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Jewish Journal

Vienna’s first Holocaust museum

by Edward Serotta

November 2, 2000 | 6:59 pm

Austria's first monument to the Jews killed by the Nazis during the Shoah,the brainchild of veteran Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal,was unveiled in Vienna on Oct. 25. Construction was delayed by controversy over the site.

Austria's first monument to the Jews killed by the Nazis during the Shoah,the brainchild of veteran Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal,was unveiled in Vienna on Oct. 25. Construction was delayed by controversy over the site.

For a country that has had more than a few problems facing its past, the decision to build Vienna's first Holocaust museum came almost easily.

It was the follow-through that was difficult, time-consuming and controversial.

Vienna's Holocaust Memorial in the inner city's Judenplatz was unveiled in a simple but moving ceremony last Wednesday.

Among those attending the ceremony were Austrian President Thomas Klestil and the leader of Austrian Jewry, Ariel Muzikant.

Klestil told the gathering of several hundred people that there is no place in Austria for racism or xenophobia of any kind.

The memorial, designed by British artist Rachel Whiteread, consists of a large, concrete cube. Three of its walls feature casts of books facing outward, the fourth large double doors without handles.

Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, 91, said the books are important Jewish symbols.

"Jewish monuments were seldom made of stone or metal; our monuments were always books," he said, pointing out how enemies of the Jews have always burned books to try to eradicate their traditions.

The concrete platform on which the cube rests is engraved with the names of the Nazi concentration camps. The adjoining house provides access to the underground ruins of a synagogue dating back to the Middle Ages.

A controversy over this ancient synagogue held up the memorial for years.

It started in December 1994 with an impassioned letter that Wiesenthal wrote to Vienna's mayor, Michael Haeupl.

Wiesenthal, who has lived in the city since the 1940s, stated that it was time for Vienna to construct a memorial to the 65,000 Viennese Jews deported and murdered during the Holocaust.

Haeupl immediately agreed, and the medieval Jewish quarter of Judenplatz was chosen as a logical location. It was expected that the memorial would be standing by 1996.

Neither Haeupl nor Wiesenthal knew then that before the memorial would open this week, it would take a total of six years, the $2 million budget would spiral to four times the original estimate and the entire Jewish community would become embroiled in controversy.

Haeupl knew that digging a foundation on Judenplatz might open a Pandora's box. The city's archeological department had informed him that the remains of a synagogue built in the 13th century and burned in a pogrom in 1421 could very well lie beneath the pavement.

Construction for the memorial began in July 1995, and within weeks, workers reported that they had indeed found the remains of the synagogue's bimah. In the months that followed, careful digging unearthed still more of the original foundations.

Urusla Pasternak, head of Vienna's Department of Culture decided to incorporate the remains of the excavated synagogue's ruins into an underground exhibition and make it accessible to the public.

The problem was, as the digging unearthed the synagogue's remains and the foundations of a Jewish house of prayer slowly took shape, people in the Jewish community began having doubts over whether it was appropriate to create a memorial to Jews killed in the 1940s on the site where Jews had been killed in the 1420s.

The original Vienna Gesera, an ancient community document that recounted the gruesome pogrom of 1421, was translated from Hebrew and circulated. Those who read it were horrified at the medieval story.

In autumn of 1421, the city's poorer Jews were packed onto rudderless barges on the Danube and sent down river while more than 100 wealthy Jews who refused to convert to Christianity were burned alive at the stake.

Another 80 hid in the synagogue to avoid the raging mob. There, they committed mass suicide. The synagogue was later burned and ripped apart; its stones went to build the city's university.

The Jewish and non-Jewish communities debated whether the newly exposed ruins were enough of a memorial. The far-right Freedom Party complained about the spiraling costs, all of which were being absorbed by the city.

After the fall 1996 elections, Peter Marboe, who had previously served in the Austrian Embassy in Washington and then directed cultural programs for the Foreign Ministry, took Pasternak's job.Marboe, who enjoyed good relations with the Jewish community, decided to keep the project on ice until a unified decision could be reached.

"The last thing we wanted was to erect a Holocaust memorial that the Jewish community wouldn't accept. But the community said it would not call a vote on it," said Boris Marte, who worked with Marboe.All the while, Wiesenthal, fast approaching 90 years old, tirelessly lobbied politicians to start the construction again. For more than a year, the site remained a gaping hole in the center of the city.

Finally, Vienna's Jewish Museum came into the picture. If the two pogroms of the 15th and 20th centuries were to be understood in an educational context, an accompanying museum and learning annex would have to be built to address these issues.

Conveniently, the building just next to the memorial was owned by a small Orthodox synagogue community - the Misrachis - who agreed to allow the construction of the museum in its ground floor and basement in exchange for remodeling their synagogue on the second floor.

After all these negotiations, discussions and arguments, construction began again in early 1999. Everything was finished just last week.

Reflecting on this complex and at times bitter struggle to bring this project to life, Marte said, "The accepted interpretation of the Holocaust is that it is unique, incomparable and singular. In that interpretation, the Holocaust came like a bolt of lightning without precedence and struck Europe in the 1930s and 1940s.

"This monument brings the Holocaust into its historical context, and I doubt that there is single place in Europe that encapsulates so much Jewish history all in one compact area."

Marte, a 30-something rising star in the Conservative People's Party, said, "People my age, we're not the ones responsible for what happened during the Holocaust. But we are responsible for explaining what happened. And in Vienna, this is the memorial and museum that does it exceptionally well."

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