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Statement by the project team "Recording of the names of the Austrian victims of the Holocaust"

"To what extent is the project relevant to the province of Carinthia ." The Holocaust memorial on Vienna's Judenplatz and the "Recording of the Names of Austrian Victims of the Holocaust"

On 25 October, after a construction period of a good two years, the memorial to the Holocaust on Judenplatz in Vienna will be unveiled to the public. However, a long debate about an appropriate way of remembering the 65,000 Austrian victims of the Holocaust preceded the unveiling of this monument. The initiative for this project sprang from Simon Wiesenthal, director of the Jewish Documentation Centre, who pushed for the creation of a monument to the victims of the Shoah. According to Wiesenthal, Alfred Hrdlicka's monument on Vienna's Albertina-Platz., ("Monument Against War and Fascism") had not satisfactorily fulfilled this function. In 1995, a competition was announced and international and Austrian artists invited to contribute designs for a non-figurative monument on Vienna's Judenplatz. The location was chosen because of its historical associations. The medieval synagogue, which was excavated in the accompanying archaeological dig, was situated on the site. Members of the Jewish community sought sanctuary there during the pogrom of 1420 and committed collective suicide.

In 1996, the design by the British artist Rachel Whiteread was declared the winner of the competition. Whiteread, whose work focuses on remembrance of cultural traces in society, took account of the whole atmosphere in the square and designed a concrete cube with a base of 10 x 7 metres and a height of 3.8 metres which represented a library turned inside out. With the bookshelves on the outside, the spines of the books turned inwards and the closed door, the monument is a hermetically sealed space which points to Jewish culture as a culture of the book. The empty interior stands for the disappearance of its representatives. However, the book may also be interpreted as a symbol of the survival of the Jewish people during the course of their history of banishment and annihilation. An inscription on the monument commemorates the 65,000 dead along with the names of the places where the Austrian Jews fell victim to the Holocaust.

The unveiling of the monument, whose construction and financing was decided in spring 1996 by the Cultural Committee of the Vienna City Council with the votes of the SPÖ and the Green Party, was set for November of the same year.

However, from the very beginning the memorial caused enormous controversy. In contrast to the 1980's discussion about Alfred Hrdlicka's monument in Albertina-Platz which, in the context of the Waldheim debate, ran along clearly defined lines – whoever was against suppression of the past had to be in favour of the monument – the fronts in the discussion about the new memorial were far less easy to delineate.

The debate, in which members of the Jewish community also took part, ranged over the formal design of the monument (for example, the stone library could also be interpreted as a stereotype of the "intellectual Jew"), over the location as well as the form of remembrance itself and as far as the standpoint that a monument is not suitable to represent the Holocaust. The suspicion that the City of Vienna was using this prestigious monument project ("Berlin is envious of us") to promote tourism was also aired. An action group of local residents and shopkeepers fearing a reduction in takings, complained about the loss of parking spaces and sensed that the "concrete monstrosity" would attract right-wing radicals and "Arabs". Anti-Semitic voices were also not missing. Local FPÖ politicians, and to a great extent, also the ÖVP, were opposed to the monument from the beginning. The "pause for thought" ordered by the responsible city councillor in autumn 1996, de facto a construction stop, which continued into 1998, illustrated the disunity of city politicians but also the hesitancy of those in favour to decide on a quick solution.

With the archaeological finds, the idea of combining the monument and the excavations into a remembrance complex arose. An underground exhibition room was to document evidence of medieval Jewish life in Vienna. This solution also found its critics. For example, it was argued that the historical finds were a monument themselves and that there was a parallel between the events in the 15th century and the Nazi Holocaust. And vice versa, it was argued that the pogrom of 1420/21 could not be compared with the industrialised mass murder of the 20th century and furthermore that making a connection between the Holocaust and a medieval pogrom ran the risk of rendering the monument merely historical with no relation to the present. Last but not least, the number of archaeological finds finally led to a postponement of the planned date for the unveiling ceremony.

In addition to the exhibition room, in 1997 the idea came up of creating a museum sector in the Misrachi House at number 8 Judenplatz. It was intended to be a branch of the Vienna Jewish Museum which, apart from the archaeological finds, would be a home for exhibitions documenting Jewish life in the Middle Ages and would house the database created by the DÖW with the names and the fates of the Austrian Holocaust victims. Because of the archaeological finds – parts of the sacral room – the construction of the monument immediately above become problematic and it was necessary to move the site slightly.

Finally, in March 1998 the decision to construct the monument as a memorial was approved by the Mayor of Vienna, Michael Häupl and the Councillor for Culture, Peter Marboe. At the beginning of June of the same year the planning work, including design of the square, was completed. The laying of the foundation stone took place in autumn 1998. After renewed postponements for technical reasons, the date for the unveiling ceremony of the Judenplatz memorial has now been set for 25th October 2000.

In 1995 Friedrun Huemer's statement during the course of the debate about the memorial was still true: "In every Austrian village there is a war monument on which the names of the fallen from two world wars are recorded for posterity but the Jews and Gypsies murdered by the Nazis remain anonymous to this day. (.) Until now the Republic of Austria has not found it necessary to establish their names."

The Austrian attitude to this was therefore primarily characterised by non-remembrance. In 1987 – more than forty years after the end of the war – when the Federal Chancellor at the time, Franz Vranitzky, was requested by Yad Vashem, president of the Israeli Holocaust Memorial, to initiate an appropriate project, a feasibility study was at last commissioned. In 1992 this resulted in the commissioning of the project "Recording of the names of the Austrian victims of the Holocaust" which was to be carried out by the Documentation Archive of Austrian Resistance (DÖW). The electronic memorial book of Austrian Holocaust victims, installed as part of the memorial complex on Vienna's Judenplatz, can therefore be regarded as an attempted intervention into the public memory of the years 1938 to 1945.

Until now the "Recording of the names" project team has collected approximately 400,000 records about the 65,000 Jewish Austrians and Austrians who lost their lives between 1938 and 1945 through murder or suicide, were deported from Austria or who, as refugees in other European countries, fell victim to Nazi persecution. From around 100 larger and numerous smaller sources, in addition to biographical data, the date of deportation, the place to which they were deported and, where possible, the exact dates of death have been discovered and the victims thereby rescued from anonymity. However, research work is not yet completed and the database on Vienna's Judenplatz will be continually updated. The multimedia documentation designed by DÖW especially for the memorial gives information about the places where Austrian Jews were murdered and provides further details about the genocide. 

The new Austrian government does not tire of proclaiming their determination that the past should be critically appraised, especially at international press conferences. To what extent the coalition of FPÖ and ÖVP will really be interested in remembrance in the future, beyond high-profile public gestures, remains to be seen. An ordinary party member and his culture representative, Andreas Mölzer, are however promoting continuity in this matter. When the Documentation Archive applied to the Carinthian Provincial Government for a grant for the project "Recording of the names", Mölzer answered as follows: "On behalf of Provincial Governor Dr. Jörg Haider, with regard to your application for a grant. Please provide a detailed explanation of to what extent your project is of relevance or use to the province of Carinthia."

Project team
Recording of the names
of the Austrian
victims of the Holocaust

Vienna, 2K