Taking stock in Austria

The museum blurb notes that “the opening exhibition, with the working title “Austria 1918-2018,” discusses the developments of the last 100 years."

ALFRED HRDLICKA’S mid-1980s Waldheim Horse formed part of protests over then-Austrian presidential chancellor Kurt Waldheim’s Nazi past. (Hertha Hurnaus) (photo credit: HERTHA HURNAUS)
ALFRED HRDLICKA’S mid-1980s Waldheim Horse formed part of protests over then-Austrian presidential chancellor Kurt Waldheim’s Nazi past. (Hertha Hurnaus)
(photo credit: HERTHA HURNAUS)
The year 2018 was a milestone year in Austria. For starters, it marked the centennial of the end of World War I. Defeat signaled the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and political humiliation for Austria, which was reduced to a much smaller, impoverished country – a far cry from the halcyon days of the Hapsburg Empire.
November 2018 marked another important landmark in the time line of European violence. On November 9-10, 1938, the Nazis unleashed horrific attacks on synagogues, Jewish homes, schools and businesses across Germany, in what became known as Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass.
Exactly 80 years later, the House of Austrian History, the first museum in Austria to focus on contemporary history, opened its doors to the public. The new exhibition facility is, fittingly, located on Heldenplatz – Heroes’ Square – where, on March 15, 1938, Hitler made a ceremonial announcement of the annexation of Austria to Nazi Germany, the Anschluss, to an adulatory audience of thousands of ecstatic Austrians.
The museum blurb notes that “the opening exhibition, with the working title “Austria 1918-2018,” discusses the developments of the last 100 years with exciting objects and by encouraging an examination of the central themes of Austrian history. Innovative educational services; a Web platform; and various publications complement the exhibition, which offers fresh insight into the history of the last hundred years.”
After being afforded a personal guided preview tour of the inaugural showing by House of Austrian History curator Dr. Georg Hoffmann, I was duly impressed with both the content and the setup.
To be clear, the new museum is not just about the Holocaust, the fate of the local Jewish community and the Austria’s contribution to the Final Solution.
“The beginning point of the whole exhibition starts with the history of Austria during the past 100 years,” Hoffmann explains, as we walk through a hall with large textual reproductions containing information about the ebb and flow of Austria’s fortunes since 1918.
Hoffmann says that last digit has been turned into a numerical fulcrum of the entire display. “Yes, the eight is here a lot. It’s 80 years since Kristallnacht. So years ending with an 8 are the point, for us, for the exhibition.”
THE OPENING was a major event, and the Austrian authorities brought over several dozen Viennese-born Holocaust survivors and some of their offspring from Israel for the occasion. Some came from further afield, and one of the guests of honor was 88-year-old Rabbi David Lapp, who, like my own mother, had Ostjuden roots, hailing from a family that originated from Galicia in western Poland. He had been brought over from America by the Municipality of Vienna-initiated Jewish Welcome Service, to attend events marking the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht.
He had a remarkable story to relate about his escape from Nazi Austria. He was one of the more fortunate survivors. He managed to get out together with his parents. Also like my mother, Lapp lived in the second district of Vienna, a stone’s throw from the Stefanie Hotel, on Taborstrasse, where we met.
“We left on the last day of December 1940,” he recalls.
Besides being long after World War II broke out, that was over two years after the Mauthausen concentration camp, in Upper Austria, had been established, and life had been perilous for Austrian Jews for some time.
Lapp’s survival is nothing short of miraculous. His father had been sent to a forced labor camp, but his mother was made of sterner stuff. She had already obtained a permit for the family to leave for America, and she risked her life by going to the Gestapo in person, and succeeded in not only securing her husband’s release but also in getting everyone out. They left for Trieste, Italy, and thence to New York, when Lapp was eight years old.
In fact, Lapp could have escaped some time before. “I was on the Kindertransport list,” he notes, “but my mother said we should leave together.” Fortunately, that’s how it worked it out.
Lapp also remembers the Anschluss. “There were Nazi flags on every main building overnight.” He recalls the jubilation of the Austrians at Hitler’s arrival. “Living in the second district, you could hear it from the first district.”
