You can also already buy your admission ticket for the actual camp at the bookshop (make sure you have it ready to show it at the camp's entrance proper). A cafeteria/fast food restaurant adjacent to the centre supplies sustenance (but is not open at weekends outside the main summer season and closed altogether in winter from November to the end of February!).
The visitor centre can feel a little labyrinthine and some people (myself included) get a bit confused about how to get to the actual camp memorial premises from within the visitor centre – a stairway leading out of the back doesn't lead anywhere in particular, but just to a field on top of the centre from where you can view the site but nothing more. So, instead go back out at the front, proceed past the strange pendulum memorial and head for the main camp gate.
Directly inside the main walls to the right is a so-called "Klagemauer", 'wailing wall', with memorial plaques from a wide range of countries including some rather unexpected exotic ones such as from Turkey
or even China
There's no strict rule but one possible circuit around the historical premises could then start on the left with those wooden barracks that formerly were inmates' living quarters. Inside you can see a few wooden bunk beds and other pieces of basic furniture as well as washrooms.
Behind the wooden barracks, to the left, the now empty field was once where several more rows of wooden barracks would have stood. At times, esp. towards the end of the camp's history, the premises extended even far beyond, including a separate tented camp (for Hungarian
inmates housed in the most appalling conditions). Beyond the far end of the empty field, with bits of electric fence, there is also a mound of ash from cremated murdered camp inmates with a small memorial stone and cross.
Further out along the central courtyard there are two smaller fields enclosed by walls: these are the cemeteries where inmates' remains were later reburied from the site where the American liberators had first buried the dead in 1945.
Now at the far end of the courtyard, the circuit continues on the other side in the larger, stone building that once was the infirmary. It is here that the main, older permanent museum exhibition is housed.
This museum exhibition is the new one only opened in May 2013. The old exhibition did indeed have various shortcomings, especially from the point of view of foreign visitors. The labelling and info texts were mostly in German only and where English translations were supplied these were often very poor quality indeed.
But now, this, amongst other things, has been rectified! The new exhibition is bilingual throughout and the translation quality has finally been brought up to scratch as well. (If I want to be pernickety, though, I find the use of the present tense in the historical texts a bit odd. It is fairly common usage in German in such contexts, but doesn't work in a parallel fashion in English ... this direct grammatical transfer is, however, something commonly encountered in English texts in German memorial museums. Why that is so, I cannot say – maybe it is even commissioned to be so parallel. I don't know.)
Content-wise the new exhibition is also a bit more in line with contemporary trends in memorial commodification
. There are lots of screens where you can play video clips as well as audio stations where you can, for instance, listen to eyewitness reports and such like.
The thematic structuring of the exhibition is a little unusual in that it isn't strictly, or at least not wholly, chronological. The main corridor does follow the successive stages of the development of the camp and its historical context (rise of Nazism, Anschluss
and, outbreak of war, enlargement of the camp, final stages, aftermath), but the side rooms pick up particular themes not all of which are in line with the respective historical stages.
I was thus surprised that when I went into the first side room to the right what I found was mostly about the aftermath and coming to terms with the legacy of Mauthausen. At first I thought I may have started at the "wrong end" of the exhibition and asked at the reception. But no, apparently this dipping in and out of sub-themes like this is intended. That first room, in particular, is supposed to serve as both a prologue and an epilogue. A particularly poignant item here is a video clip of the TV show "This is Your Life" from the USA
which was a disturbingly inept early attempt at dealing with surviving victims of Nazi concentration camps
In general, the rooms branching off to the left are more closely linked to topics of the camp itself and Nazi
history, such as the Anschluss
and the rise of fascism within Austria
prior to that, the categories of inmates, the nature of forced labour in the quarry as well as (later) in the arms factories set up by the camp, the system of satellite camps, the liberation, and so on.
The rooms to the right, on the other hand, are more about the people, in particular the victims, of which different categories and ethnic backgrounds are touched upon. It's also here that various personal stories and eyewitness reports can be found.
In the end I found this approach of picking particular topics out and giving them separate attention worked quite well. It also helps in case you want (or need) to be selective, as you can easily skip whole sections if the sub-theme in question is not of interest or relevance to you.
