73 years. A lifetime. Just one lifetime. That is how long (or short) ago the liberation of the Austrian concentration camp at Mauthausen took place, on 6 May 1945 – one of several such death camps for people of Jewish heritage and other groups whom the terror regime of the National Socialists considered undesirables. So this is going to be a somewhat different blog post.
On 6 May every year, the Mauthausen Committee Austria celebrates the liberation of the survivors of the horrors of the death camp. This year, they dedicated the day to the very topical theme of “flight and homeland” (Flucht und Heimat).
Not coincidentally, I think, also on 6 May 2018, Instagramers Austria organized an Instawalk to two exhibitions dealing with exclusion, scapegoating, and the horrible things that can happen when a society becomes purposefully polarized against some group or other – usually “the foreigners” or maybe just “the others”.
First stop: the permanent exhibtion “Our City! Jewish Vienna – Then to Now” at the Jewish Museum Vienna.
The exhibition chronicles the history of Jewish people in Vienna over centuries, but also asks what and who is “our city”? It starts with the year 1945, when the Jewish population had been almost completely decimated and goes on to the new beginnings of a small Jewish community in today´s Vienna. Many chose not to return, but some did.
Among them was also Max Berger, the only member of his family to survive the Shoah, and he returned to Vienna before 1950. He was the first Jew in post-war Vienna who tried to reconstruct the destroyed Jewish culture by collecting memorabilia. He ended up passing them on to the City of Vienna for a new Jewish Museum.
The exhibition then goes back in time in part II, showing Jewish history of Vienna before 1945 starting with the Middle Ages all the way to the Shoah. Between the revolution of 1848 and 1900 Vienna had the largest German-speaking Jewish community and the third largest overall in Europe.
The first Jewish museum of Vienna was actually founded in 1895. In 1899 it asked the painter Isidor Kaufmann to install a Shabbat room as a place of contemplation for Austrian Jews. Contemporary artist Maya Zack recreated such a Shabbat room for the current exhibition, using photos of the original, which was destroyed by the National Socialists in 1938, and her own interpretation of the installation.
Antisemitism was, however, not started by the National Socialists, it was a sentiment that led to repeated expulsions of Jews from the City, and also to special taxes and limitations on activities over centuries.
The first expulsion took place in 1421, and Jews were only invited back after 1600, when the emperor needed funds for wars. But in 1624 Vienna Jews had to leave the inner city and were moved to the ghetto in today’s 2nd district. In 1670 the Jews were expelled completely once again, but after 1700 a few rich Jews were called back on condition that they make high payments to the rulers, which financed the construction of quite a few splendid baroque buildings that still stand today. Poor Jews were not allowed to move into the city. Empress Maria Theresia could not have financed the enlargement of Schönbrunn Palace without such negotiated financial contributions.
The city without – a utopia
After that much food for thought, a second stop: the Austrian Film Archive (Filmarchiv Austria), which is not only a place of research and restoration of old films, but also houses some very interesting exhibitions. One of the most important film re-discoveries of recent years was the silent Austrian film “The City without Jews”, of which parts had been missing for 90 years.
When the missing parts were found on celluloid rolls in a plastic bag (!) on a Parisian flea market, the Filmarchiv Austria was able to restore the film after a very successful crowdfunding initiative in 2016. The 1924 film was based on Hugo Bettauer’s 1922 novel by the same name, in which he described a – then still utopian – idea of ridding the city of all Jews.
But even as early as 1924, the film screening was interrupted by National Socialist disturbance actions. In 1925 Bettauer was murdered by a National Socialist – who by the way lived to a ripe old age in Austria and never regretted his act.
The film was not prophetic, the curators of the exhibition explain, even though with hindsight it would seem so. Rather, it was meant to be a satire, based on the political influences at its time – and probably Bettauer could not have imagined how much worse reality would be than the horrors he imagined in his book. In the novel there is a sort of happy ending. We now know better.
But this is not an exhibition about the shoah, or even about antisemitism. In its current exhibition “Die Stadt ohne/The City without – Jews, Muslims, refugees, foreigners” the Filmarchiv not only shows parts of the restored 1924 film, but also makes reference to more recent statements and events in Austria that demonstrate similar kinds of hateful sentiments and populism as those that led to horros of NAZI Germany and Austria.
And while remembering the shoah is always a heart-wrenching experience, facing today´s political reality is sometimes pretty scary. Because some statements that have been made very recently by politicians now in government really ring alarm bells if you have any kind of knowledge of history, combined with a sense of empathy. And such statements do not just emanate from the far right. The normalization of hate speech in a society is something quite terrifying. It does not matter who the target is – Jews, Moslems, Refugees, Foreigners, … the list could go on.
I do harbor hope that the pendulum will swing back soon to a more enlightened policy. If enough like-minded people speak up, a turnabout can be made to happen.
A feast of joy
Today 8 May 2018, for the 6th time, the Mauthausen Committee Austria invites the public to a big celebratory feast and a concert by the Vienna Philharmonic at Heldenplatz.
Why a feast of joy? A brief history lesson
On May 8, 1945, the National Socialist regime was defeated by Allied troops and the German Wehrmacht capitulated unconditionally. This ended the war and the NAZI crimes of extermination in Europe. However, Viennese right-wing extremist fraternities had from the 1990s organized a commemoration to mourn the fallen soldiers and members of the National Socialist organizations at Heldenplatz. A civil society counter movement began launching regular demonstrations against this in 2000. That’s why the “Feast of Joy” came to be. Because, in the Mauthausen Committee´s words, the 8th of May should be celebrated as a day of liberation and joy.
It should, I think, also be a day of thoughtfulness – because how easy it is to rouse popular sentiment against one group or another is scarily obvious when you look at some political messages or headlines in “boulevard” papers. Go see the exhibition at the Film Archive – it is an eye opener.
I end today´s entry with a statement by the Mauthausen Committee Austria on flight and home:
(In 1938) A lack of financial resources and the strict immigration regulations of many countries made it impossible for many people to flee. They remained at the mercy of the extermination machinery of the National Socialists. Many private initiatives attempted to negotiate better conditions for refugees from Nazi Germany in various European countries. The UN, refugee conventions or NGOs did not exist at that time. Since World War II, the history of Europe has time and again seen refugee movements. Wars in the former Yugoslavia, in Iraq, in Afghanistan or in Syria as well as fundamentalist terror are two reasons for flight. Images of the large refugee flows from 2015 show people with children, with a minimum of belongings looking for a place where their lives are not threatened. Yet they face the loss of friends, family, their language, their culture, of “home”...
…The liberated prisoners of the Mauthausen concentration camp, … in their appeal on 16 May 1945 expressed the values of international solidarity:
“… The many years spent in the camp deepened our understanding of the values of fraternity with all peoples.“
Note: The Jewish Museum of Vienna has two locations: Dorotheergasse & Judenplatz. The exhibition described here is at the Dorotheergasse location.
The Austrian Film Archive is showing the exhibition “Die Stadt ohne…” until 30 December 2018. The exchibition is curated by Andreas Brunner, Barbara Staudinger and Hannes Sulzenbacher. Very worthwhile!
Programme of the Feast of Joy 2018 at Heldenplatz, 8 May 2018, from 8 p.m.
History of the Mauthausen Concentration Camp
Many thanks to Instagramers Austria, and to the Jewish Museum of Vienna and the Filmarchiv Austria for this though-provoking tour.