Friday, July 16, 2010

July 15

Vienna and the Holocaust

Vienna is a stunning city, with beautiful architecture at every turn, city parks and plazas filled with people enjoying the summer days – and a horrific history during World War II of the extermination of Jews, Roma and Sinti (gypsies), and homosexuals.

Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, happened in Vienna in coordination with similar violence in Germany. Of Vienna’s 43 synagogues, only one was not set on fire and devastated. At the same time that the synagogues were set ablaze, hundreds of stores were looted, apartments destroyed, and goods confiscated. Nearly 7,000 of Vienna’s Jews were arrested and 3,700 were deported to Dachau concentration camp.

We visited that one remaining synagogue, Stattemple. It survived because, from the street, it doesn’t look like a synagogue. Also, many non-Jews lived directly across the narrow street and their homes would have been in danger of fire had the synagogue been in flames. But perhaps the most compelling explanation for why it survived is also the most chilling. The synagogue had served as the community center for Vienna’s Jews and contained a registry of everyone who identified as Jews. The Nazi SS set up an office directly down the street and built an underground tunnel to go right to the synagogue. This gave them direct and safe access, away from Allied bombs, to the names of all the Jews in Vienna. These records were used for deportation and extermination.

In 1938, there were 180,000 Jews living in Vienna, about ten percent of the city’s total population. During the early years of the Third Reich, the Nazis encouraged emigration. About 130,000 Jews left from all over Austria; 30,000 came to the United States and many thousands went to Palestine, which became the state of Israel in 1948. Of those who couldn’t flee, at least 65,000 of Vienna’s Jews were sent to extermination camps; only 2,000 survived. Of those who remained hidden in the city, only 800 survived.

The story of Nazism in Austria is indeed a terrible one. But there are good people everywhere who refuse to stand idly by while their neighbors are being targeted. We visited the Documentation Center of the Austrian Resistance, which provides information about both resistance and persecution.

The Center opened only in 1978, illustrating the difficult time Austrians have had in facing the complicity and responsibility of their past. The mission is not only to document the past but also to decry extreme right-wing and neo-Nazi dangers.
The exhibit at the Center examines not only the events of the war but also of post-war de-Nazification and the story of incomplete prosecution of Nazi criminals, insufficient efforts towards restitution, and examples of current right-wing extremism. Heinz Fischer, President of Austria, says, “The most important task of the Center is to make a contribution in the 21st century against intolerance, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and anti-democratic tendencies. This we owe to the victims of persecution and to the women and men of the Austrian resistance.”

We also saw the Monument to the Victims of the Holocaust, a stark and striking tribute to the 65,000 Viennese Jews who perished. The memorial is located in a square where remains of a medieval synagogue have been found. This rare archaeological find is on exhibit to the public in Judenplatz.

The Memorial was unveiled in October 2000, with Simon Wiesenthal, the late Nazi hunter who lived and worked in Vienna, present for the ceremony. The Memorial is a concrete structure that looks like a library but with all the books facing inwards. The symbolism reflects the untold stories and unfinished lives of the 65,000 who perished, and also evokes the characterization of Jews as ‘people of the Book.’ The names of the concentration and extermination camps where the Jews perished are engraved along the base of the monument.

When we were there this afternoon, there were some yahrzeit (memorial) candles and flowers, small tributes that were poignant testimony to the link between the past and the importance to remember and honor those whose lives and cultures have been destroyed.

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