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The Controversial Holocaust Memorial-The Inverted Library

by Rhonda Spivak, Jan 8, 2017

 
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.
 
Rebecca Pollack in her thesis about this Whiteread's public sculpture suggests "Whiteread’s cast of the negative space around the books, along with the interior of the  room, embalm the 65,000 Austrian Jews [ who lost their lives in the Holocaust], not all of whom have identified burial  spaces.".https://bir.brandeis.edu/bitstream/handle/10192/25120/PollackThesis2013.pdf?sequence=3/. 
 
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.
 
Not everyone has been satisfied with the sculpture. Whitehead told the Guardian that "There were also disputes within the Jewish community about the nature of the memorial itself. But you can't make public sculpture by consensus. "   https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2000/oct/17/artsfeatures
 
 
[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. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.


Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.