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I would probably never visit such a city for tourism or for fun. Because its name is related to a concentration camp. The journey from Vienna was long with many zigzags. There was no direct train line. We had to change two trains and then take a taxi. The landscape near Linz was very beautiful. The weather was perfect, and we could see the amazing valleys, the river and houses and the life of the people in the area. We were traveling in the middle of summer, during the pandemic, in July 2021. The Danube River loomed large on our left side as we started to climb a hill. Finally, the taxi stopped us in front of the camp, which looked like an ordinary stone castle with high walls. So far, nothing scary, just a stone complex with small windows.  In fact, the building from the outside did not arouse any kind of fear for what we had read about this place. By the time our guide arrived, a young history student girl. The guide started to briefly introduce the itinerary and then she wanted do know from us what we expect from this trip, what we want to see, why we came there. She was more interested in who we were, because not every tourist can come to Mauthausen or the Nazi concentration camps for nothing. We were a group of four from Albania, two representatives of DMO ALBANIA, the organization I lead, and two representatives from the National Historical Museum, with Mr. Dorian Koci, director of the Museum. We had applied for a project between the DMO and the Museum, to discover the fates of the Albanians who came to the Mauthausen camp and the testimonies of the survivors. Our project was announced as the winner and was funded by the EVZ Stiftung Foundation. So, what we wanted to know from this visit was to get as much information as possible, what traces the Albanians had left in this country, were there any facts about them, in addition to learning the full history of this camp. Then she started to tell the story of the camp beginning from the stones in front of the camp and then the football field and memorials…

The Stones

After explaining to the guide who we were and what we expected, we continued with the route to the camp. At first, we saw stones, many stones, which symbolized the reason why this place was used to set up this concentration camp. Because there was a granite quarry, and the stones were needed for the great works that would be erected for Hitler. This place was found to exploit the labor of prisoners. When Hitler entered Austria in 1938, the first thing that was thought of was where to put the traitors of the regime in Austria. A camp was needed inside the country, not in Germany. And this place was found, this beautiful and unknown village with a beautiful nature but very mountainous and cold in winter, where the prisoners would be sent first to work without payment for a company that would also build Hitler’s great buildings. There were 186 steps from the quarry to the camp that the prisoners climbed every day with stones weighing up to 30 kg. They were called the Stairs of Death. The work was like this: they broke down the rock, took big stones, broke them with very simple tools, and then loaded them on wooden carts and brought them to the camp. The camp itself was built with these stones. From the beginning there were only a few wooden barracks, so the entire surrounding area, the administration, the large entrance gate, the observation towers, the buildings for the Gestapo, everything was built with these stones and with the labor of the prisoners. Even though the quarry ceased operations in 1943 due to the intensification of the war, prisoners continued to be tortured in the quarry, where stones were carried up and down as a means of torture to cause them death. These stones at the entrance to the camp, and the quarry with the stairs of death were outside the surrounding walls where the prisoners were kept.

Sports field

The guide stopped here for a long time. It was a field of grass, empty, but she insisted that we reflect on her story. She said that every day the SS, that is, the German Gestapo, played football here. Teams from other cities even came there and played matches. The village across the street could also participate. She raised the question because she also wanted reflection from us. How is it possible when behind the wall there were prisoners who were killed and mistreated every day, here in this field, people played and fans cheered for the players, as if it were a completely normal situation? How did someone not raise their voice among the hundreds of people who had come there, about what was happening in the camp? The guide continued this question a little further when she showed us the village, the houses of the inhabitants that could be seen beyond. She even said that the residents behaved normally, watching their daily work, even though they knew that people were killed here. No one ever dared to do anything. How is it possible for a human being knowing that people are being killed and burned in crematoriums nearby, to continue their daily life normally? We cannot give an answer. We sat on some benches, and she again asked us about the biggest German companies of that time, such as Benz, Porche, Puma, Volkswagen, Swarosvksi, Siemens, IBM, Hugo Boss, etc., and what attitude they held towards Hitler. Those companies used forced labor of prisoners and have not even apologized for their role in that war, even though many of them put most of their profit at that time. No answer again. Thinking all this, we entered the big gates of the camp, the long-awaited place. And we were shown the barracks. In that time there were 25 of them, but today only the first row on both sides was left. On one side, 3-4 barracks were preserved as they were, while on the right side was the Museum, the crematoriums and the gas chambers and the former part of the administration.

