"Mobile Remembering" / "Mobiles Erinnern"

Transcript/Workshop. Dieser engl. Text wurde für den Workshop am 6. 7. 2008 beim "6th International Educators Conference: Teaching the Holocaust" Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, Israel, erstellt. Weiteres nachzulesen: "Mobiles Erinnern", Ein transnationales Erinnerungsprojekt für die Opfer der Todesmärsche, Christian Gmeiner, (StudienVerlag, Briefe-Autobiographien, Studien und Quellen für den Unterricht, 2006)

"Mobile Remembering"/“Mobiles Erinnern”

 

 

A transnational project of remembrance for the Hungarian Jewish victims of the death marches

 

Christian Gmeiner, Artist and Artteacher in the Church University College of Teachers Education – Vienna  and  the  Viennese Artschool -

Before the end of World War II approximately 40,000 Hungarian Jews found themselves in what is now known as Austria.  They were relocated to labour camps or were transported through the area to (amongst other places) the concentration camps in Mauthausen, Ebensee and Gunskirchen.  Due to maltreatment, diseases as well as acts of atrocity thousands lost their lives along the way. 

It was during a seminar in Yad Vashem that I first heard about the tragedy of the death marches of Hungarian Jews from a survivor.  For someone who grew up and studied in Austria, it was shocking to realise that I and the majority of my fellow collegues had no idea of those dramatic events.

 

The project of memory should pay respect to the victims and survivors of the death marches through the display of the steel sculpture “Mobiles Erinnern” for several days each time at various locations where the death marches originally passed through.  The temporary display of this steel object (base 4x1 metres and 2 approx. 1 metre yellow triangles which symbolise the Yellow Star) should create a “forum of remembrance” in several locations where the memory of an inhuman disaster sixty years ago is mostly erased from people’s minds.

At the time the population was confronted with innumerable murders of Jews – sometimes in front of their own doors.  Some were “Mittäter“ (co-perpetrators) or “Mitwisser“ (confidants), many were observers and bystanders, but only very few found the courage to help.  When many also claim not to have perceived the atrocities and the industrial annihilation of whole population groups in the concentration camps of Dachau, Auschwitz and Mauthausen at that time, narratives about the death marches in those respective locations are the basis, this very day to commemorate the victims.

 

The steel sculpture “Mobiles Erinnern”

The commemoration route runs along that of the death marches – from the Holocaust museum in Budapest, through 40 locations to Vienna, and from there to further stages of the death marches.

Well known personalities, public figures are invited to make a statement at those locations.  Each municipality or city is asked to post invitations to an event of memory to each household.  The towns of Hartberg, Fürstenfeld, Enns and Vienna classified the remembrance as a private, nonofficial event and on account of this printed and therefore distributed no invitations.  Rechnitz, in the countrz of Burgenland limited the information to a small poster.

In general it was suggested to locate the commemorative sculpture right next to the war memorial each time to trigger reflections upon and challenges to traditional commemorative culture.  In some cases it seemed to make more sense to choose a centrally situated, highly frequented spot, for example, Schlossbergplatz in Graz, the space in front of the town hall in Eisenstadt, Morzinplatz in Vienna, and Riemerplatz in St Pölten – a central point in the pedestrian area.  In Fürstenfeld and Krems the proposal for a display of the sculpture next to the war memorial was deliberately rejected.

In two municipalities it wasn’t possible to display the commemorative sculpture in central locations: in Markt Neuhodis it had to be placed in front of the mortuary chapel and in Tenneberg behind a bus stop next to the church.

Stones laid on the steel sculpture whilst in the Holocaust Museum in Budapest and in other locations, candles, texts and flowers provided vivid evidence as to how much this memory object was adopted and accepted in many places.

However, there were also cases of defilement, for example, in Enns and Szombathely, Bruck an der Leitha and in Vienna, where one of the triangles of the symbolised Yellow Star was broken off and both the steel base plates were removed by local municipality.  The mayor of Klöch, a village received an anonymous threatening phone call before the event of remembrance, the pastor of Markt Allhau who addressed the assembly, who till then hadn’t even taken part in annual ceremonies of commemoration for traditional heroes in front of the war memorial, was facing protest.  In the municipalities of Szombathley, Tenneberg and Eisenstadt the memorial sculpture was dismantled earlier than planned.

Interesting is how the representatives of the Churches reacted:

Representatives of the church consistently reacted with enthusiasm and emphasised time and time again the value of life in their speeches, calling for tolerance and respect for those of different faiths and other cultures, referring at the same time to the protection of unborn life and warning against the danger of euthanasia.  Many priests pointed out that decent good Christians were and are often anti-Semites and that the church is partly responsible for this, having encouraged anti-Semitism for centuries.

The evangelical reverend of Kirchdorf argued for holding this event of remembrance again next year; he had already broached the issue of the death march of Hungarian Jewish forced labourers as being a “Station of the Cross for mankind” years before and wanted to do so again in future.

Differently reacted a Sistine monk :

Quote: “Definitely don’t count me in, I have no idea at all what I should say to that!”

“Surely we have to forget about that and move on…”

“The eternal stirring up of this matter is already getting on my nerves.”

“I can’t prevent you, if you want to do something…” End Quote

A parish priest in Hartberg said “While we’re talking about it, I must say – and don’t get me wrong – Hitler also had his good sides”, and the chairman of the municipal church council added “We have no need for a remembrance.”

How did the municipalities respond to the e-mail invitations?

85% of the inquiries to municipalities, especially to the mayors, were responded positively.  A text with historic information and description of the project, a photo of the opening and display of the memorial sculpture in Budapest and an accompanying text by former Federal President of Austria (Thomas Klestil) were included in the e-mail.