Apart from texts, photos and documents on static display, as well as the various audio-visual stations there are also a few screens which show a kind-of time-lapse capture of historic/structural developments, not only of the growth of the Mauthausen camp itself, but also of its satellite camps as well as the death marches at the end of the war.
There are also plenty of artefacts on display in the exhibition, ranging from to-be-expected items such as the typical striped concentration camp inmate clothes and hats, number tags, and personal belongings made/hidden during their time in the camp to somewhat more unusual objects, such as a meter from a Messerschmitt plane (which were assembled in a purpose-built factory adjacent to Mauthausen) or a piece of bread saved from the provisions handed out in the camp ...
A particularly chilling artefact is an empty old Zyklon B
canister. Here I noticed one significant change: in the old exhibition this had been part of a larger "diorama-like" display with a whole set of Zyklon B gas canisters, one even spilling out a mock-up heap of the chemical in its greenish-bluish pellets form (which looks like gravel – but the real thing would have turned into the poisonous gas on contact with warm air oxygen) – see the relevant photo in the gallery
Downstairs, in the basement under the rooms with the main exhibition, another new section has commodified the grimmest parts of Mauthausen in a new and more elaborate way as well. This is the section about the deadly aspects of the camp: the violence, torture and murder.
Before the authentic places associated with this are entered, a kind of preparatory exhibition introduces the various aspects first: daily violence, executions, death in the quarry, by injection or gas and cremation. Again, there are a few poignant artefacts on display, such as parts of the high-voltage electric fence of the camp, a syringe, or instruments of torture.
Then you begin the circuit through the grimmest parts of the whole site. First you get to the larger one of the two crematoria that survived. It had long been a central place of commemoration, with countless plaques, wreathes and memento mori from a vast range of countries and groups of victims.
The "circuit" is now more consistently "designed", and also more prescribed than it had used to be, This is mainly achieved through the installation of a kind of (wooden?) walkway that zig-zags through the different rooms. At certain points the dark walkway suddenly folds up, as it were, and ends in little markers and short text labels/explanations. The way this is done comes with a certain practical risk factor. If you don't watch your step closely but keep your eyes on what is to be seen on the walls (as is likely in an exhibition!) it can happen that you don't notice the black walkway in front of you suddenly folding up diagonally and become a stumbling block of sorts. I'm not making this up: I witnessed a visitor loudly tripping over one of these diagonal folds. The designers of the exhibition certainly had the best of intentions and there are some profound thoughts behind this particular design feature, but I'm afraid "health-and-safety" concerns were a bit neglected in this ... So be warned: better keep your eyes on the walkway as you proceed and watch your step!
You then enter a darkened section called the "room of names", which oozes a particularly solemn atmosphere. Here, all the known names of individual victims, some 80,000 (!), are etched onto various horizontally placed black glass plates. The names are put in a random order so as to make them all equal in individual importance. In addition, books with alphabetical lists of names allow for a systematic search for particular names.
Beyond the room of names you come to the very darkest of all the authentic sites/sights at Mauthausen: the gas chamber. It's a fairly small room, tiled in white and with pipes going along the walls and overhead – as if for showering … in the usual fashion of disguising the real function of this sort of room. Although the gas would not have come through the pipes and shower heads but through a shaft on the side equipped with a ventilation fan.
Before the re-design of the memorial commodification you used to be able to even enter the gas chamber. You are now prevented from doing this by one of those "stumbling blocks" made by the black walkway folding up just in front of the open door to the chamber. Take particular care here, because if you stumble over this one you may bust your head on the hard tiles inside the chamber.
In the past you could move (open and close) the doors, so that you could even see through the peep hole set into the middle of it (through which the perpetrators would have checked on the slow and agonizing death of their victims). Apparently this was deemed inappropriate so the one door is now permanently pried open and no longer can be moved, while the other one is permanently closed. The new design may be well-intentioned but it does, however, detract a bit from the previous authenticity of the place that used to make this one of the most chilling close encounters with the former death machinery of the Nazi camps.
Similarly, you can no longer enter the dissection room adjacent to the other, smaller crematorium, or the former morgue, where corpses were stored before cremation. These too are now blocked by the new "stumbling-block design" of the circuit, so you can only look in but not enter.
