Austria Opens First Holocaust Memorial

BySue Masterman

V I E N N A, Oct. 25, 2000 -- Austria’s first memorial to Jewish victims of the Holocaust was unveiled today in a short, dignified ceremony, more than 55 years after the end of World War II revealed the full horror of the Nazi concentration camps.

The concrete memorial, the brainchild of veteran Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, opened almost four years later than planned because of a dispute over the site in the heart of the Austrian capital: Judenplatz, a central Vienna square, with a bloody and controversial history.

The Judenplatz is the ancient location of an early Jewish ghetto where 300 Jews committed suicide in the Or Sarua synagogue in a pogrom in 1421. Some 200 others were killed.

Medieval Temple Ruins Found

The temple, one of the biggest in medieval Europe, was demolished, then forgotten — until work on the memorial began, when the ruins were discovered. Community leaders protested that the archeological findings made the sculpture redundant, as they were eloquent enough on their own.

Some residents of the square, living on property once confiscated from the Jews, wanted the memorial moved to the suburbs.

But instead of canceling or moving the memorial, the plans were simply changed. The remains of the temple — now accessible underground — have been carefully preserved as part of a complex of Holocaust-related museums and displays around the square.

A small three-room museum in the complex features a multimedia presentation of the life of Vienna’s Jews in the Middle Ages until the destruction of the community in the pogrom.

A separate installation shows the names of the Austrian Jews slaughtered by the Nazis over half a millennium later.

Nameless Library, Forever Closed

The monument itself, designed by British sculptress Rachel Whiteread, is called the “Nameless Library,” a concrete block that stands 32 feet by 23 feet and 12 feet high. The external surface shows shelves of books with their spines turned to the inside, enclosing an area made forever inaccessible by a permanently locked door.

“It’s about not being able to enter,” said 37-year-old Whiteread. “It is an abstract library because you obviously can’t read the books and have no idea what the spines of the books might be.”

It represents all the Jewish culture and learning which was lost forever in the Holocaust, Whiteread says. The empty space inside symbolizes the many readers of the library who did not live on, according to the jury who selected her design.

Wiesenthal, 91, said the image of the book had a special meaning for Jews.

“We are a people of books. We did not build our monuments out of stone and metal. Our monuments were books,” he said.

The names of the concentration camps in which 65,000 Austrian Jews were killed are engraved around the base of the monument.

Defacing the Library?

Local residents fear the pristine white walls of the memorial invite neo-Nazi daubing which has regularly disfigured every Jewish-related monument or statue in Vienna.

A permanent, discreet guard will try to prevent that.

Vienna has one other memorial to the suffering of the Jews, part of a larger anti-war complex by Alfred Hrdlicka. It depicts a Jew who was made to scrub the pavement by the Nazis.

When children began sitting on and “riding” the figure, the city put the figure inside a barbed-wire barrier. The sculptor objected, but eventually capitulated.

Whiteread stuck to her demand that her memorial be located on Judenplatz and nowhere else. If it gets vandalized, she says, than that will also be a statement.

Whiteread said she chose concrete instead of stone for her work because of its starkness and how it reacted to the environment of the city. “I wanted to use a material that is present and brutal... and which would take on the essence of the city as it stains,” she said.

Austria has several anti-fascist monuments, but governments have been criticized in the past for failing to build a memorial specifically to remember Holocaust victims. Wiesenthal himself said the bronze sculpture was not acceptable as a memorial to Holocaust victims.

“The memorial is a sign that anti-Semitism in this city goes back further than the Nazi era. No one in this city can be acquitted of guilt,” Vienna mayor Michael Haeupl told journalists a week before the opening.

Tragic Past

Austria was annexed by Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich in 1938. Few of the country’s 200,000 Jews survived the Holocaust or returned from exile after 1945. Only 8,000 Jews live in Austria today, mostly in Vienna.

Today, Austria is again trying to shake its image as an anti-Semitic refuge, which resurfaced when the ultra-right Freedom Party took power after last year’s elections.

Joerg Haider, who led the party until recently, spends a lot of time apologized for remarks indicating sympathy for some of Hitler’s policies and for SS veterans.

Unlike in Germany, synagogues do not burn in Austria, nor are there neo-Nazi demonstrations. But the problem is still there, as the strong support for Haider has revealed.

At the request of Vienna’s Jewish community, no members of the Austrian government were present at the inauguration ceremony. But President Thomas Klestil, who fought bitterly in February to try to keep the Freedom Party out of government, was welcomed.

Reuters contributed to this report.