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‘Auschwitz did not fall from the sky’

Austria is using art to come to terms with its dark role during Nazism — but is that enough to counter the recent rise of antisemitism?
The main gate to Auschwitz. (The Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection: St. Mucha, Publisher: State Museum in Auschwitz)
The main gate to Auschwitz. (The Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection: St. Mucha, Publisher: State Museum in Auschwitz)

“The racism and anti-Semitism of the National Socialists did not fall from the sky. The concentration and extermination camps did not fall from the sky. ‘Auschwitz’ did not fall from the sky.” These were the first words of Austria’s president Alexander Van der Bellen at the opening of the new Austrian national exhibition in the former concentration camp Auschwitz. “Many citizens of our country, some in a leading position, were among the perpetrators in this extermination program.” Antisemitism and racism were highly prevalent in Austrian society before March 1938. “The ground was prepared; the seed was sown when Nazi Germany marched into Austria in March 1938 to thousands of cheers at Heldenplatz.”

The new exhibit opened in October 2021 after a decade-long design process. It presents the history of Austria under National Socialism and the fate of Austrian prisoners in the camp, while highlighting the involvement of Austrians as perpetrators of the crimes committed there. This is Austria’s second exhibition at Auschwitz. The first exhibit from 1978 portrayed Austria as Nazi Germany’s first victim after the Anschluss, which was the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany in March 1938. The former exhibit’s opening words were: ‘Austria, first victim of National Socialism’.  

The title of the new exhibit, ‘Far Removed. Austria and Auschwitz’, refers to the geographical distance between Austria and Auschwitz of about 400 kilometers. This was part of the Nazi strategy to conceal the genocide. At the same time, removal was synonymous with extermination. The exhibition focuses on this notion of being “far removed”, bringing the historical origins of the events in Austria and their culmination in Auschwitz closer to the visitor. Quotes used during the exhibit emphasize the role average Austrians played as perpetrators. Auschwitz survivor Karl Stojka: “Help, my god, what have these people done to us?”

The exhibit consists of two independent but at the same time connected levels: “Here” (Auschwitz) and “There” (Austria). “Here” describes the fate of the Austrian victims and perpetrators upon arrival in Auschwitz. Personal items, documents, artifacts, or photos are displayed in vitrines at the location of the atrocities. “There” is dedicated to Nazism in Austria, its early history, the Anschluss, the development and structure of the Nazi reign of terror, the key figures involved, and the fates of the persecuted. This part of the exhibition is projected onto screens. 

Located in the former prisoners’ Block 17, the exhibit space is dark and narrow. Large colorful glass pane windows by Heinrich Sussman, who survived Auschwitz together with his wife while their newborn child was murdered, were kept from the first exhibit. Burning men and women, humans in gas chambers, screaming faces hauntingly stare at the visitor. Among the items featuring the fate of individuals is, for example, a congratulatory card on a wedding in the concentration camp from fellow inmates, wishing the newlyweds a happy future and many children. The groom did not survive Auschwitz. Or the transportation card for a 4-year-old Roma girl from Salzburg to the camp. She was murdered shortly after. “Seven years of work on this exhibition naturally harden you to a certain extent. But that it was worth the effort to bring a single 4-year-old girl from Salzburg to the camp gate of Birkenau in order to have her murdered, makes me realize that my shell is not hard enough,” says curator Hannes Sulzenbacher about this particular item.   

A quote from Auschwitz survivor Ruth Kluger at the exhibit’s end conveys the urgency of remembrance and reflection: “We say, ‘Never again’ But look at all the massacres that have happened in the meantime. Saying it should never happen again is absurd”.

The Secretary General of the National Fund of the Republic of Austria for Victims of National Socialism, Hannah Lessing, moderated the opening ceremony. The National Fund was created in 1995 and coordinated the remodeling of the exhibition and renovation of the space. Ms. Lessing addressed the ambivalence and internal conflict found in many Austrian families, including her own. “National Socialism and the Holocaust are family history in Austria and Germany. My father was in exile, my grandmother was murdered here in Auschwitz. My mother, on the other hand, was in the labor service. She was part of the machinery of the Nazi state.”  Facing the past now had become less about guilt and more about responsibility, she said. 

