Holocaust Remembrance Day was January 27th, and I realized it too late to blog about it this year. I did take some time to remember, though. The truth is, the Holocaust impacts my life on a daily basis.
On May 5th, 1945, my father, Robert Abelhauser, who was in the US Army, 65th Infantry Division, helped to liberate Mauthausen Concentration Camp in Austria. He was forever changed by this experience, and by extension I was forever changed by his absence from my life.
According to Wikipedia, during its 7 years of operation, Mauthausen was responsible for anywhere from 122,766 to 320,000 deaths. This camp was nicknamed the “bone-grinder” because it was known for its brutally hard labor. Among the many factories that took advantage of this slave labor were the (still operating) companies of Bayer and Daimler, but the bulk of the inmates, weighing an average of 88 pounds, were forced to work in the granite quarries.
Mauthausen’s philosophy was extermination through labor. They did eventually have a gas chamber, even a horribly effective portable one, but mostly they just worked people to death or starved them. Conditions were brutal. If you are easily upset, you may want to skip over this Wikipedia quote:
The SS guards would often force prisoners – exhausted from hours of hard labor without sufficient food and water – to race up the stairs carrying blocks of stone. Those who survived the ordeal would often be placed in a line-up at the edge of a cliff known as “The Parachutists Wall”. At gun-point each prisoner would have the option of being shot or pushing the prisoner in front of him off the cliff. Other common methods of extermination of prisoners who were either sick, unfit for further labor or as a means of collective responsibility or after escape attempts included beating the prisoners to death by the SS guards and Kapos, starving to death in bunkers, hangings and mass shootings. At times the guards or Kapos would either deliberately throw the prisoners on the 380 volt electric barbed wire fence, or force them outside the boundaries of the camp and then shoot them on the pretense that they were attempting to escape. Another method of extermination were icy showers – some 3,000 inmates died of hypothermia after having been forced to take an icy cold shower and then left outside in cold weather.
By the time my father showed up, there were more than 78,500 inmates, mostly Soviet and Polish intelligentsia, all forced to survive on 600 to 1000 calories a day. Prisoners who arrived at Mauthausen at that point were expected to live less than 3 months. It was one of the first concentration camps of the war, and the last one to be liberated by the allies. Being one of those liberators, my father would have seen sights like these, as both photos were taken there around the time of the liberation:
Is it any wonder that after such an experience, which he apparently never ever talked about, my father came back from the war an alcoholic with severe anger management issues? Not that there’s any excuse for that behavior, but I definitely can see how that would trigger it.
I never met the man. By the time I came along in the 60’s he was unfit for human relationships. Because of my father’s absence, I never felt safe, or confident, and I never had a good role model for choosing decent men in my life.
The holocaust, like a stone cast into a pond, is still sending out ripples to this very day. Broken families. Broken men. And those approximately 6 million of people who died in the holocaust, and the thousands more who died fighting for or against it, who might have instead lent their talents to making this a better world. And the children that they never got to have, and the children of those children… all are a loss to this planet.
I’m proud to learn that one of the people liberated from Mauthausen was Simon Wiesenthal, who went on to have a huge impact on world history. What if the camp had been liberated 3 months later and he had not survived? And how many other amazing human beings were lost?
You may not be aware of it, or, worse yet, you may be a holocaust denier (If so, shame on you), but the holocaust ripples through your life every single day. It’s not something that humanity can easily recover from. It’s all the missing people, and all the damaged people they left behind. It’s the incomprehensible hate, that still drives itself into crowds, causing maximum destruction, to this very day. It’s the fascist drum beats that can be heard from the current White House administration. It’s the fear that we can never, and should never, forget.