Train tracks to death

The recently unveiled memorial at Vienna’s Aspang Railway Station commemorates the spot where most Austrian Holocaust victims began their fateful journey.

The recently unveiled memorial at Vienna’s Aspang Railway Station commemorates the spot where most Austrian Holocaust victims began their fateful journey (photo credit: BARRY DAVIS)
The recently unveiled memorial at Vienna’s Aspang Railway Station commemorates the spot where most Austrian Holocaust victims began their fateful journey
(photo credit: BARRY DAVIS)
There are numerous monuments to the Holocaust the world over. They range from gargantuan institutions such as Yad Vashem and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, to more modest, but no less evocative commemorative installations such as the Kindertransport statue at Liverpool Street Station in central London, or a similarly-themed work of art at the Westbahnhof railway station in Vienna – from which my mother and her two sisters departed for survival and freedom in December 1938.
I returned to the Austrian capital recently, at the behest of the Municipality of Vienna, to attend the unveiling of a new Holocaust memorial at what was once the site of the Aspang train station, from which more than 47,000 Jews were dispatched to concentration camps.
In October 1939, 1,584 men were sent to Nisko in the Lublin District of Nazi-occupied Poland. The bulk of the transports took place between February 1941 and October 1942, when more than 45,000 Jewish men and women were sent to extermination camps in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Latvia, Lithuania and Belarus. All told, 47 transports left the station, headed for ghettos, concentration camps and sites of mass execution. For the majority of the 66,000 Austrian Holocaust victims, the journey to their death began in midtown Vienna.
The point of departure was ideal for the Nazis. It is in Vienna’s third district, so it is pretty centrally located.
Meanwhile, it wasn’t one of the city’s major stations, hence, the Nazis could go about their deadly business without attracting too much attention.
Today, nothing remains of the station. It opened in 1881 and closed as a public transport facility in the 1970s. It is unlikely that many of the passengers still alive today, if any at all, are aware of the station’s horrific history, and the site went unmarked for a long time. Prior to the recent unveiling, the Holocaust connection was noted only by a relatively modest plaque set to one side of what was officially renamed the Leon Zelman Park, after the Holocaust survivor who established the Jewish Welcome Service Vienna. The latter organization provides a wide range of services for Austrian Holocaust survivors and their offspring, and was created in 1980, at a time when Austria steadfastly officially maintained that it was “the first victim of Nazism.” It took over another decade until the country admitted to having been a willing, and highly active, contributor to the German Nazi death machine, close to half a century after the end of World War II.
The new Aspang Railway Station Memorial was created by Austrian artist duo PRINZpod, with the support of municipal facility Public Art Vienna (KOR). It is a consummately emotive work consisting largely of two 30-meter-long gently converging concrete rails, naturally signifying the train tracks of the Aspang Railway Station. The tracks lead into a dark impenetrable concrete block, which the official KOR information describes as a “symbol of death, nothingness and oblivion.”
The unveiling ceremony was well attended. The majority of those present appeared to be non-Jewish – an encouraging phenomenon – and the speaker roll call featured a wide cross-section of representatives dealing with aspects of the Holocaust and its aftermath. Our ambassador to Austria, Talya Lador-Fresher, talked of how the Nazi decimation of the Viennese Jewish community “which manifests itself in this memorial, has shaped the relationship between Israel and Austria. This makes sites of commemoration, like the one here at the former Aspang Railway Station, a landmark against oblivion in the public sphere, so very important.”
The local community was represented by its head, Oskar Deutsch, who stressed the significance of marking the site of the station, to ensure that people know what happened to the Jews of Austria during World War II.
“Until recently, nothing here indicated that this was the site of a deportation station from which about 45,000 people were taken to their deaths,” said Deutsch. He also added a word of warning concerning current relevant issues.
“Antisemitism is on the rise again in Europe and also in Austria. The memorial, and particularly the information panels that show a list of the transports in commemoration of those murdered, therefore also send an important cautionary message for the present and the future.”
I wasn’t the only guest of the Municipality of Vienna.
Givatayim resident Moshe Luster, son of Leo Luster, was also there. Luster Sr. was among the movers and shakers to get the Aspang station memorial project gradually off the ground. The exercise took close to two decades from start to completion. Luster was also highly instrumental in ensuring that Austrian-born Israeli Holocaust survivors got their compensation dues from Austria, including their pension payments. He was also a board member of the Association of Austrian Pensioners in Israel and the Central Committee of Austrian Jews in Tel Aviv. In 2002 he was awarded the Decoration of Honor for Services to the Republic of Austria. Leo survived several concentration camps, but, sadly, died last January at the age of 89, and was unable to witness the opening of the commemoration site, the site of the railway station from which he was sent to almost certain death three-quarters of a century earlier.
The most emotive appearance at the ceremony was that of Herbert Schrott. Now 91 years old, Schrott hails from Vienna’s eighth district and lived a happy life there until March 12, 1938, when Germany and Austria became one.
“I am one of the few surviving Jewish eyewitnesses who experienced the persecution, expulsion and extermination of Austrian Jews from the beginning,” he told his audience.
Schrott is not a historian who delves into documents, endeavoring to reconstruct the past and imbue it with meaning. He experienced it all himself, and he vividly and chillingly described the terrifying events surrounding the family’s deportation to Theresienstadt.
“My parents and I traveled from the Malzgasse transit depot in trucks, with the yellow Jewish star on our clothes, toward the Aspang station. I still remember the mocking, scornful and mean shouts of people there. We had to stop at Rennweg junction due to traffic.
There, people shouted insults like ‘Go away, creeps, Yiddisher baggage’ and so on. Our tragedy was, at that time, the Viennese triumph, joy and satisfaction.
There was no sign of compassion or humanity, only scorn and ridicule.”
Schrott’s mother also survived the camps, as did Leo Luster.
“My old friend and camp comrade Leo Luster should be here today in my place,” said Schrott. “Leo worked for years to erect a memorial for the many deportations that went from the Aspang Station to the east, where death almost always awaited. Unfortunately, Leo died in Israel, where he lived and was not able to experience this day. His son Moshe is here and we thank him for his father’s work.”
As the Aspang station memorial notes, Schrott is one of only 1,073 Jews dispatched to the death camps from Vienna who lived to tell their tale.
“I tried to describe in a few words what we suffered and had to endure,” he said at the ceremony. “But, basically speaking, human speech is not enough to depict misery, sorrow, fear, humiliation, brutality, terror, vulgarity and the crimes committed. This memorial is meant to commemorate a time without mercy.”
The Leon Zelman Park occupies a triangle bordered by a main road and a side street. The buildings of the latter overlook the site of the new Holocaust memorial and, while the ceremony was under way, I noted several locals leaning out of their windows and following the goings on below. One wonders whether the neighbors subsequently took the trouble to visit the park and read about the spot’s troubled history. Will Viennese in general, and more crucially, schoolchildren and the younger generation of Austrians go there and gain a better understanding of their country’s significant role in the Nazi extermination machine?