Quiet Place in the Heart of Vienna
It is rainy in Vienna. Not badly though. Typical Viennese April light rain, a part of the landscape.
There are two of us here, in the middle of the Austrian capital, in a central but quiet place, my friend and colleague and I, and we are entering the Wall.
The Shoah Wall of Names which was opened in Austria just a year and a half ago, in November 2021. It is worth noting that the project was conceived 26 years ago, in May 1997. It took over twenty years to get to the stage of its actual implementation at the end of 2018. Just to think about it: over twenty years of tireless effort. And then it was a frustrating Covid-caused pause during the final stage of its materialising.
But the main thing is that with all this almost unbelievable and so long history the Memorial is finally here, in the Vienna down-town, in between the historic buildings of the Austrian National Bank, Historical Department of the University of Vienna, and also the well-known building of the Provincial High Court.
A pleasant, well designed, providing immediate comfort due to its oval shape, built in elegantly coloured high-quality granite, with typically Viennese well-manicured greenery in between, the space institute not quite expected embodiment of pain, crime, guilt, recognition and memory burst in a dignified – with dignity as a key-element here – very clear and well articulated statement of that all.
There are memorials like that, walls with names, in the world, of course . My first encounter with the concept was not a Jewish-related monument, as it happened, but a loss- related one, so many years ago , in Washington D.C. It is so massive that at some point it loses its grip on you, as many giant memorial places do, for example, the one in the centre of Berlin. In my experience and subjective perception, size does not add to reviving memory, to the contrary.
So, my friend and colleague and I are entering the place of Remembrance in Vienna. There is one thing to enter a memorial on your own, and another thing to come there with a soul-mate who tells you the story of it from within, in a sort of matter-if-fact way, trying ‘to keep it factual’. The best, or probably, the only operable mode for this kind of narrative, as it comes from an experience.
Only in this very case, on that very day, and at that place, it was not easy , or actually possible for me, to keep this protective mode. This was my first teared Shoah memorial visiting. I visited many, and filmed enough of them, too. I did not cry at any of them during the previous thirty-plus years. Trained myself not to. Firstly, you are prepared for these places as a professional , and secondly, you are composed as a personality. Besides, your emotions are getting numbed at some point, being overwhelmed by the enormity of the crime.
We saw this kind of approach recently, at the exemplary dignified commemorations in a series of recent events of the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in Poland and Germany with participation of the presidents of Israel, Poland, Germany and Italy. No words were needed there. Expressions told it all.
But this time in Vienna, I failed. I failed because next to me was the person who had made this impressive – and so hugely needed in Vienna – Memorial happen, and who went all the way, every step of this demanding-it-all journey.
Hannah Lessing, the legendary Secretary General of the Austrian National Fund for Victims of Social Nationalism, tells me in detail how back in the mid-1990s, soon after she started to work on this extremely demanding position, a person from Canada contacted her. The person, architect Kurt Yakov Tutter, has lived in Toronto from 1948. He got there as a young 18-year old Jewish survivor refugee soon after WWII, heading from Belgium where he survived the Shoah alone with his cousin, being hidden by the family who saved them. Just two kids of an entire large Viennese Jewish family. So a painfully known story to us all working or paying attention to the Holocaust.
Addressing Hannah Lessing and Austrian National Fund, Kurt Yakov Tutter, 67-year old at the time, was hoping to learn something about the rest of his family. He understood that the Austrian National Fund had a pretty good database. Which is true, and Hannah gladly rushed to help and asked her colleagues at the Fund to look into their records. The search proved to be productive. More than a half of a century after the war, they found that Kurt’s cousin Regi survived and lives in Paris.
The next thing Hannah knew was a letter which landed on her desk in May 1997. In this letter, Mr Tutter, trying to keep his emotions under control in an admirably dignifying way, wrote to Hannah how one recent evening in May 1997 in Toronto, he returned home after the concert at which he was listening to Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, to find a message on his telephone answering machine. The voice in the message was energetic and its tone was immediately engaging, telling him: ‘Hello Kurt, this is your cousin Regi, please call me as soon as you can, I really want to talk to you!’, with leaving the number to dial in Paris. As if they were talking just a few days ago, without fifty years of absence in between.
“The last time we saw each other with Regi was in Vienna in 1939 at the premises of my beloved grandma, the Bube’, – wrote Kurt trying to keep his emotions under control.
This gratifying episode was the prologue to the Shoah Wall of the Names in Vienna which took Hannah Lessing , Kurt Yakov Tutter and many of their colleagues at a wide variety of offices and institutions of Austria over twenty years to complete.
Kurt’s letter is in Hannah’s small valet ever since, twenty six years by now. I still am thinking about it, about Hannah carrying this letter with her everywhere and at all times, ever since I learned about it from my friend. I think about it every day, sometimes several times a day. It told me everything about this person.
