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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 October 2005, 11:36 GMT 12:36 UK
Jewish Vienna's difficult rebirth
By Charis Dunn-Chan

Light box memorial
Light boxes remind visitors of pre-war Jewish Vienna
Deep beneath a city square in Vienna are small boxes illuminating the darkness, each containing a photograph.

Through headphones you can hear the voices and memories of the city's Jews, old and young.

In the medieval bedrock of Vienna, the Judenplatz Museum has set out "memory boxes" in the excavated ruins of an early synagogue.

The synagogue, we are told, was destroyed in a wave of anti-Semitic violence in 1420.

The modern voices in the boxes remind visitors of the city's darkest episodes.

Holocaust memorial

In the square above stands a memorial to the 65,000 Viennese Jews tortured and murdered in Nazi death camps.

The monumental sculpture, by the British artist Rachel Whiteread, is a sealed library in stone. All the books have spines facing inwards. These books, never to be opened, are the untold stories of lives cut short.

View of Judenplatz
Vienna's tranquil Judenplatz conceals a dark history
Around the sculpture children play. They skip and jump over the carved words in stone which spell out the names of the Nazi death camps.

In 1910 Vienna was home to about 180,000 Jews. The community was decimated by the Nazi killings and forced exile of more than 100,000 Jews. Today just 7,000 live in the city.

Holocaust survivor and Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal, who died last month, symbolised the Viennese Jews' struggle to recover from the nightmare.

To raise awareness Jewish artists work to express that past and help define the future, in a city haunted by the recurring spectre of anti-Semitism.


Doron Rabinovici, a young Jewish Austrian novelist and historian, writes about memory and loss in his novels. But he told me that his political work was an essential part of his life as an Austrian citizen and intellectual.

Memorial to murdered Jews at Judenplatz
Children play at the Judenplatz Holocaust memorial
Rabinovici, one of the founders of the Club Neues Oesterreich (New Austria), was a leading organiser and public speaker in campaigns against former President Kurt Waldheim, and Joerg Haider's far-right Freedom Party.

He believes life has got better for Vienna's Jews, noting that the big campaigns against Mr Haider in 2000 united Jews and non-Jews.

However, he was cautious in his praise for the improvement. He noted that war reparations were not proceeding evenly, and that orthodox Jews and outspoken Jewish intellectuals in the public domain could still draw public fire.

Anti-Semitism, he said, was as much a part of the Austrian tradition as Lippizaner horses and Mozart Kugeln (chocolates).

Women speak out

In the elegant art nouveau Secession building, an exhibition documents the memories of the 20th-Century Jewish diaspora from Vienna.

Gustav Mahler 1860-1911
Sigmund Freud 1856-1939
Ludwig Wittgenstein 1889-1951
Arthur Schnitzler 1862-1931
Stefan Zweig 1881-1942
Arnold Schoenberg 1874-1951
Theodor Herzl 1860-1904
Simon Wiesenthal 1908-2005
The Klub Zwei exhibition features interviews with female descendants of Viennese emigres - many of whom have made their homes in Britain.

A film and video installations show intercut interviews with these women telling their family stories.

One installation, "Phaidon Presses in Exile," tells how the English publisher George Allen and Unwin managed to buy the Viennese art press before it was confiscated by the Nazis.

The press families then escaped to England, and Phaidon's work of publishing high-quality art books continued.

In another installation, Hannah Froehlich of the Jewish community in Vienna tells of her efforts to draw public attention to the suffering of her community.

Her manner is in turn wry, humorous and sad as she tells how Viennese society still fails to face its past. She says Sigmund Freud's psychoanalysis is still often scorned in his birthplace.

Klub Zwei was founded by two women, Simone Bader and Jo Schmeiser, in 1992. Situated between art, film and new media, their works tackle the themes of migration and racism.

Their work on the suffering of recent East European, Middle Eastern and Asian immigrants to Austria is provocative - and all the more topical in light of Austria's stand against offering Turkey the chance of full EU membership.

Austria's continuing national angst is quite apparent in Vienna, with street posters showing politicians campaigning against Turkey joining the European club.

In pictures: Wiesenthal mourned
21 Sep 05 |  In Pictures
Obituary: Simon Wiesenthal
20 Sep 05 |  Europe
Last hunt for old Nazis launched
26 Jan 05 |  Americas
Country profile: Austria
15 Jun 05 |  Country profiles


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