Oscar Deutsch, president of the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde, the Israelite Religious Society in Austria, noted that the atmosphere had changed. “We no longer commemorate alone as a Jewish community, but together with the state leadership and with young people from all over Austria.” He read the good-bye letter his grandmother wrote the day before her deportation. 

Another prominent speaker voiced concern about the recent rise in antisemitism. “When people compare themselves to Holocaust victims at Corona demonstrations, when Stars of David are denigrated as Jewish stars, when Sieg Heil can be heard or when Corona vaccine opponents in social networks compare the nerve gas Cyclone B with the vaccine, then everyone is called upon to take an active stand against it,” said Karoline Edtstadler, Federal Minister for the European Union and the Constitution. Austria has since been roiled by nationwide Corona demonstrations against lockdown measures and a newly introduced vaccine mandate. Some protesters in these Corona demonstrations spread right-wing or antisemitic messages and are trivializing the Holocaust. 

Shoah Memorial in Vienna

A few weeks later, on November 10, the “Memorial to the Jewish Children, Women and Men of Austria who Were Murdered in the Shoah” was unveiled. The memorial in Vienna’s Ninth District next to the Old General Hospital consists of 160 sandstone-hued granite memorial stones which are arranged in an oval. The names of the 65,000 Jewish Austrians who were murdered during the Shoah are listed here, next to their birthyears.  Nearly 210,000 Jews lived in Austria prior to World War II. After 1945, there were only a few thousand left. With the passing away of primary witnesses and Holocaust survivors, the Wall serves to preserve the memories of those murdered by the National Socialists and to give families a place to mourn their loved ones. 

New Yorker Martin Perl, the son of Holocaust survivors from Austria, attended the unveiling of the Shoah Memorial, at the invitation of the Austrian government. His mother’s story was featured at the recently opened Kindertransport exhibit at the Jewish Museum in Vienna. He describes the trip as bittersweet.  “I have very good friends in Vienna, but there are always dark shadows lurking. This was the first time I was there during the anniversary of Kristallnacht,” referring to the November pogroms of 1938. He said that the new memorial after so many years was very meaningful. “It’s important to see their names up there. Visitors realize that there were persons behind these names. There was a time when the Viennese didn’t want to have a memorial, which I personally found very offensive.” He added: “Many speakers at the ceremony stated that the grounds for the atrocities were laid in Vienna. This was very compelling.”

Dr. Marsha L. Rozenblit, Professor of Jewish History at the University of Maryland, shared her assessment of the recent efforts by the Austrian government: “I applaud these efforts of the Austrian government to come to terms with the past and the Austrian responsibility in ways it didn’t do for a long time.” She added: “Many Austrians were Nazis, but not all of them of course. They took part in many crimes of the Nazi regime. And yet after the war, there was an official attempt to pretend Austria was a victim of the Nazis.” It was convenient in the Cold War and in the light of Austria’s role as a neutral state to have that position, she stated.

The reckoning is also tangible in the streets of Vienna. A stretch of a prominent street circling around Vienna’s First District was renamed, from Dr. Karl-Lueger-Ring into Universitätsring, a response to the antisemitic and racist attitude of the Viennese mayor Karl Lueger from 1897 to 1910. Dr. Rozenblit is quite pleased with these efforts. “I teach about Lueger in courses. One thing I used to say is that he is still beloved in Vienna. That they still talk about him in glowing terms. That he was “der schöne Karl”, the beautiful Karl. He did good things for the city, but he was of course also playing with antisemitic animosity.” Lueger’s party dominated Vienna in the late 19th and early 20th century, and Austria in general in the ‘20s and ’30s. “I used to tell my classes that he was beloved, and that people just ignored the antisemitism. Now it’s clear that not everyone in Vienna loves Lueger.”

The city of Vienna is also searching for a solution for Lueger’s four-meter-high bronze statue, erected in 1926 and on prominent display between the First and Third Districts, close to the Stadtpark. Critics have repeatedly called for its redesign or removal. Last year, activists sprayed the word “Schande” – “shame” in large colorful letters on the controversial structure. Until the statue’s artistic placement with a historical explanation, the city of Vienna has decided that the sprayed words of “Schande” – “shame” will not be removed. 

About the Author
Stella Schuhmacher is a New York City based journalist and writer, who is originally from Austria. She regularly writes about Holocaust survivors and Jewish life in New York for the Austrian Newspaper Die Presse, as well as the blog New Yorker Stories for Der Standard.
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