Alone in Gusen Concentration Camp

December 31, 2015
Gusen Concentration Camp

So there I was, stranded on the side of the road in the Austrian countryside about 40 minutes outside of Linz. I watched the bus roll from the stop as the soundscape filled with birds singing above, car wheels scraping against the gravel, and a couple of kids playing ball in the distance. Two other passengers disembarked the bus with me, but they walked in the opposite direction with purpose. They had a destination, and I did not. I was completely alone.

My anxiety skyrocketed. Why did I get off the bus at this random stop? Originally, my plan was to take a day trip to Mauthausen Concentration Camp, which is about an hour bus ride outside of Linz. I was living in Vienna, Austria and wanted to discover more about Mauthausen. My grandfather, Jesse Entenberg, liberated the camp in 1945.

I was spooked. It was a picture perfect day, and a concentration camp was staring me in the face.

I had departed Vienna later than I had planned that day, and once I arrived at the train station in Linz, it was almost 2pm. I was anxious that I would arrive at the camp after the last admittance time, or get there and have to rush though everything. Still, I boarded the bus.

The bus ride was accompanied by the most beautiful scenery I had seen in a while. Spring had sprung in Austria, so the hills were covered with the greenest grass and white and yellow wildflowers were sprinkled everywhere. There was not a cloud in the blue sky, and it was truly a gorgeous day. I kept eyeing my watch, seeing time pass quickly. About 40 minutes into the bus ride, I knew I wouldn’t make it in time to fully experience the camp, so I got off the bus. Yes, I got off of the bus in the middle of nowhere.

As the bus drove away, it revealed a sign on the other side of the road: KZ GUSEN 1939-1945. I knew KZ stood for concentration camp. Then, my eyes were drawn to big block letters on a concrete building that read: MEMORIAL.

I was spooked. It was a picture perfect day, and a concentration camp was staring me in the face.

I crossed the road and walked down the concrete path to the visitors’ center. The door was unlocked, everything was running, but not a soul was there. There wasn’t even a receptionist at the front desk. Again, I was completely alone. I went through the exhibit, watched the videos, and read the material. I was at the Gusen Concentration Camp in Gusen, Austria about 10-11km from Mauthausen. KZ Gusen was made up of stone-quarries and consisted of three camps. The history of Gusen was intense and terrifying. I recall being incredibly overwhelmed by the stories presented. I remember sobbing. No one was there to judge, so I cried.

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I left the building in a hurry after I finished. I was disturbed and had to get out. As I went through the glass doors and down the concrete path, I stopped at the corner of a building next to the path. Somehow, I knew something was there that I needed to see, but I wasn’t sure what it was. I was hesitant and fearful to dive further into KZ Gusen and the dark side of humanity. I did not know what waited around the corner, but curiosity got the best of me.

Gusen Concentration Camp

The only thing I could hear were my footsteps on the stones. I walked through the narrow pathway, and when I got to an open yard full of gravel, I turned my head. The massive crematorium stood to my right. I was startled. My heart sunk to my feet and goose bumps filled my arms. There were cutouts in the building, so I peeked inside. There were memorials and plaques lining the walls, and I’m pretty sure the oven machinery was there too. The doors to the crematorium were taped off. Thank goodness, because if they were open, I probably would have gone inside and scared myself half to death.

I knew I had gotten off of the bus for a reason, and I knew I had stepped off the path to experience something significant.

I stood in the yard for a while. I tried to soak in everything surrounding me. I thought of the thousands of prisoners who once stood where I had planted my feet; the pain they had suffered and the horrors they had witnessed. I knew I had gotten off of the bus for a reason, and I knew I had stepped off the path to experience something significant. The risk was worth it.

After becoming overwhelmed with even more tears and anxiety, I made my way to the bus stop. On my way out, I encountered a plaque commemorating the 11th Armored Division of the US Third Army, the division my grandfather was a part of.

From there, I waited at the bus stop, boarded the bus and took it to the train station, where I got on the train, and headed back to Vienna. I recall having trouble sleeping that night. Too many thoughts were running through my mind. While my trip to Gusen was unsettling and scary, it is something I will never forget. It provided a unique link to my ancestry that will remain with me forever.

gusen concentration camp

This article was originally published here.

About Ilana Olken

I’m a 22-year-old Chicago-native currently living in New York City, and working at The Juilliard School and as a freelance stage manager. During the spring of 2014, I studied abroad in Vienna, Austria, and visited over 30 European cities in more than 10 countries. I have had the travel bug ever since. I’ve also visited the Middle East and various US cities.

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