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Reunion in Ebensee

By Alfred Münzer

It has been 15 years since I last visited the little town called Ebensee that is nestled high in the Austrian Alps and since I stood at the grave of my father and wept. I never knew my father because he, like my mother and two sisters, was taken from our home in Holland and deported when I was only nine months old. My mother survived, but my sisters and father did not. My sisters were killed in Auschwitz. And my father went from The Hague to Westerbork, to Vught, to Auschwitz, to Mauthausen, to Gusen, to Steyr, and finally to Ebensee. He survived the hardships of the camp but died two months later of what we were told was tuberculosis.

This was not an easy journey. I had visited Ebensee with my mother before we immigrated to the United States. But when I called the Austrian Tourist Office for information about Ebensee, I was told that there had been no concentration camp in Ebensee and that there was no concentration camp cemetery.

For months I had nightmares that the cemetery had been bulldozed and my father’s memory erased. And yet on a map of Ebensee I did find a little cross with the telltale letters KZ next to it. I had vivid memories from my previous visit 35 years earlier, traveling by train to Ebensee through the French and Swiss Alps. It’s a journey I had always wanted to share with someone special. And so my partner, Joel, and I flew into Zurich and took the Transalpine Express through Salzburg, to Bad Ischl, a town near Ebensee. 

As we looked out the window of the dining car, the mountains seemed to grow ever more aweinspiring as we approached Bad Ischl. And wherever we looked, there were campers and hikers partaking of the beauty of creation. How was it possible, I asked myself, for the horrors of the Holocaust to have coexisted with such splendor? I saw some cows grazing peacefully in a pasture, and I wondered whether we humans, instead of being at the pinnacle of creation, weren’t actually some deadly error in the story of creation.

When Joel and I arrived in Bad Ischl, the young woman who was one of the owners of the inn where we were staying told us apologetically that there had been an error in our reservation and that we would have to change rooms the following day. I then told her that we’d have to leave early the next morning to go to Ebensee to visit my father’s grave at the former concentration camp.

At that, the woman broke out in tears. “Ebensee is my hometown. And I am so ashamed,” she said. We hugged, and suddenly I felt as if an enormous burden had been lifted, as if the acknowledgment of responsibility contained in those simple words—“I am so ashamed”—had restored my faith in humanity. 

The following morning we went on to Ebensee. It’s a quaint little town with a beautiful old church on a hill. It sits on the edge of the Traunsee, among some of the tallest peaks of Austria. And less than a mile from the heart of town—in the middle of a subdivision that occupies the site of the former concentration camp and where among the houses you can still see the gates to the camp—we found the cemetery. Thousands of victims are buried in this cemetery, most in mass graves, and others who—like my father—died in the weeks and months after liberation and are buried in individual graves.

I had been prepared to find a cemetery that had been forgotten, neglected, or even bulldozed. But what we found was a peaceful spot surrounded by trees that had been merely shrubs when I had been there last, and by monuments that bore inscriptions in French, Italian, German, Polish, Spanish, Hebrew, and Dutch. We met the caretaker, who obviously took a lot of pride in the appearance of the cemetery and who pointed out the exact spot where my father was buried.

Again I felt some real sense of kinship with this man who, in his care for the dead, seemed to be carrying out an act of atonement—if not on his own behalf, then on behalf of this little town that had allowed a concentration camp to exist in its midst, and on behalf of a country that had yet to come to terms with its own complicity in the Holocaust.

I felt at peace as we left Ebensee. But Joel, despite having no immediate connection to Ebensee, could not rid himself of the anger he felt toward anything Austrian. From Ebensee, we retraced my father’s steps and went to Mauthausen—a grim fortress on the outskirts of the city of Linz. It sits high on a bluff overlooking the beautiful, fertile valley of the Danube.

Mauthausen is Austria’s national monument to the Holocaust. Established in 1938, the camp holds a special place in the infamy of the Holocaust because of its stone quarry, where thousands met their death struggling up the 148 steps carrying boulders of more than 100 pounds each. The German guards took delight in tripping prisoners who were at the head of the line going up or down the steps, so that all who followed would trip and fall as well.

But what I remember most of that dreary day in the camp was meeting a man called Fyodor Stepanovich Solodovnik. He, too, was there on a pilgrimage, a return to a place sanctified by the blood of 100,000 victims. He was the son of a Russian partisan and had been taken prisoner when he was only 16 years old and sold as a servant to a woman in Breslau for 20 marks. He ran away and was captured and sent to Mauthausen.

He told us many things that day. But the thing I remember most was how he shook his head while we were looking at the list of nationalities and various types of “offenders” represented in Mauthausen. “There were no Spaniards, no Italians, no French, no Jews, no homosexuals, no Russians in Mauthausen,” he said. “We were all the same.” How tragic, I thought, that it takes the horror of a concentration camp to make people realize that we are “all the same.” 

But the saddest part of our visit to Mauthausen may not have been anything we saw while we were there. It wasn’t walking on the wooden floors of the barracks that had born the last steps of tens of thousands of our fellow human beings. It wasn’t the huge Star of David honoring Jews from Amsterdam who had committed suicide by jumping down the precipice into the quarry and whom the Germans called “the parachutists.” It wasn’t the flickering memorial candles burning in the ovens of the crematorium. It wasn’t even the shock of finding my father’s name on a monument erected by the Dutch government.

The saddest part of the visit was to come home and to realize that even before the events of the Holocaust had begun to fade into history, the world seemed already to have forgotten its terrible lesson. No, the Holocaust did not spell an end to prejudice, persecution, cruelty, or mass murder. One year it was Cambodians persecuted by the Khmer Rouge, another it was Muslims in Bosnia, or Tutsis in Rwanda. And now, as I write, it is Rohingya in Burma and Yazidis in Iraq.

Human thirst for blood seems unquenchable. And let’s not be smug and think of atrocities and murder and torture as only occurring “over there.” Atrocities, murder, and torture happen “over here” as well—little murders, little atrocities, little everyday bits of torture and barbarism that occur in our own country, in our own city, in our own community.

One of the recurring questions asked about Ebensee, Mauthausen, and all the other camps is this: how was it possible for people to ignore such terror so close to their homes? But how much attention do I pay to the terror that goes on close to my home? Philosophers, psychiatrists, and sociologists have come to the unsettling conclusion that the Holocaust’s perpetrators were ordinary people—not psychotics, not sociopaths, but ordinary people unbelievably just like me.

When I turn away from the injustice suffered by people around the globe, am I at risk of being at least a little like the Germans and Austrians and Poles and others who turned away from those who were shot at Babi Yar, gassed in Auschwitz, or worked to death in Mauthausen or Ebensee? When I ignore those who go hungry in our city, am I not at least a little like those who continued to feast as others starved? When I fail to speak out when our “leaders” engage in demagoguery, am I not at least a little like the Germans who were silent in the face of Hitler?

There is a prayer on a monument in Ebensee that reads: “To the faithful companions, the heroes and the comrades of a thousand dead who rest here, and countless others of all nationalities and every faith, brothers and sisters in a common tragic destiny, dedicated by an Italian woman who prays that such an incredible sacrifice might turn the human heart to good.” The answer to that woman’s prayer is not to be found in heaven, but in me and you.

© 2016 Alfred Münzer. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.