Lines of sadness - Jimmy Carter thinks I'm a sinner - CycleBlaze

April 27, 2007

Lines of sadness

Walter was sitting by the railway line when we arrived to boil up coffee. We nearly always make our own coffee, first because the break is welcome in this superb April weather and also, to be frank, because it saves a lot of money when you avoid cafes for a dozen weeks.

Walter was sitting with his own bike, doing nothing much but passing the time and occasionally looking at his watch, as though he expected pensioner pals to come and join him.

Walter: "You're about to ride over the Bridge of Tears."
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We made ourselves understood that we lived in France but that we were born in England and he showed an impressive understanding, expressed in animated German, of the difference between England and Britain. It was this explanation that was cut short by the passing of a train.

It carried a long, long line of brand new cars, each a different colour, all pointing the same way, hauled by an electric locomotive.

"They're from Skoda," Walter said, "in Slovakia. They're going to Munich." He waited until the noise died and added: "This was the line that carried the prisoners to the concentration camps."

Mauthausen, a hilltop camp where prisoners were worked to death if the SS didn't end their lives with kicks and rifle butts, was a few kilometres away. A dozen or so other camps affiliated to Mauthausen were dotted about the surrounding countryside.

"You're following the bike route along the Donau?", he asked, giving the name that German-speakers give to the Danube. None of the nations along the river calls it the Danube. We agreed, said that we were. "Then in a while you'll ride over a concrete bridge that the prisoners had to build to take a branch of the railway closer to the camps. They built the means to make the deaths of other prisoners administratively easier."

Walter said he was Greek rather than German. That maybe made it easier to talk about what must still be a difficult subject for other people of 84. He asked where we were going and we said, as shorthand for "To the Black Sea and maybe on to Istanbul if there's time" - "To Istanbul."

"Istanbul!" he said, stressing the first syllable, as people do in German. "Toi! Toi! Toi!" I'm not sure what "Toi!" means but the way I've seen it used suggests it's akin to the French "Chouette!" As we shook hands and then rode off, he was still clasping his hands in front of his face and calling "Toi! Toi! Toi" after us.

Knowing what he'd told us brought a chill to a sunny morning because the cycle path of today follows the uptorn railway line of the 1940s. We followed it over that concrete bridge and on to Mauthausen, guilty for enjoying a route designed for the killing of thousands.

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Of the camp itself, there's not much to say that you'll not already have read. We spent four hours there, walking and pausing with our audio guides.

Not a lot remains of the original camp. I was going to add "sadly", but I'm not sure how that's how I feel about it. Mauthausen was the last of the camps to be liberated and the Americans destroyed the tented camp and the lice-infested wooden huts. The risk of disease was too great to let them stand. And since souvenir-hunting isn't new, much of what remained was carried away by those lucky to have survived.

Much, that is, except for one significant area. And for all that I would love to describe the chill when, on opening a heavy and part-rusted door, you find yourself in a gas chamber,

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I don't have the words, the talent or the grasp of my own emotions to do it. It is a gas chamber, disguised as a mass shower just as you've always heard. And never in my life did I ever want to be inside one. Just as, I feel I have to add tritely, was the case for the thousands who died there or dropped to their death from starvation and exhaustion on the Stairway of Death that led to the quarry from which ragged skeletons hewed stone to build Hitler's glorious new Berlin.

Mauthausen: explanations are unnecessary
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AFTERNOTE: "Toi!" seems to mean nothing in German. But say it three times in a row, Suzanne Gibson told me afterwards, and it's a wish for good luck.

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