Stanisław Kudliński

Last October my wife and I were cycling in northern Austria. At the town of Mauthausen we turned up the valley and climbed some switchbacks in our lowest gear until the grade eased. Nestled into the broad grassed hill in front of us were the massive walls of the Mauthausen concentration camp, run as a business by the German SS during World War II.  They were a very enterprising bunch when it came to forced labour, starvation, death and worse.  We spent several hours taking in as much as we could cope with.

In the museum my eye was drawn to this old bicycle. It had been indelicately but lovingly repainted in green and gold, so it was irresistible to an Australian cyclist.  Its sweeping handle bar gave it a jaunty look but it had taken a hard hit on the left side. Foot pegs on the front forks suggested it had routinely carried someone on the handlebars. A handsome saddle sat above the simple drive train, which looked like it could go forever. The rear rack had survived somehow.

The bike belonged to Stanisław Kudliński, a polish survivor of the Mauthausen camp.  Probably 120,000 people were murdered in the camp complex (many records were destroyed and estimates range up to 200,000 according to Wikipedia).  But Stanisław survived and when he got out he didn't wait for his return home to be arranged.  He received this bicycle from nuns in nearby Linz and set off with two other survivors on a long journey through war-torn Europe, home to Poland.  He kept the bike throughout his 83 years, a powerful symbol of freedom.

We cleared our heads in the bright sun and climbed back on our own freedom machine. As we rode away from Mauthausen we couldn't feel what Stanisław felt, but we knew it felt good.

Robert Loughman