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banner Wednesday, 14 June, 2000, 13:36 GMT 14:36 UK
Austria confronts Nazi past
Austria is battling to overcome a collective amnesia regarding its Nazi heritage

Frederick Baker reports on Austria's painful remembrance of a Nazi past

Silence. Unusually, there was no applause as Sir Simon Rattle and the Vienna Philharmonic finished Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in Austria on the 7th of May this year. The Ode to Joy was chosen to by the former inmates, to celebrate the liberation of Mauthausen Concentration camp in 1945.

As a sign of respect for the many who had not survived to see the American troops open the camp gates 55 years ago, the audience was asked to rise to their feet, a lighted candle in their hands and remain silent, when the music finished.
Thoughts of the dead inmates flooded in, to fill our minds as a soundless vacuum hung over us - dark as the night and large as the hole the prisoners where forced to gouge out of the Granite hillside. A hole that cost thousands of lives.

This remembrance service in the Mauthausen Quarry is part of a movement by Austrians to increasingly face up to a terrible period in their past, through arts, music and other more overt political means. Alois Kaufman is perhaps the most vocal symbol of this past.

"Totenwagen" - his autobiography documents his experiences at the hands of the Nazi's. While published privately in 1968, it is only recently that the book has received large scale national attention. "Totenwagen" (Deathwagon), is in its third edition, and has been turned into a play by the young Viennese dramatist Markus Thill.

The play "Die Kinder von der Spiegelgrund" (The Children of the Spiegelgrund) has been premiered to critical acclaim by pupils at the Bundesgymnasium XX in the Unterbergergasse of Vienna's 20th district.

The Spiegelgrund, hospital and Nazi euthanasia centre for children

As a schoolchild in immediate post-war Austria Kaufman got into trouble at school and was marked down as unruly and unfit for education. He was sent to the notorious Spiegelgrund, the psychiatric hospital where the Nazis put children with what they considered to be mental or physical difficulties.

I wake up screaming from my sleep, with the supervisors' humiliations, blows and the insults in my ears.

Alois Kaufman

During the war years the Spiegelgrund was a euthanasia centre where approximately 770 children from six months to 14 years of age were put to death. This is where the infamous Dr. Gross worked after receiving special training from the Nazis in northern Germany. Alois' experiences of his time here do not make for an easy read.

It was a brutal regime for those that survived. Kaufman arrived at Spiegelgrund in 1942 as a boy of nine and was approaching teenage years by the time the war ended. He was made aware of just how brutal the regime was when one day he stumbled upon the body of a dead boy, in one of the dinner carts usually used to transport food.

The experiences of those at Spiegelgrund were as witnesses to the Nazi terror. In Markus Thill's play "The Children of the Speigelgrund" this extermination is effected through the movement of one man's hand, an action that haunts countless victims of the Nazi era. As children are brought before a doctor he flicks his thumb. To the left and the children die, to the right and they live.
An actor playing Heinrich Gross - thumb to the left meant death, to the right, you lived

Those who were at the Spiegelgrund say they remember the doctor who made those decisions. His name is Dr. Heinrich Gross. After the war his boss was executed, his assistant got 10 years, but despite being accused Dr. Gross was let off on a technicality after appealing against a sentence. He went on to enjoy a distinguished medical career in amongst other places, the Spiegelgrund.

This year new evidence has allowed Gross to be brought to trial again. At the first attempt the case was suspended, after a medical examination found his mental and physical health too poor for him to follow the trial. New tests in mid June are being undertaken by a new medical team to establish whether Gross is fit to stand trial again.

Austria's past is a powerful force in politics today

Austria's past is a potent force in its politics today. While it has taken Alois Kaufman decades to even face up to these haunting memories, others are less traumatised by the 7 years of Nazi rule that followed Hitler's march into Austria in 1938. The Freedom Party, are part of a coalition government, despite the taint of Nazi associations. This coalition has provoked a counter culture amongst Austrians keen to learn the lessons of the past.

Amongst those on the streets are actors who performed in the play "The Children of the Speigelgrund". At 2 p.m. every Saturday young demonstrators gather at the Heldenplatz for the so called "Volkstanz" or people's dance. The protesters take to the streets of Vienna to the accompaniment of music played by top local DJ's from the back of lorries.

While organised demonstrations against the Freedom Party still continue three times a week, a cultural revolution is taking place via literature, drama and music to build a future that learns from the memories of those who suffered. In the latest polls the Freedom party has lost 20% of its voters since the general election last year.

Orchestra's should find their way towards the moral centre of their community, because they can play a leading role in both our present and our history

Sir Simon Rattle

Alois Kaufman is on the committee for a new memorial documentation centre, that the city of Vienna is planning for the Spiegelgrund. Another survivor's experiences of Spiegelgrund is currently in Austria's best-seller list, Kaufmanns book has been re-printed and the memoirs of a third victim are being prepared for publication. The play of the book, "The Children of the Spiegelgrund", has received official recognition and is available on video for free, to all schools.

Schoolteacher's are using it to educate children so they may learn from this awful period in their history. Playwright Markus Thill is working on a new production of the play, but this time with school children in Upper Austria. And so Alois Kaufman's story is passed on to another generation of children, except they will be bearing witness to, rather than bearing the pain of a terrible regime.

UPDATE: Dr. Gross was examined by medical officers in June and was deemed unfit to stand trial. He will be examined again in six months. Meanwhile, the case remains open.

Producer: Frederick Baker

Reporter: Edward Stourton

This story is part of Correspondent, 'Our Aged', shown on BBC2 at 18:00 on Saturday 10th June

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Learning from Austria's Nazi past
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09 Feb 00 | Europe
Austria to face up to Nazi past

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