Where: Judenplatz, in Vienna’s Altstadt.
What: Holocaust Memorial, by Rachel Whiteread (2000).
How do you commemorate or memorialize the absent or missing? How should the void be acknowledged, recognized, and remembered? Does the act of constructing a physical monument “draw a line”, creating a physical manifestation of marking an end that gathers and wipes away all subsequent future responsibility for remembering?
In Vienna’s Old Town, what was unjustly and violently removed from the city’s long historical memory and cultural identity comes into shape at Judenplatz. Under the public square are ruins of the medieval synagogue destroyed in the pogrom of 1421 with hundreds of Jews driven out, hundreds killed by burning, and the community erased. Directly above these ruins is the Holocaust Memorial which attempts to generate experiences and memories to address the void left behind after the systematic murder of 65-thousand people.
Holocaust Memorial, Judenplatz
From a distance, a white-greyish block stands above ground off to one side of the open square Judenplatz. The temple-like structure is a steel and concrete construction measuring approximately 10 metres by 7 metres by 4 metres. Upon closer inspection, the block looks like a room “turned inside out”, a room within a library whose shelves contain books turned inwards. The books refer to the Jewish people as “People of the Book” (עם הספר, “Am HaSefer“). This goes along with the long-held importance of reading and writing, a reflection of a people whose histories and memories are meshed within the tellings from the book. But here the books have neither titles nor words, the books cannot be removed or opened, and you can only stare and wonder why, how this could have happened at all.
The Holocaust Memorial acknowledges the 65-thousand# Austrian-Viennese Jews murdered by Nazis during the Holocaust. The memorial was inaugurated on 25 October 2000 after five years of political protest and criticism and bureaucratic delays. This work is by British artist Rachel Whiteread and is her first public sculpture on permanent display.
Paraphrased via the Jüdisches Museum Wien / Jewish Museum Vienna:
Mahnmal für die österreichischen jüdischen Opfer der Shoah.
Memorial to the Austrian Jewish victims of the Shoah.
This memorial commemorates the 65-thousand Viennese Jews who were murdered during the Nazi regime. The memorial was created upon the initiative of Simon Wiesenthal (1908-2005) who was a Holocaust survivor and Nazi hunter. The reinforced concrete block by British artist Rachel Whiteread (b. 1963) represents an inverted non-accessible library. Countless editions of the apparently same book represent the large number of victims and their individual life stories. A place of Jewish memory and presence, the Judenplatz (Jewish square) was the centre of Vienna’s medieval Jewish community, and home to one of Europe’s largest synagogues where important rabbinical leaders taught their students. In the 1421 pogrom, the Jewish community was expelled or murdered, and the synagogue was destroyed. Discovered in 1995 were the foundations of the medieval synagogue which lie directly below the memorial. The ruins can be visited through the Museum Judenplatz inside Misrachi House nearby.
Out of respect for the victims, we ask visitors not to sit on the monument.
While it’s relatively easy to connect Whiteread’s sculpture with Micha Ullman’s memorial to Nazi book-burning at Bebelplatz in Berlin, Whiteread stated in a 2001 interview% that her memorial sculpture in Vienna has more in common with Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Washington D.C. because of how visitors respond and interact with the memorials.
There are voids, unspoken and the ‘uncanny’^: a void of absent people and their contributions to the world around; a void in the collective memory of the nation and her people; a void in all others who try to make sense in their own way what’s unspeakable or unimaginable.
I think that’s also why the experience of only seeing Whiteread’s sculpture is incomplete. What’s missing is hinted by an adjacent plaque in the cobblestone. Through the Museum Judenplatz (in Misrachi House) is access to ruins of the medieval synagogue, lying directly under the sculpture.
Zum Gedenken an die mehr als 65 000 österreichischen
Juden, die in der Zeit von 1938 bis 1945 von den
Nationalsozialisten ermordet wurden.
זכר למעלה מ-65.000 יהודים אוסטריים
שנרצחו בשנים 1945-1938
ע”י הפושעים הנציונלסוציאליסטיים ימ”ש.
In commemoration of more than 65,000 Austrian Jews
who were killed by the Nazis between
1938 and 1945.
(The places where Viennese Jews were murdered)
Auschwitz, Bełżec, Bergen-Belsen, Brčko, Buchenwald, Chełmno, Dachau, Flossenbürg, Groß-Rosen, Gurs, Hartheim, Izbica, Jasenovac, Jungfernhof, Kaiserwald, Kielce, Kowno, Łagów, Litzmannstadt, Lublin, Majdanek, Maly Trostinec, Mauthausen, Minsk, Mittelbau/Dora, Modliborzyce, Natzweiler, Neuengamme, Nisko, Opatów, Opole, Ravensbrück, Rejowiec, Riga, Šabac, Sachsenhausen, Salaspils, San Sabba, Sobibor, Stutthof, Theresienstadt, Trawniki, Treblinka, Włodawa, Zamość.
The Holocaust Memorial is open 24 hours to the public with no admission charge. 2020 marks the 20th anniversary of the memorial’s inauguration. Judenplatz is located within the area of Vienna’s Old Town which has been inscribed by UNESCO as World Heritage Site since 2001.
• Israelitische Kultusgemeinde Wien.
• Vienna Tourism / Wien Tourismus.
• Rachel Whiteread (Luhring Augustine, NYC).
• Essay by James E. Young, in “The Art of Rachel Whiteread,” Thames & Hudson: London, pp. 162-172, 2004.
• “At Memory’s Edge: After-Images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art and Architecture“, James E. Young, Yale Univ. Press, 2000.
# CANADA: populations of Prince George (BC) and Sault Ste. Marie (ON), respectively, over 65-thousand and over 66-thousand (Statistics Canada, 2016). USA: populations of Palo Alto (CA) and Schenectady (NY), respectively, over 64-thousand and over 66-thousand (US Census, 2010).
% Rachel Whiteread: transient spaces, 2001, Guggenheim Museum: NYC, Hatje Cantz: Ostfildern-Ruit. A digitally scanned copy of the German translation is available at archive DOT org.
^ Freud’s own definition of “unheimlich“: what’s horrific, but also familiar; the German word translating as “uncanny“.
I made all photos above with a Fujifilm X70 on 20 May 2018; alle Fotoaufnahmen sind von Wasserzeichen versehen worden. This post appears on Fotoeins Fotografie at fotoeins DOT com as https://wp.me/p1BIdT-cPa.