Kultur & Gesellschaft

A place to commemorate in the heart of Vienna © APA (Techt)
A place to commemorate in the heart of Vienna © APA (Techt)


"Speech to Europe" on Judenplatz: a different way to remember


Diese Meldung ist Teil einer Medienkooperation mit der ERSTE Stiftung

Commemorating the Holocaust in Austria takes many forms. The Erste Stiftung aims to create a "contrast to the prescribed commemorative culture", and initiate "remembrance from the ground up", with a public reading by US historian Timothy Snyder on the Vienna Judenplatz on May 9. The opening speech is due to be followed every year with another "Speech to Europe".

Snyder, who is a professor for history at Yale University and Permanent Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM), published the much-debated "Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning" on the subject in 2015, and focusses mainly on modern central and eastern European history.

According to deputy head chairman of the Erste Stiftung, Boris Marte, who was speaking to the APA, "[Synder] is not only someone who upholds the freedom of the sciences - and this at the highest possible international standard - but who also does not mince words when drawing lessons from the past," while giving them strength. The Erste Stiftung initiated the event together with the Vienna Festival and (Wiener Festwochen) and the IWM.

Carefully chosen location

Neither the speaker, nor the date for the public reading - on the evening of Europe Day of the EU every May 9 - nor the place, is coincidental. Judenplatz ("Jewish Square") in Vienna's historic centre, thus named in 1437, was the centre of the Vienna Jewish community in the Middle Ages. Among other things, it included private houses and community centres, a hospital and a synagogue. This "Vienna Jewish city" existed until 1421, when it was destroyed at the behest of Albert V of Austria in a bloody pogrom ("Vienna Geserah").

The persecution and displacement which started in 1420 finally led to the extensive destruction of Jewish life in the Duchy of Austria. After a turbulent history, the Jewish community began to recover over the next few centuries.

At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, Vienna became one of the big European centres for Jewish culture. This was brought to a brutal end when the Nazis almost completely expelled or murdered the 65,000 Viennese Jewish people in the Shoah.

"Memorial for the Austrian Jewish victims of the Shoah"

In the mid-1990s, the city of Vienna decided to mark the unprecedented crimes with a "Memorial for the Austrian Jewish victims of the Shoah" on Judenplatz, which was completely restructured and turned into a pedestrian zone. During the renovations in 1995, the remains of the medieval synagogue were unearthed. Parts of the foundations are on display in the Judenplatz Museum, which was installed in 2000 as the second location of the Jewish Museum Vienna. At the same time, the now well-known re-enforced concrete cube memorial, created by the British artist Rachel Whiteread, was opened on the square over the former synagogue. The stone books on the monument symbolise the victims, who often remain nameless until this day.

Marte said that the initiative by former Vienna mayor Michael Haeupl and city councillor for culture Peter Marboe faced stiff headwind at the time. Marte himself was involved in the project as Marboe's spokesman, and recalled a turbulent conception and planning phase. Concerns and complaints from residents, the fire department, the resident Higher Administrative Court and the horse carriage drivers all needed to be heard. But in the end, the "white hair" was worth it, said Marte. The decision to mark the Shoah and make a visible sign against anti-Semitism and racism was more important than ever.

"The memorial helps to make it a current experience, not just a historical one", said Marte. "And we will be lending expression to this current experience by inviting a global personality each year". The strength of the memorial was "to refer to the continuum of history, and appeal even more to responsibility. To make sure that the interactions with people are never marked by hate, malice or racism", said Marte.

Remembrance from below, and from inside

This was why there was a considerable difference to where the drive for commemoration ceremonies came from. "In contrast to the prescribed remembrance culture, which also takes place, and in contrast to prescribed commemoration ceremonies - we want to counter with something [from civil society], something voluntary, which does not come from reasoning, but from the heart. It is remembrance from below, and from inside".

The driving force behind the reconstruction of the Judenplatz and the construction of a memorial was Simon Wiesenthal. When asked about the core motivation for the "Speeches to Europe", Marte quoted the Mauthausen survivor from the jointly-published book on "Project Judenplatz": "In future, at this place, may Viennese, Austrians, people from all over the world, members of different religions and social strata become aware of their responsibility for living peacefully together, and accept and fulfil this task".

Service: "Speech to Europe" with Timothy Snyder on Thursday, May 9 at 7 p.m., at Judenplatz in Vienna. Further information: https://www.festwochen.at/programm/produktionen/detail/judenplatz-1010; LIVESTREAM (starting at 7 p.m.) http://www.erstestiftung.org/de/200/

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