Vienna’s Conscience

A permanent Holocaust exhibition is coming to the Vienna International Centre

News | Lauren Brassaw | March 2009

Signage that will be on display at the new exhibition in the United Nations Information Centre (Photo: Susan Balk)

Seventy years ago, at the time of the German Anschluss of Austria, Hitler rode into Vienna, greeted as a hero. Over the next seven years from 1938 to 1945, more than 180,000 Jews, about 10 percent of the city’s population, vanished – escaped to distant lands or subjected to forced labor, brutality and death in Nazi concentration camps.

Richard Winter was a 17-year-old Austrian Jew and among those who fled. Like many, he would struggle for the rest of his life to understand the depth of the tragedy that had befallen him and his family, and to the city and culture that he loved. Half a century later in 1988, he would come back to Vienna to try to find reasons for a population’s passive response to the atrocities. What he found instead was denial.

In a series of remarkable encounters, recorded in interviews and photographs, he revealed a society unwilling to accept the reality of the past. Stopping people on the street near the North Station at Praterstern, Winter collected the voices of dozens of Viennese, ranging from 75-years-old to under 20.

The majority seemed never to have accepted responsibility for what happened, accusing the American news-media of blowing the issue out of proportion, and revealing a deeply held resentment of the criticism for Austria’s role in the Nazi Holocaust.

There were some, however, particularly among the younger people interviewed, who described a sense of shame.

"When Hitler marched into Austria, [people] all stood on the Ringstrasse and cheered. There was no invasion," said one Viennese man. Now, in spite of the historical evidence, nobody would admit to having welcomed the Nazis, or to being happy about it. "Now you don’t find anyone who stood there," he reported. "That’s rejected."

Another man laughed at the idea of paying reparations to the Holocaust survivors after the war, saying, "I lost my car in the war," and that the "Jews got millions." Winter returned to the U.S., perhaps more disturbed than before, to publish his findings.

A generation later in a different Vienna, Winter’s widow, Susan Winter Balk, has brought her late husband’s documentation back to Vienna, to find a permanent home at the United Nations.

Balk, like Winter, sees Vienna’s Conscience as a "document of the residue of hate and hate crimes in ordinary citizens."  She warned of the dangers of silence.

"As long as hate and hate crimes are treated as taboos, they’ll stay secret, and that’s going to keep ‘never again’ happening again and again and again!"

On Jan. 27 2009, part of the permanent exhibition went on display during the annual International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust, co-sponsored by the UNIS and Webster University Vienna. There are further plans to make the full exhibit permanent and add it as a regular feature on the standard guided tour of the UN complex.

Entering the exhibit space in the UN compound at the Vienna International Centre, the feeling of being stuck in a time capsule is engulfing. The barren hollow of poured concrete of the 1970s structure is broken up with broad panels of polished oak sets off the low contrast black and white photographs of those interviewed. The photographs, printed on A2-sized (420mm × 594mm) placards, are accompanied by mauve-red signboards of the accounts of Austrians’ lives and the history around them.

The purpose of Winter’s work, Balk said, "was not to lay blame, but to seek answers to difficult questions." Balk sees her own role as a continuing effort to help people come to terms with these traumatic experiences by talking about them and seeking dialogue, in the context of a larger project – an extension of Richard Winter’s exhibit – undertaken with film-maker Andrew Singer. She plans ongoing interviews with hate-crime survivors, in order to build recognition of the subject, and aid the eventual healing of the survivors.

The exhibit will be called Vienna’s Conscience: Close-Ups and Conversations after Hitler, – after the 2008 book by Richard Winter, Susan Winter Balk, and Dr. Gregory Weeks, who is the head of the Department of International Relations at Webster University Vienna, and is planned for display at the UN for visitors this month.

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