A tribute to the elders, the children and the tireless Barbara Glück
Sunday, 5 May 2013: Two hours out of Vienna, past palatial Melk, across a sweeping plain sprouting green shoots and golden raps, picking up the coursing Donau, veering through a biscuit-box village into leaden Erinnerungstraße past retinues of police and a rickety hunter’s lookout, the bus lurches at the shoulder of a granite-grey wall. The sun beats at the gate where the "Rückkehr Unerwünscht" dispatched and punch-carded in their hours, weeks and years.
Here some 90,000 Austrians were processed into anonymity and manufactured to their deaths. Here Himmler’s SS minions hurled 1,000 children without name into the Wiener Graben, a quarry that had paved Vienna’s streets and then built their own prison walls.
Dismounting from the bus, we filed past the security checks and on through the gates. Posses of police, security guards and plain-clothes, glinting in sunglasses, gird the green barracks and cobbled yards. I flinch at asking to peer in the kitchen, the laundry and the brothel.
The tribes of dignitaries gather in the centre stalls of the ceremonial tent. Next to them, thirty survivors, the desecrated, sit with their families under the scanning eyes of the Mossad.
No words suffice after Auschwitz, Adorno said. "Survivors", I realise, hits nowhere near the mark. Yet there they sit, as the politicians work their rhetoric. "To help fight forgetting." Their faces are etched out of etchings, eyes hollow as wells scintillating back, with blue-and-grey striped caps and barbed-wire armbands.
"Sixty-eight years since liberation". Nine hundred survivors were interviewed. The elderly are restrained, as headphones blare through the tent in every language of the European Union.
Photographers hover over flat screens. "U.S. tribute … righteous among the gentiles" The media drop, adjust and trip their rigs. "…a gate to Hell… handed back to Austria… a culture of remembrance involving locals…".
The Arnold Schoenberg Choir begins, but no one is paying attention. I long for a cathedral … or a synagogue. But on its way through the flat screens, the television is polished and clean. The impossibly young and svelte director, Dr. Barbara Glück, is formal but thanks a mentor for "protecting" her. It begs the question.
The day belongs to the elders, who walk, shuffling and brittle over the stage, filing personal mementos into a space-age time capsule. Miriam Merzbacher-Blumenthal, Roman Frister and Henrie Maitre attest to the abuse. One man is lost for words; his wife must finish them.
But it is when the nonagenarians complete their courses with defiant grace and Dr. Barbara Glück ushers them away, that the gestures they share, the nod, the embrace, the squeezed hands, speak more than hours of oratory. And our hearts break and tears flow. The young director fights to hold her own as they hug, kiss and whisper on their ways back.
Then we watch as Glück’s multi-media installation takes us through a heart rending scavenge of remnant forget-me-nots, a bicycle, convict cartoons, improvised necessities and a left over button. It includes an honest examination of Austrian shortcomings, the failed pursuit of Nazis and corporate profiteering.
With the power of personal stories, Glück has managed to bridge the generational divide retrieving the human truth of the time for those with no direct experience of the Holocaust and war.
In the gas chamber, the souls seem to have been sucked irredeemably into a vacuum. It is tiled and utilitarian, so small for all the men, women… and the children discarded like detritus.
"The history of childhood is a nightmare from which we have only recently begun to awaken. American psychohistorian Lloyd deMause told his audience at Klagenfurt University in 2005. The further back in history you looked, he said, the more likely children were to be killed, abandoned, beaten, terrorised and sexually abused. And "long before the Holocaust began, doctors set up medical committees ‘to exterminate undesirable children’."
Between 1939 and 1941, over 70,000 had already been murdered.
In 1989, Austria was the third country in Europe to make corporal punishment in the household illegal, soon after Finland and Norway. It is still permissible in the U.K., Australia, Canada and the United States. The culture of kindness takes generations to build, but can be lost again in a moment of despair.
This day, I decide, belongs to the elders and to Dr. Glück, and to all children liberated from beating, coercion and abuse. It is in bridging the generations that our hope for the future lies.
Brian Hatfield frequently writes for TVR and is a teacher, tutor and actor with a MA from Swinburne University, Australia.