Crossing the Painful Threshold of Memory
A recently re-opened memorial preserves the evidence of 50,000 victims of the Vienna Gestapo in shocking original records
The doors of Vienna conceal many pleasant surprises: a Baroque courtyard, a fountain or a Renaissance arcade. Others, like those at Salztorgasse 6, reveal a history of nightmare, one that takes time to tell, and sometimes even longer to set in stone.
For decades the moulded iron doors in an unremarkable post-war structure stood closed, the only reminder of the Hotel Métropole that serviced guests from 1873 to 1938. On 1 Apr. of that year, the newly arrived Nazis closed down the hotel and turned it into the headquarters of Vienna’s Gestapo, short for Geheime Staatspolizei, or Secret State Police.
Since July 2011, the Memorial for the Victims of the Vienna Gestapo (Gedenkstätte für die Opfer der Gestapo Wien) has re-opened the iron doors to preserve a painful memory that is slipping ever further into oblivion. An estimated 50,000 victims crossed this threshold. Many were interrogated and tortured, and then deported from Aspangbahnhof in the 3rd District and Nordbahnhof (now Praterstern) to concentration camps throughout the Reich.
Once inside the modern space, tessellated footprints lead the way to a rectangular void, where a desk once stood. A former detainee sets the scene, as told on one of the displays:
"At the desk of the Gestapo sat one of my fellow prisoners. Immediately I realized: He was a spy. In a cell with 16 people sat an agent who apparently was assigned to one of those in this cell. But to whom? I underwent a very unpleasant and harsh interrogation. Half unconscious and covered in blood, I came back into the cell. With an Überschwung – that’s how the wide military belt was called – they knocked out two of my teeth."
This detainee was Bruno Kreisky, who was arrested in March 1938, but was granted asylum in Sweden by August. He returned after the war and became Austria’s Minister of Foreign Affairs (1959–66) and Chancellor (1970–83).
Today, the modest room features displays from the collection of the Documentation Centre of Austrian Resistance (DÖW), housed in the nearby Altes Rathaus at Wipplingerstrasse 6–8.
Photographs outline the structure of the Gestapo apparatus and identify some of those behind the operation. Heinrich Himmler headed the German police, while Austrian Ernst Kaltenbrunner built the Reich’s security apparatus, which included the Gestapo.
In Vienna, the Gestapo was led by Munich-native Franz Josef Huber with a staff of 900, of which 80 per cent were recruited from the Austrian police. While Himmler committed suicide after capture and Kaltenbrunner was executed after the Nuremberg Trials, Huber was never sentenced and lived out his years in Munich until his death in 1975.
The exhibition also portrays victims and resistance fighters like Socialist activist Rosa Jochmann, who survived the Ravensbrück concentration camp and returned to politics and activism in Austria. Other resistance figures like Karl Biedermann, Hauptmann Alfred Huth, and Rudolf Raschke did not survive. They hung on 8 Apr. 1945 at Floridsdorfer Spitz, just a week before the liberation of Vienna.
Yet, many of the victims depicted here, like a homosexual simply called Rudolf R., are not as illustrious as the Kreiskys and Jochmanns. They are common, unknown men and women, now honoured at least in this small way, and if the curators have their wish, in the collective memory of generations to come.
1. Salztorgasse 6
(01) 22 89 469 319 (call to arrange a visit)
Documentation Centre of Austrian Resistance (DÖW), in the Altes Rathaus at
1., Wipplingerstrasse 6–8
English-language translations are currently in progress and will be available on www.doew.at