I walked by this bunker shaped monument designed by a British sculpture Rachel Whitehead in Vienna's Judenplatz (Jewish square), and to be very honest I did not understand what the sculpture was supposed to be and made a mental note to research this. I wondered if I was the only one who didn't know what the memorial was, and think it would be preferable if there were some explanation of it on the site itself.The sculpture is big enough that any passerby wouldn't miss it, but its bunker shape doesn't seem to blend into the surroundings. (As an aside, there was some controversy when Whitehead was chosen to design the memorial as some Viennese Jews thought the designer out to be Jewish, which Whitehead isn't.)
After researching this sculpture designed in the minimalist tradition , I have learned that it is supposed to be a room inside what would have been a typical 19th century Viennese bourgeois home. The room is a library, but rather than having the shelves of books line the inside of the room, they line the exterior of the library space. To the passerby, the spines of the books (and their titles) all face inwards and all the casts of the books in this inverted concrete library are identical.
The doors of this inverted library are sealed shut, and there is no keyhole, such that the interior of the space can't be accessed. The viewer is thus shown doors they can't access and books they can't read, which is supposed to be the metaphor for the death of the 65,000 Austrian Jews. The books' whose spines face inwards represent the untold stories of Holocaust victims.
While this may have been what Whitehead intended, the notion of being "embalmed" is a Christian and pagan one, and is certainly not Jewish . To my mind, "embalming" is a rather strange analogy for a memorial for Jewish Holocaust victims.
Since Jews are known as the People of the Book, the analogy of Holocaust victims being like books that can't be read would seem to be an appropriate one. One of the first things that the Nazis did was burn Jewish books, and yet despite the Holocaust, the People of the Book still survived. As Pollock outlines, the books in Whitehead's memorial "not only function as a historical reference for Jews as a nation but they symbolize the surviving and living nature of the Jewish people and Jewish identity." The books also are a living sign of the surviving Jewish mind. We could say that the future of the Jewish people is an open book, and of course, books also symbolize knowledge, which is needed to ensure that another Holocaust will not occur.
As Pollock explains,when the viewer faces the front of the monument with the locked doors surrounded by countless rows of books, the viewer understands the magnitude of the loss of Viennese Jewry.
[caption: The sculpture was once "a congested thoroughfare" but now is a pedestrian space, which was very quiet when I was there. At the time it was being built there were apparently complaints about the loss of parking spaces for the square's residents.
[put in a caption: At the top the sculpture, there is a negative cast of a traditional Viennese ceiling with a floral motif at the center, but this is completely lost on the passerby. Only those living in the surrounding buildings or flying above could see this part of the sculpture, and I certainly couldn't.]
Critics of Whiteread's sculpture have argued that the memorial fails to speak to a large range of people who pass by it as its architecture embodies a Bourgeois lifestyle with which few Viennese were accustomed.
Having chosen to reconstruct a 19th century bourgeois room, the sculpture takes the viewer back to only a slice of Viennese Jewry ,the wealthy. Whiteread may have been thinking of the fact that Viennese Jews (such as Sigmund Freud, Theordore Herzl and Gustov Mahler) were some of the most notable intellectuals and cultural icons, and they lived in bourgeois homes.
While it is true, of course, that in the Holocaust many Jews lost their fortunes, which were seized upon by the Nazis and by their neighbours, there also were many poor Jews who did not live in bourgeois homes with libraries. Some might argue that the sculpture arguably promotes the mistaken antisemitic assumption that in general Jews are wealthy.
As Pollack has noted, "When one thinks of European Jewry, images of ghettos and cramped living quarters come to mind, not private libraries. Whiteread approached the sculpture wanting to engage viewers with different memories and moments in history rather than those normally associated with the Holocaust."
I gather from my reading of Pollack's thesis that the inverted locked library seems to represents the void left in society when Jewish intellectuals were taken out of fabric of Viennese society.
There are only a few words on the base of the memorial, which reads simply in Hebrew, with English and German "In commemoration of more than 65,000 Austrian Jews who were killed by the Nazis between 1938 and 1945.” Along the sides of the library are listed the 41 concentration camps where these Jews were murdered.
What is my overall view about this memorial? Now that understand what is intended by the sculpture, I can appreciate it much more than I did when I walked by it. And yet, I can't imagine that the average Viennese passerby would understand all or even most of its symbolism, nor would they spend much time trying to figure it out. For it to be meaningful, there would need to be much more explanation at the site itself outlining what the sculpture represents.