The person who has made the idea, the dream of the almost sole survivor of his family far away in Canada to commemorate all Jews of Austria murdered in the Holocaust in a dignified and lasting way. We all, members of the families of the Austrian Jewry exterminated in the Shoah, are in debt to Hannah Lessing and those people who worked with her, those who listened to her and those who were interested in the Memorial project, those who were not discouraged by the long years of ongoing effort in the time-span that includes as many of five different Chancellors of Austria and various governments.
Of course, the core-group of the people who were pursuing the Shoah Wall in Vienna included more than one person. Hannah praises all her colleagues at the board for the Wall project telling me the story of this principally important monument in the centre of Vienna step by step.
‘Finding the right place, after so many unsuccessful efforts during the years, came in an ‘Eureka!’ moment – tells Hannah, – when one of the members of our board for the monument, the most renowned professor of history Dr Oliver Rathcolb saw it from his office in the History Department at the University, just here where we are standing with you now, this very spot. He called me and said: “Hannah, I found the place”. Some more years went by to make it real, but we did it”.
The quiet and pleasant square which is the place for the Shoah Wall of Names Memorial in the Ostarrichi Park in Vienna is very meaningfully surrounded by the buildings which have to do with the Jewish life, tragedy and Second World War memory. At the premises of the Provincial High Court, where many people were sentenced to death for their fight against the Nazis ( not a very well known page in the history of WWII in Austria), a special commemorative place is open. At the place of the University campus where the Jewish Student Prayer House did stand before the war and which was intentionally desecrated by the Nazis, nowadays another memorial has its permanent place. Those two memorials compliment the Wall in the joint message of the place of remembrance.
The final go-ahead for the Wall happened during the term of the Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurtz, and from that moment onward, many institutions of Austria, including the Federation of Austrian Industries, Austrian National Bank, the City of Vienna, the National Council ( Parliament) of Austria which President Mr Wolfgang Sobotka is an Honorary Chairman of the Wall memorial, contributed speedily and generously to the giant effort of the National Fund.
I do not know too many people who could go through this over twenty-year marathon of pursuing the project of the memorial with such firmness of inner belief in it and such a commitment. It really is a remarkable human achievement.
No surprise that Hannah Lessing, additionally to bringing and guiding all and every delegation visiting Vienna to this important memorial, conducts public excursions to the Memorial weekly, every Tuesday. She really is a person on the mission, with the Shoah Wall of Names in Vienna.
The names of Hannah’s own grandmother, Margit Lessings, and her great grandmother Mali Schwarz, both murdered in the Shoah, in different places, are engraved on the Wall among 65 000 names of the Austrian citizens who were murdered during the Holocaust.
The names of members of my family there as well. That’s why I came to the quiet square in downtown Vienna with six small stones in my pocket. I signed them all.
Alma Rose with her name on the wall stands for six members of my family who perished in the Shoah: herself who was denounced and arrested at the last station before crossing French-Swiss border while running from the Nazis, imprisoned in Drancy, sent to Auschwitz, made there to lead the female orchestra, and died there in April 1944; her father Arnold Rose, world-famous musician, concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and Opera for 52 years, known as ‘ a musical king of Vienna’ along with his brother–in-law Gustav Mahler. Arnold died of grief just after the war in London after learning the destiny of his beloved daughter; his wife Justine, Mahler’s sister, who had a heart attack immediately after the family was expelled from their house and her famous husband was unceremoniously kicked from his orchestra just after the Anschluss; Arnold’s brother Edouard Rose, also famed musician who, being in the advanced age, was sent from Germany where he lived, to Theresienstadt and murdered there along with his wife Emma, another sister of Gustav Mahler; and my uncle Alex, Alexander Bujanover, son of Alma’s first cousin Eleanor Rose, my great-aunt.
Alex, who was a young and very promising doctor, after his father, famous physician Simcha Bujanover, my paternal great-uncle, worked for the Resistance in France where the family lived at the time, running for freedom successfully, but did not go far. Alex worked devotedly in the DCP on the border of Switzerland and France, treating recent prisoners of the concentration camps, and died there soon after the end of WWII contracting typhus. He was just 28.
I laid down the six small stones with the initials of those people, members of my family, next to the Alma Rose’s name on the Wall. She stands there for all of them. 65 000 names engraved on the Memorial in Vienna are of those people who were Austrian citizens in 1938 and who were murdered in the Shoah. Alma’s parents who died of sorrow caused by the Anschluss and the Holocaust are not there, but at least, I can try to find their graves, one in Vienna and another in London.
Plus, literary two weeks before I visited the Wall, a memorial plaque was opened at the house of Arnold, Justine and Alma Rose, at Pyrkergasse 23 in Vienna. The very same house from which the family of Gustav Mahler’s sister was thrown away 85 years ago. Is there such thing as belated justice? I think that justice, the same as a crime, does not have statute of limitation. Does it feel as justice been done when a memorial plaque is opened finally at the house of the people who contributed hugely into a country’s and world’s culture almost a century after they were wronged badly and cruelly in a criminal way and then been left in oblivion for decades on? When hearing about the opening of the memorial plaque at the Arnold Rose and the family’s house, I felt both glad and sad. And of course, I am grateful to all and everyone in Vienna – the Philharmonic, the Jewish community, the City of Vienna, and the National Council – who has decided to pay this tribute of memory to the great musicians who are important for the history of Austria and the world, the members of my family who were punished so severely with no reason whatsoever.
