“This is where your mother would have been forced to stand when she first passed through the camp gates. It’s called the Wailing Wall.”
Rupert is on staff at what was once Mauthausen Concentration Camp. The granite walls, the imposing guard towers, the barracks, the gas chamber, and the ovens now stand as a memorial dedicated to those who suffered and died in that ghastly place.
The site provides a personal guide for family members. Our guide Rupert did more than walk my wife Joy and me through the physical plant of Mauthausen. He led us, as best he could, through my mother’s experience there.
Upon reflection I believe that she endured not only brutal treatment, hunger, and desperate fear. The camp’s diabolical processes were dedicated to stripping her life of meaning.
The psychologist Emily Esfahani Smith argues that a sense of belonging is crucial to having meaning in life. To having the “why” of our existence. If we are stripped of our sense of belonging, we will eventually tumble into an existential crisis. A crisis of meaning.
As thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Camus, and Viktor Frankl have argued, humans cannot go on long without a sense of life’s meaning. The ultimate aim of all the Nazi camps was death. So it makes monstrous sense that the Nazis would have stripped away their victims’ ability to belong.
Belonging involves mutual recognition. Paradoxically, being one of many also means that each of us is different. You recognize me as me. For you, I am not interchangeable. I am irreplaceable. And I recognize you in the same way. Each of us finds our identity as human beings by recognizing and respecting each other’s difference.
The Nazis sought to make life unbearable for concentration camp victims by making them utterly interchangeable.
Trudy (my mother’s German name was Edeltraud) arrived in the nearby village of Mauthausen by train.
1944 had edged into 1945. Trudy would soon turn sixteen. Previously, the camp had been reserved for adult men. As the tide of war turned against the Nazis, the camp’s mission was expanded to include women and children.
At the station, SS guards hustled the prisoners from their cars and marched them through the village streets. As the shocked and weary prisoners shuffled and stumbled along, the villagers went about their ordinary rounds as if these strangers were invisible.
There was no jeering or staring. There were no furtive, compassionate glances. The prisoners were invisible. Too normal and mundane a sight to give notice.
By contrast, the residents warmly greeted the guards. Shopkeepers and Hausfraus and bankers would smile and wave at them. Call them genially by name. Swap jokes. “Hans, remember dinner at 8:00! My daughter can’t wait to see you!”
This Austrian street would have resembled the hometown streets of Linz—about 12 miles away—that my mother had strolled just days before. Bakeries. Cafes. A post office. A park. As she walked to school, people would have called out to her by name. Slipped her a warm torte or flashed her a friendly smile. They recognized her. She belonged to that place. To those people.
But as soon as the prisoners arrived in the village of Mauthausen, an existential stripping had begun. Stripped of belonging to an address, to a neighborhood, to a family, to a circle of friends, to a community.
After a steep mile and half march, the prisoners came to the camp. After passing through the massive gates, the prisoners marched immediately to the right along the wall. They halted at the Wailing Wall, a section of wall across from a nondescript administrative building.
Here, the stripping continued.
Guards ordered everyone to remove their clothes, to toss all their belongings in a pile by the building, and then to face the wall. Prisoners stood naked, humiliated, terrified at attention.
Along with their clothing and their jewelry, they had been stripped of their individual identity. With clothing we express ourselves. We differentiate ourselves from and identify ourselves to each other. That is how we connect. How we belong.
Next, their heads and bodies were roughly shaved. Each was a assigned an ill-fitting striped uniform and a bracelet with a number.
No hair style to distinguish them from anyone else. A number replacing their name. All vestiges of individual humanity had been systematically stripped from each prisoner. They were interchangeable. They could not belong because they could not be recognized as unique, irreplaceable human beings.
Stripped of meaning, they would gradually, meekly slide into death. At least, that was the plan.
Lest we think that Mauthausen and the other 1200 camps are merely a lesson about a terrible but now bygone era, consider what the late therapist and concentration camp survivor Victor Frankl identifies as the symptoms of a crisis of meaning:
By these measures, as writers like David Brooks have noted, the United States is in the throes of a crisis of meaning.
We have an aggression epidemic. Mass shootings are so frequent that they no longer shock us. We have been at war for nearly two decades. White supremacy is on the rise as are hate crimes agains LGBTQ people, Muslims, and people of color.
There is an opioid crisis. Around 130 people die from opioid overdoses a day. But other drugs take a toll as well. Between 1999 and 2017 more than 700,000 people have died by drug overdose.
The US suicide rate rose 24% between 1999 and 2014. While there are many factors involved in this statistic, despair and depression surely play a significant part.
Survivors of the camps have a crucial lesson for us. Viktor Frankl observed that those who loved others—those who sacrificed for the sake of others—were more likely to find meaning in even the wretched conditions of the camp.
As it turns out, loving your neighbor is the most effective resistance against the power of death and perhaps a way out of our shared crisis.