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RIGHT in the heart of Vienna sits Judenplatz (Jewish Square), an area where Jews began to settle in about 1150.
Eight hundred lived there by 1400, including merchants, bankers and scholars. But the pogroms instigated by Duke Albrecht V in 1421, culminating in the last 200 being burned alive on a pyre, obliterated the Jewish presence for the next two centuries.
That obliteration resumed just over 500 years after Judenplatz got its name and eight months after Austria’s Anschluss (“reunification”) with Nazi Germany.
In November 1938, Nazi mobs in Vienna staged their own Kristallnacht (night of the broken glass) against the Jews, simultaneously with that in Germany. Over a 100 synagogues and prayer-houses were torched, with the fire brigade looking on.
The Nazi Holocaust, which over the next seven years would claim the lives of tens of thousands of Austrian Jews who did not manage to leave in time, had begun. By the end of WWII, fewer than 4,000 were left.
After the war, Austria peddled the demented myth of victimhood internationally and it took decades for its political establishment to admit having been a willing accomplice in Nazi crimes.
It was at the instigation of Simon Wiesenthal, an Austrian Jew and concentration-camp survivor turned Nazi-war-criminal hunter, that a competition for a memorial was instigated, in which the jury unanimously chose British sculptor Rachel Whiteread’s design.
Austere in its rigorous cast-concrete form, it evokes a library in which shelves full of books are inverted — their spines turned inwards and titles invisible — appearing, enigmatically, to be one and the same volume. Its double doors, with the panels cast inside out, have no handles.
The inscription on the gently elevated plinth by the front doors commemorates the more than 65,000 Austrian Jews murdered by the Nazis between 1938 and 1945, along with the names of the 45 different concentration camps from Auschwitz to Ravensbruck and Treblinka to Buchenwald.
The brutalist form of this “nameless library,” as it has been referred to, are in stark contrast with the backdrop of baroque-style houses around the square, and its palpable solemnity is like a suspended breath. Its familiarity and absence of pathos is alluring, but its dignified tranquillity engenders reflection — memory set in stone for all time.
“This monument shouldn’t be beautiful, it must hurt,” Wiesenthal declared poignantly at its unveiling, while the then mayor of Vienna, Michael Haupl, said that the memorial was “necessary for Austria,” adding that “it is not a joyful event but an important one.”
His mea culpa came on the back of his party, the Social Democratic Party of Austria, owning up to its collaboration with the Anschluss, with many of its leaders having joined the German Nazi party.
Whiteread asked for the memorial not to be sealed with an anti-graffiti paint. “If someone sprays a swastika on it, we can try to scrub it off,” she said. “But a few daubed swastikas would really make people think about what’s happening in their society.”
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