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 good-byes 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. With the icy-frost of the Atlantic winter approaching, the European harvest season was ending. The harvest was rich, and each day, I took my fill of the plunder. Apples, pears, grapes, tomatoes – all of them seemed to spill roadside. Some were leftovers, passed over by pickers; others were discarded remnants left out in piles.
I collected them all. In the afternoons I would pull them from my bike bags and build a simple feast of fruit, bread and cheese. At night I took my rest in corn fields and forests, or along the frigid banks of the Inn River. I crossed the Austrian border and cycled from Landeck to Innsbruck, then Schwaz, Brixlegg, Kufstein, and Passau, where the Inn became the Danube. Great jagged peaks jutted from the countryside, framed in fog and reflected in mirror-image the Danube’s still-flowing waters. Each peak or geographical landmark seemed adorned by some architectural gemstone; a church, castle, or pointed steeple. And in those first few days, I was smitten by it all.
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 re-constitutes on rainy days. At first, its strong, pungent odor seemed natural – earthy almost. But then, after several hundred miles of riding on it, my tires became manure re-distribution mechanisms, throwing up cow ca-ca in every conceivable form. There was the fine powder that dusted my shoes and pedals, the larger, chunky flakes that dotted the mouthpieces of my water-bottle, and the black, gooey globs pasted on the base of my tent.
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 that 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.”
And so, for the next three days, I tried to get used to riding the “civilized” way. That is, without brakes. This includes a series of hair-raising descents past stop signs that happened to be located at the bottom of hills, or jaw-chattering run-outs into open fields.
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 smell – that would’ve frightened Vincent Price. After an 85-mile day, I searched unsuccessfully for several hours for a hotel room under a hundred 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 back-country fanatics, and incredibly cool Austrian individuals. We spent the evening sipping tea and poring over a table full of maps. Wolfgang is a mechanical engineer in the field of hydro-electric energy. He informed me that Austria, with its soaring mountains and plentiful runoff, produced 60 percent of the country’s energy needs through interconnected hydro-electric dams. I asked if Austria utilized nuclear energy.
He explained that in 1979, Austria built the world’s largest “model” nuclear power plant at a cost of over a billion dollars. Before it was opened it seems, the government wanted approval by the vote of the people: 51 percent of the population voted against it.
Turning our attention back to the map, Wolfgang 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 Hitler developed the area as a steel supplier for bombs and tanks,” he said.
“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, Hitler’s parents lived here in Linz, he added.
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 footprints 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 some time along the wood and matchstick forests until they were replaced by the 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 the hand of woman lazily smoking a cigarette behind a desk.
A moment later I passed through the gates of Austria’s MauÂthausen 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, as 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 the tortured 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 moved toward the center of the courtyard. Here, a sign read, SS officers would line the prisoners up for role call. Usually it was used as an excuse to provoke submission through humiliation and torture. This included strange rituals, like a continuous hats-on, hats-off salute that could last up to 20 minutes – all of it for the amusement of their captors. Those who did not comply were beaten or shot.
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 a flight of stairs into the catacombs. The sign there read, “Execution Statte.” My stomach began to tighten. One room opened to a vaulted ceiling. My attention was captured 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 once 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 gathered in the parking lot, got in their cars and 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 realm 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 and 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 with, I pedaled the last hundred miles into Vienna, and 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 widespread 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 these problems than it is to resolve them. Resolution begins by looking deeply and honestly within myself, being mindful of my own anger, my own fear, and prejudice – in whatever form that might take – and dropping the idea of “us versus them,” because in the end, there is only “us.”
Writer Jack Kornfield put it this way: “The root of the problem is for someone to discover what it means to be free from that fear or that prejudice that arises in human hearts and minds. To have their heart open to all of what the world presents. What we need is someone who understands how not to get caught up in anger, fear and prejudice … and that somebody is you.”
Switzerland and Austria
Oct. 26-Nov. 10, 2005
Where: St. Morritz, Landeck, Innsbruck, Kufstein, Linz, Rausching, Neuhaus, Mauthasusen, Tulln, Vienna
Mileage log: 4,820-5,432
Elevation: 6,000-400 feet
“There is no denying that Hitler and Stalin are alive today. … They are waiting for us to forget, because this is what makes possible the resurrection of these two monsters.”
- Simon Wiesenthal
“To come face to face with the universal all-pervading truth, one must be able to love the meanest creatures as ones self…”
“Hatred has never ceased hatred, but by love alone is healed.”