November 16, 2005
When I’d crossed Switzerland, I’d filed its images and memories in my mind as a child tucks newly found coins into his back pocket. I said my goodbyes to Switzerland near St. Morritz and rolled like a pinball down the swale of the Inn Valley. There, I glided up one side, then gently down to the other.
I could hardly say a bad word about eastern Switzerland, or western Austria.
If I had to, that word would be poop. Cow manure, that is. It’s everywhere and permeates everything. Hundreds of tons of it. It lines fields, trails, sidewalks and roadways, where it dries, then reconstitutes on rainy days. At first, its strong pungent odors seemed, natural – earthy almost. But then, after several hundred miles of riding on it, my tires became manure redistribution mechanisms, throwing up cow caca in every conceivable form.
Apart from the manure, my ride through Austria was marred by a series of technical problems. After a tent pole broke, both sets of bicycle brakes wore out.
This would not have been such a problem had it not been for the fact bike shops are rare in the countryside, and generally closed on weekends. Sometimes for up to three days.
Someone here explained it to me in this way: “In America, everything is open all the time, it’s ridiculous. Here we are civilized.”
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And so for the next three days, I tried to get used to riding the “civilized” way. That was, without brakes.
This included a series of hair-raising descents through stop signs, that happened to be located at the bottom of hills or jaw-chattering run-outs into open fields.
By the end of the weekend I was operating my bike a la Flintstones – dragging one foot on the ground.
Several days later I landed in the lovely hilltop town of Linz. Although it was Halloween, I was hardly in need of a mask. After four days without a bath, I had a look, and subsequent smell that would’ve frightened Vincent Price. After an 85-mile day, I searched unsuccessfully for several hours for a hotel room under 100 bucks. Just as I was perfecting my rendition of Frankenstein, I came under the gaze of two sympathetic Austrians, Wolfgang Artner and his girlfriend Susan Mayr. I asked them for shelter, and the two took me in for the night.
After a near-religious shower experience, I discovered the two were backcountry fanatics, and two incredibly cool Austrian individuals.
We spent the evening sipping tea and pouring over a table full of maps. Wolfgang is a mechanical engineer in the field of hydro-electric energy.
He pointed out the area where he worked just south of Linz, an enormous industrial area that encompassed twice the size of the city. I asked what gives.
“We’re known for our steel industry here in Linz. We are the biggest seller of sheet metal to BMW and Mercedes Benz.
When I inquired how Linz had become such an important supplier of steel, it seemed to give Wolfgang pause.
“During the war” he replied, “Hitler developed the area as a steel supplier for bombs and tanks.”
“But why here?” I asked.
“It’s the Danube.” he replied. “Strategically it connects all of Europe from the North, to the Black Sea. He who controls the Danube, controls Europe.”
“But wasn’t Hitler German?” I inquired, exposing my historical and geographical ignorance.
“Hitler was born in Braunau, Austria, one of the towns you passed through before you arrived here.”
I confessed to him that I had no idea.
“In fact,” he finished, “Hitler’s parents lived here in Linz.”
That night the wheels in my head began to turn.
Hitler, if anything, had occupied minimal space within my head. I’d always envisioned him as some kind of cartoonish-looking character portrayed in the fuzzy photos of high school textbooks. Little did I know that by the end of the next day, the black tar of his legacy would be left like grimy foot prints within the very core of my being.
The next morning, Wolfgang was off before I awoke. I got my things together and set out into a bitter cold. An icy fog hugged the landscape and the bright colors of Mother Nature’s autumnal fireworks display seemed to fade into so many monochromatic shades of gray. I pedaled for sometime along the wood and matchstick forests until they were replaced billowing white smokestacks south of Linz – formerly Hitler’s industrial park.
Roughly 12 miles out of town, I rounded a corner and came upon something strange. It was a sculpture of sorts. A collection of cement heads eerily descending into the ground. Their presence seemed to speak of something foreboding. I climbed a hill, parked my bike, then slipped 2 Euros into a the hand of woman lazily smoking a cigarette behind a desk.
