs me to
enter a store in Miami and realize that no one speaks English...I'm as guilty
of that as the rest. But, as a Hispanic male living in America, I
wonder if there is more to it. I wonder if all of this is, perhaps due to the
fact that America is
becoming less "white," like Hitler's Germany was back then...





 If a single thing is memorable from Mauthausen, it's the
documentation of the Nazi's last minute, hysterical efforts to conceal their
atrocities. As the Allied forces were approaching, the gas chamber was
disassembled, documents were forged, bodies were buried en masse. To me, it
says a lot. Despite all of Hitler's propaganda, despite the Master Race crap,
these bastards were ashamed. Instead of running for their lives, they had to
try and cover their bloody tracks, as absurd as it must have seemed at that
time. They didn't want the world to know what they had done.





 Today, once again, we hear about the neo-Nazi movement
worldwide, and we see the tightening of immigration laws in Europe and the U.S., and we
intellectually discuss the respective economic issues and impact, trying to
come up with "rational" policies. We think there are too many
Nicaraguans in the U.S.
but our housekeeper is the exception. We berate the Mexican migrants who picked
the vegetables we buy at the produce section of Safeway. And, as a nation, we
cringe at reading the statistics that show that the black, Asian, and Hispanic
populations are growing far more rapidly than the "white" population.
Why is this an issue if "all men were created equal?" Why should any
of us care -- Hispanic, black, white, or otherwise?





 As we sat there that Friday, at the Austrian McDonald's,
eating our pommes frites, drinking Cokes, discussing what we had seen, our
family forever changed.. My cocky 10 year old Alex expressed his appreciation
for America
and the freedom we have. My sensitive 7 year old Danny was hugging me, telling
me he loves me...I saw in his eyes he understood what he had just witnessed. My
wife, tough as nails and our family's glue, said that she would never take our
lives for granted again. Me, I still see the looks in the eyes of the people in
the pictures and I wish I could turn back time. Two hundred thousand lives,
dreams, hopes and prayers...





 Seems to me that as we craft the future of our nation, it
behooves us to take a "sobering" look at the past and we must
remember: never again.





 Jose



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