Alma’s uncle and aunt, Edouard and Emma, are also not there, as before the war they were living in Weimar and were sent to Theresienstadt from there, both being quite elderly and frail.
At Theresienstadt, there is nothing left to mark the grave of the people murdered there, as we know. The Nazis took special care of it, as practically at every place of the mass extermination they could. Hannah Lessing’s great grandmother Mali Schwarz who was deported there from Vienna in 1942, died of either hunger or illness. She was 70 years old at the time. Hannah’s grandmother Margit Lessing , after two years of surviving the hell of Theresienstadt, in October 1944 was deported to Auschwitz where she was gassed upon arrival. She was 49 at the time.
Alma’s nephew, the son of her beloved cousin Eleanor and my uncle Alex is also not there because he was the citizen of Germany where he was born, and his grave at the territory of the former DPC is unknown. But they all are the same family of Austrian Jewry and all six of them have perished in the Shoah. So, I was privileged to visit them all there looking at Alma’s name on the wall.
I also visited Mahlers, how many of them were engraved on the wall, and Simon Wiesenthal’s relative Jacob was there as well, very many members of Viktor Frankl ‘s family of which he was the lone survivor, and many members of the family of Freund. I went slowly all over all the sections of the memorial, from its one end to the other, back and force. Once you’ve got to the Memorial, the Wall will not let you go. You came to visit all those people. Everyone is meaningful. First name, family name, the year of birth. You are figuring out the family relations for those you know, you are reading attentively the names of many others. Those letters were transforming for me into the sparks of the souls of all those people. The Wall was speaking. To me. Personally. This is what living memory is about.
When planning the Memorial, Kurt Tutter took special care of the material. He wanted it to be made from a special kind of stone, a granite which colour resembles the Jerusalem lime-stone. This kind of granite can be found in India only. The stone was broken there into large slabs which were transported to Italy for further cutting and polishing before bringing it to Vienna. There, at the place, the granite slabs were assembled in the way that their natural pattern came together in the lines reminding the strips of rain. Of tears.
Next to the names of all those 65 000 Jewish people from Austria murdered in the Shoah, only the date of their birth is engraved. So you see there as the persons born in 1872 who were in their 70s at the time of their annihilation, as those babies who were born just in 1940, just next to it. The mosaic of the years of birth going throughout the wall next to the people’s names sings the kaddish of its own.
There are a few empty spaces both in the beginning and in the end of the Memorial. “It is for the engraving of new names to be discovered, – Hannah tells me. – We are working on it all the time, non-stop, and we are finding the new names of the people we did not know about, all the time. We fix it at once, they all will be there”. I know that they will. I trust my friend who put upon herself this mission and fulfils it with all the strength of her attentive and brave heart.
The Shoah Memorial in Vienna is a special place. To say that the time stops there for someone visiting would be too much of a cliche. But those names, some of them known to you, some members of your family about whom your grandparents and parents were speaking with tears going down their faces and with endless deep sighs for years, those names do not look like being still or neutral on that granite wall. They are as if speaking, or at least addressing us coming to look at them, coming to put our small stones next to them.
They are stating, after all those many years of effort: “We were real people, young and old, writers and teachers, musicians and engineers. We loved our great city. We loved our cultured country. We were part of it. Integral part of it all, its culture, its society, its mornings and its evenings, its springs and its summers. Until the one day in November 1938”. In Vienna, people are not screaming. It is an intelligent conversation. And so boundlessly, so incurably sad.
As we were approaching the end of the Wall during our second circle here, I felt something. Some presence. But apart from Hannah and me, nobody was there in that light April rain in the Ostarrichi Park. Except the bird.
Large dove came as from nowhere and sat on the tree just next to us and the Wall. We know of course that the dove symbolises and sometimes presents the souls of our people. The dove was sitting there in an emphatically proud motion for a long time. It did not move all that time that we were standing and speaking nearby, our moves near the Wall did not disturb it. The dove was sitting in that motion also after we moved around the Wall.
“Hannah, it is not ‘just’ a dove who is a symbol of the souls of our people. – I said. – It is Elijah himself’. – “You think so?’ – Hannah asked. –’Positive. Who else could come to this place at this moment, in the rain, and be there still and proud all this time?” – “Yeah, it must be Elijah”, – my friend who put so much of her own life into that standing now dignified Memorial to the 65 000 murdered Jews, including of her own immediate family said with her disarming smile.
Back in the car, Hannah shows me the letter from Kurt Tutter that she keeps in her valet for 26 years. I am trying to find my breath and to control my tears back again. ‘And you know what? Kurt, now 93, will be coming this summer to Vienna again. He is always coming for the Wall.”
Of course, he does. I will be coming too. I have a place now to say hello to the part of my family from Austria murdered and mortally wounded by the Shoah.
April – May 2023