A moment later I passed through the gates of Austria’s Mauthausen Concentration Camp Memorial.
I moved into a courtyard enclosed by granite walls, 12 inches thick, each lined with barbed wire with watchtowers perched in each corner.
The tours were self-guided. You followed a set of numbered signs, just as a prisoner who’d first entered it would. This began at a place known as the Wailing Wall. Here prisoners who’d just arrived by train were lined up, stripped of their clothes and their belongings. Usually tortured, they were left standing naked overnight in the bitter cold of winter for days on end. Many died there.
I followed the set of numbered signs from the wall to a disinfection room, where prisoners were disinfected, completely shaven, then given striped suits and a number to replace their names. Jews would be banded with a yellow star that differentiated them from the political prisoners and dissidents.
I followed the numbered signs through the courtyard, past a set of barracks, to what was known as the quarantine area – a walled-off area within the concentration camp.
Here the sick and diseased were separated from the rest of the forced laborers. Of those quarantined, the SS would choose individuals for hideous medical experiments or the testing of new vaccines. Nearly half of them died.
There was a sign that stated, that in 1968, 9,800 corpses were exhumed from Mauthausen and buried in the ground that stood beneath my feet.
At the bottom it read, “May their souls rest in peace.”
I moved on from the mass grave, across the courtyard, where I descended down flight of stairs into a catacomb of low-ceilinged rooms. The sign there read, “Execution State.”
My attention was stolen by a steel-handled cable. I followed it with my eyes as the cable ran up the wall and over a stout steel beam. At its end was a steel clip that had once been connected to a noose. I was aghast.
I moved quickly from there, and momentarily ducked my head into dankly lit rooms where prisoners were either shot individually, once in the neck, or gathered en masse to be poisoned in gas chambers with a toxin known as Cyclon-B. The corpses were stacked in a cold storage area before being transferred to a dissection table. There, gold teeth were pried from their mouths, or identifying tattoos cut from their bodies.
Just after that I came to the last number. The tour ended silently in the red-orange glow of memorial candles placed in the mouths of two cremation ovens.
It is estimated that between 1938 and 1945, 100,000 people were killed in Mauthausen.
I made my way back to the courtyard, and drifted out the gates of Mauthausen in a sort of stupor. I looked up to see the setting sun as it assumed a low angle in the sky. The temperature dropped, and I could see my breath.
I stood there until dusk, after the last remaining visitors drove away. As I stood alone beside my bike, it came to me that there was no Hollywood ending to this story; no tidy conclusion that brought the experience into the realms of understanding.
What crept in with the impending silence was a deep wave of sadness and mourning for my fellow human beings.
I spent the following hours and days alone, carrying the full weight of the experience within me. At times I wept openly, and at others I awoke horrified out of a dead sleep. I imagined, the deep fear and confusion of those men, women, or children in those final moments before execution. I looked for some outlet. Some release – a way to digest it – or classify it within my mind. It never came. With no one to share it with, and no one to talk to about it, I pedaled the last 100 miles into Vienna, the best I could do was to just keep pedaling and allow for that pain.
The worst part came with the realization that many of the root causes of Mauthausen are still very much alive in the world; and moreover, within the borders of my own country: Blind patriotism and wide-spread support of militaristic violence and aggression fueled by fear, prejudice, hatred, and religious intolerance.
These were the things that produced Mauthausen.
I came to the conclusion that it is easier to point out than it is to resolve them. Resolution begins by looking deeply and honestly within myself. To be mindful of my own anger, my own fear and prejudice – in whatever form that might take. To drop the idea of us versus them, because in the end, there is only us.
Editors note: This is the 11th installment of former Nevada Appeal photographer Rick Gunn’s journal, detailing his two-year bicycle trip around the world. Along the way, he is raising money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. To donate, go to wish.org.
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When: Oct. 26-Nov. 10, 2005
Where: St. Moritz, Landeck; Innsbruck; Kufstein; Rausching; Neuhaus; Linz; Mauthausen; Tulln; and Vienna, Austria
Mileage log: 4,820-5,432
Elevation: 6,000-400 feet