The Barracks

We entered the barracks, which were empty without beds. The guide told us that up to 2000 people lived in each of them, in beds with 3 floors. When you saw those small environments, you could not imagine how many people could stay together in one place. According to official data, a total of 197,000 people entered this camp from its opening in 1938 until 1945 when it was liberated by the Allies, of which 95,000 died. Impossible to hold so many people at once, but this figure was in different periods. On the walls of the barracks, a few sayings and some photos were left here and there, since most of them had been moved to the Museum in the front of barracks. The toilet didn’t look like a toilet at all. Up to 10 prisoners at a time performed their personal needs, of course without being ashamed of each other, all together at once. There were no women prisoners in the camp. They were just a group of women who were used as prostitutes for the camp leaders, or the prisoners who did special services. However, they had nothing to do with the mass prisoners of the camp. The Appeal square was huge, it was the place where they were called in the morning, and everyone had to answer when they heard their number. There were no names in that camp, as everyone was a number. Numbers that they had attached to their chests and had to learn by heart and to remember every time. The appeal square was the place where they were tortured, hanged, where the prisoners saw who was missing, who died, who was burned.

The museum

The Museum was overloaded with memories. There was no empty space in the walls. This is because every person who had a relative there, had brought photos, memories, lots of documents stuck all over the place. There we also saw many photos of Albanians. A red and black flag was placed in the part where the names of all the Albanians who had entered the camp were written, and 5 of them were also with photos, such as Kozma Nushi, Telat Noga, Xhevded Doda, etc. The beginning part of the camp had artifacts that were found in the camp by the allies as soon as the camp was liberated, starting from bowls and spoons, work tools, but also hats, uniforms, bicycles, and many other objects. Likewise, in one room, all the names of the victims were written in a reflection that blinded your eyes and you could not read them. The crematorium and gas chambers were as they had been, untouched. There were three crematoriums that were just like they used to be, even with the shovels and the bed where the dead were put and burned. There were flowers inside the cremator now. While the gas rooms looked like shower rooms, with tiles, only some pipes above and signs on the doors said that they were gas rooms. Of course, the doors and walls were left as before. The museum showed the whole history of that camp from the year ’38 when it was created, all the facts of torture and the names of the victims, different stories of the victims, until the liberation of the camp by the allies, what they found when they came, and how they documented it everything for you convey to the whole public the horrors of this camp. At the exit, a plaque on the wall shows the number of Albanians who entered this camp, which was 427. According to our data, 24 Albanians came out alive in this camp, who could bring to Albania a cup of soil taken from the graves. The cup was given by the allies to the Albanian Dhimiter Simoni from Vlora, a survivor, during a ceremony held on June 20,1945 in Mauthausen, which he brought to Albania, to the National Museum.

In the area in front of the camp gates, each country has placed its own memorial. The Albanian memorial is the work of Odhisa Paskali, inaugurated in 1969 to remember the Albanian victims in this camp. The face of the victorious partisan, who kills the German soldier, is the symbol of the memorial, accompanied by a long tombstone next to it. Other nations are also represented with gigantic and highly symbolic memorials to depict the suffering of each people. Every year on May 5, 1945, commemorative ceremonies are held here and each nation sends its delegation to lay memorial flowers. Of course, our embassy in Vienna follows this ceremony. We left this village that is actually stained with the name of this camp, as I don’t believe that anyone would go there for tourism. The trauma of this place is so strong that people want to leave an hour before. We left it behind to return to our country, and of course to share all our impressions and findings with the Albanian public. I wanted to share here not the facts of the camp and the survivors of Mauthausen, as they are part of the exhibition and the project, but to share my feelings from that camp, and the constant question of our student guide: How is it possible that his happened? How could a human being be treated as nothing, and others were silent and even approve of these crimes? The next question goes further: Do all of us human beings perhaps have a wild side that when awakened, stimulated and ignited can do the same things? None of us can ever accept this, but even those who committed these inhumane crimes were human too. Therefore, the biggest thing we can do in the beginning is to cleanse ourselves of the negative feelings and thoughts we may have towards each other. Never forget that we are equal.  The life of every human being is the most precious thing, which no one has the right to take away.

Eva Kushova, Director of DMO Albania