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"Streetwashing Jew" Memorial, Albertinaplatz, Vienna
Credit: Catherine Chatterley


Judenplatz Memorial, Vienna
Credit: Catherine Chatterley


Stolpersteine (Stumbling block) memorial, Vienna
Credit: Catherine Chatterley


Upper Belvedere Schloss, Vienna
Credit: Catherine Chatterley

 
DR. CATHERINE CHATTERLEY--VIENNA: CITY OF PARADOX

By Dr. Catherine Chatterley, posted Sept 21, 2014

Vienna was the imperial seat of the Habsburg dynasty, the most powerful royal house in European history ruling several thrones through marriage for almost 700 years. This city-state—especially its parks, museums, and Ringstrasse—remains a showcase for the wealth and splendor of this Catholic royal family.

The many museums inside the Ringstrasse were built specifically to house the extensive Habsburg collections: painting, sculpture, ancient archeological artifacts, armor and martial history, musical instruments, carriages, art objects, religious objects, reliquaries, family memorabilia, heraldry, garments, and the list goes on. Visitors can tour their many palaces, which also house their art collections, and visit the imperial apartments where the family lived (link to photos).  

The city itself has a wonderful energy, a very urban feel but really livable too. The fabled cafés and restaurants are alive with conversation into the wee hours. People are friendly and family-oriented; it is no doubt a beautiful place to live.

What is truly striking, however, after spending days in the grand museum collections of the Habsburgs and the 20th century art museums of Vienna is the near total absence of Jews from this world. With the exception of Jesus and the Holy Family (who are actually considered Christian by many people anyway), and the odd biblical figure like Judith or David in a painting, there are no Jewish figures or themes present in over five hundred years of European history. Not even the antiquities collected and exhibited are Hebraic—they are Roman, Greek, and Egyptian.

Compounding this reality of Jewish absence is the fact that one is confronted, at every turn, by the massive presence of the crucifixion in the European imagination. Not only in painting and sculpture and the decorative arts but in the ornate reliquaries held by the Habsburgs—everything from pieces of the “True Cross” to a thorn from Christ’s Crown. In fact, a group of young women from an American school were asking me to translate the German descriptions for them and they were very moved to see these sacred relics. While the veneration of relics is not a central experience for most people in Western societies anymore, it has not passed away into insignificance either. 

Today’s Vienna is a city with few Jews. The affiliated population is approximately 7000, and most have come from the former Soviet Union or Iran. Just as in Germany, the original population of Austrian Jews, who were concentrated in Vienna, was almost entirely destroyed in the Holocaust and the few who survived left Europe after the war.

A truly depressing experience is a visit to the Jewish Museum of Vienna. Established in 1895, it was the first Jewish Museum to be founded anywhere in the world. The museum’s collection was confiscated by the Nazi regime after the Anschluss in March 1938. In 1939 the museum collection was transferred to the Museum of Ethnology and the Natural History Museum in Vienna, which used some of the items for its antisemitic exhibition entitled “The Physical and Psychological Appearance of the Jews.” Over half of the collection is still missing and the items that have been recovered were returned to the museum over the last six decades.

On the third floor of the museum is a collection of odd, sad, sacred objects from synagogues all over central and Eastern Europe, including soot-covered and melted objects from the Viennese synagogues burned during Kristallnacht on the evening of November 9, 1938. It also displays a collection of antisemitic figurines, walking sticks, and everyday objects. As dark and dreary as this museum is, there is a stark authenticity that is honest and necessary given the location of the museum—there is no American Constitution or Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to celebrate here.

In fact, I have never seen a statement like the following quotation built into any Holocaust museum exhibit: “The Jewish Museum is the only large museum in Vienna to deal in a permanent exhibition with the subject of the extermination of the Jews, which is more than a ‘Jewish story.’ A Jewish museum in Central Europe has no choice; it cannot but recall the Shoah. This does not absolve Austrian politicians and society from their responsibility also to confront this story in other places and from a general Austrian point of view.”

In the famous churches and parks of Vienna there are memorials to the soldiers who died in WWI and WWII, and to the Austrians who suffered under the Nazi regime. Most of these memorials were built immediately after the war in memory of the political prisoners held in Dachau or those who suffered on the “stairs of death” (Todesstiege) in the granite quarry of Mauthausen, owned by the city of Vienna. They have nothing to do with the Jewish Holocaust or more recent public consciousness about it.

There are two city memorials to the murdered Jews of Vienna—both are strange and off-putting. In the city center on the Albertinaplatz, beside a much larger sculpture depicting the Austrian people suffering under war and fascism, is a strange dark chunk of concrete in the shape of a bearded man prostrate on the ground with barbed wire lying across his back. This object is the memorial to Jews who were forced to wash the streets of Vienna during the Nazi occupation. There is something demeaning and repulsive about this sculpture that does not properly memorialize Jews but somehow, in the contemporary Viennese context, reinforces their humiliation and absence. I am told that dogs like to urinate on it as well.

The second memorial is on the Judenplatz, which retains its name today with old Gothic street signs. Rachel Whiteread designed a concrete library of books with their spines turned inward to honor the 65,000 Austrian Jews murdered by the Nazis. This grey rectangular block stands like an eyesore in the middle of a beautiful square of 18th century buildings. It feels as if the monument is a punishment to be endured by the architecturally sensitive Viennese.

Given the overwhelming absence of Jews in this city, it is disturbing to see these kinds of representations for public consumption. What exactly do these memorials teach the public about the Jewish people? This is a profoundly important question that is particularly relevant given the opening of the new federal museum in Winnipeg this month.

Quite by accident, on my way to the University of Vienna for a conference, I noticed a set of eight stolpersteine (stumbling blocks) at 46 Lange Gasse, acknowledging the murder of eight Jews who had lived at that address. Gunther Demnig first designed these brass blocks to memorialize the Roma and oth

 
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Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.


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