Monday, August 8, 2011

Religion Break in Vienna

This morning, I took in the Jewish Heritage Tour (or whatever they called it), although, as it turns out, we saw only one synagogue but two churches.  This is simply a matter of geography (and population) -- when you're dealing with a largely Catholic country, particularly one with a history of overlap between Church and State, you can't walk very far without running into a church.

I wanted to give you a lovely photograph of St. Stephen's Cathedral, but it is undergoing a major renovation, so you can't really capture it in a photograph.  Here's the spire, though, which I think screams "Viennese."

Now, we did see (and go into) one of 12 (now existing) synagogues in Vienna, but it doesn't present a photo-worthy facade.  Indeed, it was designed to blend in, on a side street.  It is the one synagogue in Vienna that wasn't burned in Kristallnacht in 1938, for (as we were told) three reasons -- two of which had to do with location (the third was that it contained records of the Jewish community, which the Nazis could use).  But since the synagogue was so physically integrated into the community, it could not be burned without burning neighboring buildings.  Moreover, the synagogue was about a block away from this:
That's a medieval church -- the oldest in Vienna (or Austria -- I forget) -- and the Nazis did not want to risk it.  So, the synagogue has the church to thank for its continued existence.

Now, current Austrian attitude toward World War II is a bit ... I don't want to say dodgy, exactly -- but our tour guide said (with a laugh) that Austrians will try to convince you that Beethoven was Austrian and Hitler was German.  Aha ha ha.  (Read:  OK, yes, Hitler was Austrian, but we'd rather not claim him.)  The official line (certainly the official post-war line) was that Austria tried to characterize itself as a victim -- in that Hitler's annexation was something Austria didn't want.  Our local tour guide, however, said that this was a crock (and don't we all remember 250,000 Austrians cheering Hitler when he took to the balcony at Heroes' Square?)  Sure, there was opposition and a Resistance, but Austria wasn't the victim it tried to whitewash itself as.  (Pretty much every tour guide we've had has said that the one country which was done the best job of stepping up and admitting responsibility is Germany.)  We were also told, however, that things have been changing; Austrian children are learning about the Holocaust in schools, and Austrian relations with the outside Jewish world are improving (relations which certainly took a hit during the Kurt Waldheim presidency).

I digress.  In 1900, there were something like 200,000 Jews in Austria; now, there are about 10,000.  120,000 left, and 65,000 died in the Holocaust.  Here's a Holocaust memorial in Vienna (unlike the one in Hungary, you can't miss it -- of course, unlike the one in Hungary, it is simply a memorial to the dead, and not any admission of participation).

The concept here is of a library that you can't enter.  The doors cannot be opened.  The books are all stacked the wrong way -- we see the pages, not the spines -- and the idea is to mourn all of the cultural contributions of which society has been deprived by the murder of 65,000 Jews.  I dig it -- it's a way of universalizing the loss.  It isn't just the families of the 65,000 who are impacted, or the Jewish community of Austria, but society as a whole which has been deprived of the richness that these lives might have brought.  The books not written, as it were. 

The synagogue itself had its own Holocaust memorial -- those granite blocks are inscribed with the names of the 65,000.
It reminds me, in its way, of the Vietnam Wall Memorial in D.C. -- because 65,000 names are an amount you can inscribe -- it's a number you can get your brain around.

(And then I took a look at the data -- there are under 60,000 names on the Vietnam Memorial.  Which means that more Austrian Jews died in the Holocaust than American service men and women who died in Vietnam, and I find this terribly depressing.)

Good thing we've got a Mozart and Strauss concert tonight.

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