During his trip to Vienna, Lapp was hoping to return to the site of his elementary school, on Malzgasse, also in the second district.
“I have never been back there,” he says. “I am very excited about that.”
Lapp also does his bit to keep the memory of the Holocaust out there, relating his own experiences at schools and synagogues in the United States.
The official reason for Lapp’s trip to Vienna was the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, rather than the opening of the new museum, but he was delighted to be back in his city of birth. He first returned as a US Army chaplain in the early 1960s.
He has vivid recollections of the pogrom of November 1938.
“My father davened [prayed] at the Polish Synagogue, a block away from our home. It was the 10th of November, and there was a fire going, and the siddurim [prayer books] were thrown onto the street, there was a commotion, everything was in the street. Everything was piled up in the streets, and the Nazis were cheering.”
Considering it took Austria close to half a century to officially admit the active and willing role it played in the Nazi extermination machine, the House of Austrian History and its focus on Holocaust-related events there are a welcome development.
WHILE IN Vienna, I met up with a local 12th grader who, surprisingly, had chosen the Kindertransport as the theme of her high school final project. She says she and her classmates were well aware of, and keenly interested in, the Holocaust.
While that is encouraging, that may have been down to the fact that she attends one of the better local schools.
A recent survey commissioned by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, a charity established and funded by the UK government to promote and support the international day of remembrance, echoes the findings of a survey carried out in seven European countries around the time when the new museum opened in Vienna. Alarmingly, responses to the poll indicated that 12% of Austrians aged 18 to 34 had never heard of the Holocaust.
Hoffmann says he hopes the new history facility will help to reduce that shocking statistic. Besides the large display halls, the museum also features an educational area where children and families can learn about milestone events from the past century, including the Nazi era.
“There will be books and computers, and there will be discussions about these historical topics,” Hoffmann explains. “They will, of course, be suitable for children, too.”
Meanwhile, Dr. Monika Sommer, the museum director, announced a comprehensive educational program that “supports the mission of the museum as stated in the law, that we be a lively and open forum for discussion.”
In between slots exhibiting such highlights in Austria’s contemporary continuum as drag queen Conchita Wurz’s victory in the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest and references to the state of the ecology, there is a plethora of warts-and-all Nazi and antisemitic artifacts. The plight of the Roma people is also noted, particularly with reference to Austrian-Romani writer, painter and musician Ceija Stojka, who survived three concentration camps.
The – literally – standout exhibit is the outsized wooden Waldheim Horse designed by Alfred Hrdlicka. It represents a dramatic turning point in Austria’s history, which eventually led to chancellor Franz Vranitzky’s historic speech in parliament in the early 1990s, admitting his country’s complicity with Hitler’s quest to make Europe, in fact the world, judenfrei – free of Jews.
Vranitzky’s long-overdue declaration was sparked by the furor of what became known as the Waldheim Affair, in the mid-1980s, when it was discovered that Kurt Waldheim, a former United Nations secretary-general who was running for the office of Austrian president, had lied about his military service during World War II. When it was suggested that, far from being an innocent rank-and-file soldier, Waldheim had been a member of the SA, the paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party, then-Federal chancellor Fred Sinowatz responded, preposterously, that only Waldheim’s horse served in the SA.
That evoked images of the iconic Trojan horse, which, according to legend, concealed Greek soldiers who later burst out and opened the gates of Troy, leading to the destruction of the city after a 10-year siege. Opponents to Waldheim’s presidential candidacy drew parallels between the ancient ruse and soldiers in Hitler’s army who claimed to have had no part in the Holocaust. The fact that, despite the uproar, Waldheim actually became president, albeit largely shunned by the international community, says a lot about the Austrian mindset of the day.
It is to be hoped that the Austrian House of History will attract large crowds of all ages over a sustained period and help enlighten Austrians and others about the nefarious deeds of the Nazis and stem the current rising tide of antisemitism in Europe.
For more information: www.onb.ac.at/en/museums/house-of-austrian-history