Finally, you come to the execution room. Here you are released from the prescribed black walkway, but there isn't really much to see except for some markings on the floor, a reconstructed part of wainscotting on the wall where the executions by shooting (while pretending to take mugshot photos) took place, as well as a crude "gallows" – basically a steel beam overhead to which a wire is attached.
One change I found very welcome was that the thoughtless graffiti left by visitors (including even the stereotypical hearts + "X was here" type) that used to be visible in some of the bare basement rooms has been removed.
The very worst trace left by a visitor that I ever encountered in such a place was, however, to be found in the guest book in the main exhibition on one of my earlier visits of the place: some anti-abortion activist had the abominable cheek to leave a highly inappropriate message likening the Holocaust
to an alleged "babycaust" going on today … as if abortion, even if you are against it on moral grounds or something, could in any way be compared to the unparalleled malice underlying humanity's worst ever crime that was the Holocaust. I have nothing but contempt for whoever it was who misused the memorial site's guest book in this utterly mindless way!
At the time of my most recent visit, in November 2013, there was lots of construction/refurbishing work going on around and inside the remaining buildings of the camp. So these were at that time no longer accessible. There used to be a large hall with flags of dozens of nations hanging from the walls. And a cell block of the camp's prison was also accessible. I presume some of this will come back when the whole modernization and refurbishing programme that is currently under way is finished. But for now this is it and you can head back to the gatehouse.
Finally back in front of the main gatehouse you can then view the various memorial monuments if you haven't already done so before.
Again, a wide range of countries are represented here. The Soviet
monument is, unsurprisingly, particularly large. You can also tell that they are from different periods of time – not just because some of the countries which they represent no longer exist (such as Yugoslavia
or the GDR
), but also by the style they're executed in, ranging from the usual traditional bronze figures in agony and/or mourning to some highly imaginative ultra-modern ones.
To the left, you could walk back to the visitor centre and car park – past a lower-lying field with another Russian memorial, and past the site of the former SS
sports ground, used by the American liberators as the first cemetery at Mauthausen (later transferred to the camp grounds – see above).
However, before you return that way and leave you could instead follow the path to the right of the collection of memorials which takes you to the infamous "Todesstiege". You can already see this Stairway of Death from the cliff top at the far end of the memorial complex. A sign warns – rather ironically I found, and only in German – of the danger of falling down and admonishes you to keep away from the fence. Explanation: here especially cruel SS
men would frequently have pushed inmates – who in most cases wouldn't have understood German either – over the cliff's edge to see them crash to their deaths below … and cynically referred to them as "Fallschirmspringer" – 'parachutists'.
Proceeding along the path, you at first descend at a low gradient, then you come to the stairs proper, that wind down in a steep curve of 186 steps all the way to the bottom of the quarry.
Many school groups or coach parties of visitors walk from the camp and down the stairs to the bottom of the quarry and have themselves picked up by their tour bus there afterwards (saving them the strenuous climb back up). If you have your own vehicle you could drive from the main car park by the camp to the bottom of the quarry and decide there how far up the stairs you want to go …
I always think you almost "owe" it to the place to climb these steps the whole way and back at least once – it doesn't change anything, but is a kind of cathartic gesture.
The rest of the quarry is rather bare these days, except for a few more memorial plaques, either in German only or in German, French and Russian (but this may change in the course of the refurbishing work currently being undertaken at Mauthausen so that English language plaques may be added here too). But you don't really need most of the information anyway. The eerie atmosphere more or less speaks for itself … if you know where you are, that is – apparently not everybody does, so a sign I spotted (a bit hidden) in one corner of the quarry near the bottom of the stairs explicitly prohibits: bathing, diving, washing cars or playing ball games (sic!).
All in all, it's quite some experience that you get at Mauthausen as a visitor today. The whole complex is deeply moving – and that in a somewhat different way compared to other concentration camp
memorials. This is partly due to the authenticity of some original buildings and installations and their chilling starkness, partly the astonishing internationalism of the individual memorials and plaques, and partly also because of the quarry and those stairs ...
It should be a must-do for any dark tourist travelling in this part of the world, even if it requires a little detour … it's wholly worth it.