Jan. 27, my last day in Vienna (travel day back to the U.S.), is the Day of Remembrance of the Shoah. As has become clear, the Shoah, or Holocaust, in Vienna and throughout Austria is a memory fraught with social denial, amid public calls for remembrance. Until 1991, when in a speech to Parliament Austrian Chancellor Franz Vranitzky publicly called the Austrian people to responsibility for the atrocities of the Holocaust, the official and popular view tended to coincide in a concerted effort to deflect all blame onto Germany. Images of Austria being an occupied state, and Austrians as victims of Nazi aggression, were repeated in an effort to absolve Austria from its own violence toward the Jews and other groups slated for expatriation – and then, extermination. Today there are laws against a former Nazi party member serving in the government, and Holocaust denial speech, neo-Nazis, and hate crimes are officially repudiated. There have been official efforts at restitution and remembrance. However, a “soft” denial, coupled with ongoing anti-Semitism, persists in the general culture at large. I have met a number of older Austrians whose families were here during the war, and the usual response to any query about the Nazis or the Holocaust is an acknowledgement that yes, the Austrians were complicit, but: “Not everyone approved. My family certainly did not!” If so many families “did not,” then who were all those people in the cheering throngs on the Heldenplatz giving Hitler a triumphal entry into Vienna? One joke that circulates about the rewriting of history is an ironic saying, “Oh no, they weren’t cheering. On that day on the Heldenplatz, they were just all waving their hands and shouting at Hitler “Go away!”
A friend who moved here 30 years ago commented that in those earlier days she sat next to an older woman on a park bench, and after exchanging polite greetings, the woman grumbled that there were too many “Ausländer” (foreigners – and for decades even before WWII, this was code also for “Jews”). My friend said, “I’m actually an Ausländer – I’m from Germany.” The woman replied, “Oh, I don’t mean you. I mean the Jews.” While such comments are probably made less readily to strangers these days, people I know and trust acknowledge that racism and anti-Semitism (here mostly referred to as xenophobia) persist. There is a strong anti-immigration and anti-Islamic mood (as well as fairly small counter-protests which I’ve seen around the university). Since the October election, the far-right political party the “Freedom Party” (FPÖ) led by a charismatic speech-maker who stays just this side of illegal hate speech, Heinz-Christian Strache, has gained even further ground, rising to first place among Austrians from 23% to 25% in a Gallup poll with a strong anti-immigration campaign. One typical slogan of this movement is “Pummerin statt Muezzin” (referring to the main bell of the Stephansdom vs. the Islamic call to prayer, i.e., keep Austria white, German-speaking, and Christian.) For an interesting discussion of Strache’s populist appeal, see the Vienna Review article from November 2013 at http://www.viennareview.net/news/europe/populists-in-the-fast-lane.
One significant counter-effort to resist anti-Semitism, to keep the truth of the Holocaust alive, and to remember the millions of victims, is a growing series of small brass plaques called “Stolpersteiner” (or Stumbling Blocks). Begun by an artist Gunter Demnig in Germany, these small squares are planted in place of cobblestones or inserted into the pavement in front of a house once occupied by a Jewish family or individual. Demnig quotes a saying from the Talmud: “a person is only forgotten when his or her name is forgotten.” The engravings generally begin with the words “Here lived…” and end with “gemordet (murdered), the place if known (usually a concentration camp) and year. The idea of stumbling stones is a play on the old slur that if a person stumbled on the street, a Jew must be buried there. This slur is reappropriated to signify the importance of being stopped in our tracks, to notice, and to remember. The stones don’t literally stick up and cause you to stumble—in fact, if you don’t look down, you can easily miss them. But once you have seen one or a few, you will start to notice, and you will see more and more. There are many in my neighborhood of Leopoldstadt, one of the historic neighborhoods especially housing the poorer eastern Jewish immigrants (and originally established as Vienna’s ghetto), in the 9th district where the bourgeois Jews like Freud, Schoenberg, and many others located when they “moved up,” and in sections of the 1st district where there was a mix of Jews across all social strata – as well as other locations in the city.
For more information, see http://www.stolpersteine.eu/en/home/; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stolperstein; http://www.viennareview.net/news/special-report/path-of-memory; and http://www.npr.org/2012/05/31/153943491/stumbling-upon-miniature-memorials-to-nazi-victims.
There are other organizations doing other forms of memorial as well. In the 9th district, around the corner from Freud’s home, there is a memorial to all the many murdered Jews who had lived on just that one street, Servitengasse. The memorial consists of a collection of skeleton keys, each with a name tag for one of the Servitengasse victims.
This glass monument stands just steps from the front door of the Servitenkirche for which the street is named. Although it is stunning when you look at it, it is also quite easy to pass by (as I did a few times before I knew what to look for) – a metal frame with a glass plate, it blends into a busy street with utilities, pedestrian traffic, etc. After I stood looking at it for quite a while, as I was leaving, a policeman who was just strolling around the area himself stopped – maybe curious about what I’d been looking at – and began to gaze quietly at the memorial. I wondered what was going through his mind.
Another movement, which I first started seeing around the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht (see earlier blog post), the Vienna Project (http://theviennaproject.org) has stenciled the words “What if we forget to remember?” in German, English, Hebrew and Yiddish. (See also http://theviennaproject.org/installations/ and http://theviennaproject.org/opening/) Most recently friends and I saw this example painted down the middle of the very old cobblestoned street Annagasse.