A number of Upper Austrian municipalities answered immediately in the affirmative, then took no further action or later rejected the proposal with the argument that this subject matter was in any case being overrepresented by the media in May 2005.  There was no reaction whatsoever from Burgenland for a long time at first, then affirmative statements arrived and also interesting suggestions for realisation of the display.  In some municipalities the public officials were never available on the phone. In one case the project was rejected with the argument that there was no appropriate location for such a display.

At an other placewere they wanted to display the object first on All Saint’s Day 2004, before cancelling.  Finally they suggested to holding the event of remembrance on 20th April 2005 (on the occasion of Hitler’s birthday), before subsequently cancelling again.

The municipalities of Präbichl and Mauthausen did indeed react positively to the project, but asked for our understanding for their rejection, as they didn’t want to confront their local populations with another event of remembrance for the near future.   Deputy Mayor Niederhofer of Präbichl announced his own remembrance project in Graz.

How did the mayors react?

 

The interesting phenomenon was that in all municipalities where the events of remembrance took place after the consent of the mayors agreed as well as their partaking in these events was that this was referred to as the “boss’ job”. Chefsache

The exception was Hartberg: the mayor and deputy mayor regretted not being able to take part as it was the run-up to the local elections.  Likewise, a postponement was requested by Gleisdorf due to local elections.  There was an emphatic rejection through a council decision, although the previous mayor had agreed to a display of the commemorative sculpture during his term of office.

In some places, (like Gunskirchen and Weissenbach an der Triesting,) it was claimed that massacres had taken place in neighbouring municipalities and therefore a remembrance in their own made no sense.  We received an e-mail invitation to a meeting with Rechnitz council, where it was later claimed that Jews had never lived or been murdered in the area.  There were no graves and therefore such an act of remembrance would be senseless.  The question of whether our activities had something to do with REFUGIUS (a local initiative for commemoration) was posed, as history books maintain that in March 1945  during a “Fasching” (carnival) ball 180 Hungarian Jewish forced labourers were murdered by Nazis in Rechnitz and hastily buried near Kreuzstadl.

Upper Austrian Mayors refused statements of refusal as of May 2005 with the argument that the local populace had already heard too much from the media.  The areas of Ebensee and Mauthausen only wanted to display the steel sculpture in the existing memorial places and not in the middle of their towns.

Representatives from nearly all of the represented parties of the local councils in the regional capitals had their say, Christian dignitaries and representatives of the Jewish community likewise had their say.

Sanctions

Bureaucratic obstacles had to be overcome, especially with Vienna’s building authorities.  The affirmative written reply always arrived one day after the expiration of the display permit.  The handling of our proposal dragged on for three months and occupied many offices and officials so much that they constantly passed the matter on.  After protesting to high places, those officials that first dealt with our request finally negotiated and agreed in favour of the project two days before the event of remembrance.

I also had to often sign declarations of personal liability in the case of defilement by third person parties, for example, in Graz or in the parish of Hartberg, where the display’s location was next to a church.

How were the remembrance locations chosen?

The locations chosen for commemoration of course only partially cover the actual course of the death marches.  The basis for the correspondence with the concerned municipalities were the map by the Gideon Dan Jerusalem The Death Marches of Hungarian Jews Through Austria Spring 1945 (http://www.injoest.ac.at/deutsch/publikationen/index.html ), academic texts by Szabololc Szita, as well as taking into consideration which routes could realistically be covered in the period between April 2004 and May 2008.  Again and again contemporary witnesses attending events of remembrance referred to terrible events in up to now unconsidered municipalities.

Events  relating to the “Mobile remembrance”.

  • Symposia were arranged around our chosen locations in Graz, Eisenstadt, Gleisdorf, St. Pölten and Vienna or speeches organized in the case of Hartberg.  Several schools were also involved in the project,

Individual school classes with enthusiastic teachers took part at a number of remembrance events.

At many of the events contemporary witnesses gave accounts of events from back then or approached me after the events of remembrance.

115 speakers in total contributed to the events.

How did those attending the events of remembrance react?

 

Most of the attendees were moved and shocked by the detailed portrayal of the terrible occurrences.  Personal helplessness and severe trauma were expressed in many of the accounts given by the contemporary witnesses.  Old women especially depicted the harrowing pictures, which have haunted them since that time.  On one occasion they also suddenly broke out into tears in front of the assembled municipality (St. Anna am Aigen).

Men often reacted by justifying the national-socialist stance of their parents and mentioned the general poverty at the time, but most also condemned the war criminals simultaneously.

Anti-Semitic statements were never expressed in public, with the exception of utterances on the ORF Internet Forum Burgenland as well as during private discussions (“unter 4 Augen.”)

More quotes:

A pastoral assistant from Klöch said that the death march is a core topic in the area of terminal care and that for this reason it is necessary to raise this issue in public.

Repercussions in the municipalities and schools

A pleasant consequence is that schools in many municipalities “Maturaarbeiten” (final school projects) and other projects are actively tackling this topic, contemporary witness reports are being written down by young historians, in order to be available to future generations.  As a result proposals for the establishment of a permanent monument or a memorial plaque have been requested in several municipalities.

In the wake of these activities numerous sites with information have appeared on the internet.  On the project homepage www.erinnern.at (National-socialism and Holocaust Commemoration and Present) the events of remembrance were continuously documented during the course of the project MOBILES ERINNERN.

Finally, a documentation will be published in Austria partly also funded by Yad Vashem.

Attachments
St. Anna am Aigen, Styria
St. Anna am Aigen, Styria
Siegendorf, Burgenland
Siegendorf, Burgenland
Wolfau, Burgenland.
Wolfau, Burgenland.
St. Pölten, Lower Austria
St. Pölten, Lower Austria
Bratislava, Slovakia
Bratislava, Slovakia
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