The Washington Post

June 24, 1990, The Washington Post

Vienna’s Statue of Limitations

The controversial Holocaust monument

When the city of Vienna marked the 50th anniversary of Austria’s Nazi takeover by unveiling a monument to the victims of fascism and war, the small surviving Jewish community hoped it would act as a permanent warning against hatred and injustice.

But less than two years after the monument’s dedication in the heart of the capital, many Viennese Jews regard it as a bitter failure. The Austrian artist who created it is enraged over their criticism and city authorities are in a quandary over how to thwart repeated abuse of what they originally envisioned as a place of contemplation, reverence and reconciliation.

The monument features a sculpture of a Viennese Jew forced to kneel and scrub the streets after Austria was annexed by Hitler’s Germany in 1938. Such public degradation and cruelty were widespread following the annexation, or Anschluss, presaging the deportation of more than 60,000 Austrian Jews to the gas chambers.

Municipal workers earlier this month removed the sculpture after a vandal smeared it with paint. The work has since been cleaned, but sculptor Alfred Hrdlicka is refusing to allow it back on the triangular plot next to the State Opera House and Albertina Museum until police are assigned to protect it. Although Ursula Pasterk, the city council member responsible for public monuments, has vowed the sculpture’s return, she faced angry calls for its alteration or even “elimination” at a meeting of several hundred members of the Jewish community last Monday. Many of those who took part in the session had themselves been forced to scrub the streets and lived through the Holocaust.

Hrdlicka explained that the sculpture, set among four towering blocks of chiseled granite from the notorious quarry at the former Mauthausen concentration camp, was intended as a “thorn in the flesh” of his fellow citizens, who would be forced to confront their “deep-rooted, home-grown anti-Semitism” when passing by the downtown ensemble.

This provocative aim almost prevented the monument’s birth. At first, the city council unanimously approved construction plans in 1983, quietly selecting a vacant site known as the Albertinaplatz, which contained the remains of hundreds of Viennese who died after seeking refuge in a bomb shelter there during Allied air raids on the city in March 1945.

However, the polarizing national debate that erupted in 1986 over President Kurt Waldheim’s service in a German army unit involved in war crimes spurred some politicians and the city’s largest-circulation newspaper to campaign for its relocation to a less prominent site. Socialist Mayor Helmut Zilk, describing the sculpture as “a call for humanity,” defied pressure to sideline the monument and pushed through the project’s completion on the Albertinaplatz. “If it shocks, then it will have fulfilled its mission,” he said.

Now Jews and city officials alike are disturbed that the sculpture has failed to achieve the anticipated impact on visitors. From time to time a wreath or lone rose has been seen beside the bronze figure, but its patina also bears the stains of countless dogs who have raised hind legs upon it as their owners stood by.

Worse still, foreign tourists weary from sightseeing and apparently oblivious to the sculpture’s significance mindlessly plop themselves down upon the back of the elderly, bearded Jew. His life-size head may be covered with a skullcap and his hand tremulously clutching a scrub brush, but visitors of various nationalities nonetheless treat the three-dimensional depiction of human cruelty as a park bench.

“What takes place upon this figure has long gone beyond tolerable limits,” said Otto Neugasse, a member of the 6,000-strong Viennese Jewish community who gave up frequenting his favorite coffeehouse overlooking the Albertinaplatz because he could no longer bear the irreverence shown the monument.

“Something has clearly gone awry,” he told the emotional community gathering. “There are young children who play upon this figure. Tourists act as if it were a public lawn and eat hotdogs upon it, leaving their trash behind.” Referring to the architectural work commemorating the Romans’ destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, Neugasse continued, “As Jews in Rome do not go under the Titus Arch, so Jews in Vienna avoid the Albertinaplatz so as not to be confronted by this horror.”

The dismaying behavior has been documented by Viennese director Robert Polak in a short film, shown at the community meeting and due to be distributed in city schools as part of Holocaust education programs. The film includes footage of tourists blithely stepping onto the sculpture, sipping soft drinks as they sit atop it and posing for snapshots while they lounge across its molten surface. “I saw this happening and wanted to make a film of observation,” said Polak. “I did not lie in wait to find this. I simply went there five times with a video camera.”

“This film shows what the city has long been aware of,” Councilwoman Pasterk told the Jewish community. “It moved me and strengthened my view that the artist must find a solution. … If the artist does not find a workable solution then the city will find one, because in fact it is a bit of a problem for us.”

Sculptor Hrdlicka, a burly man who reacted to the criticism by shouting and pounding his fist upon a podium, told the community that the work had “brought upon me only hate and denunciation” and that city police should have the task of standing watch over it. “Monuments are not to blame for the mindlessness of mass tourism,” he declared, insisting he had succeeded in provoking the Viennese to confront the Nazi past. “Such a small figure has sparked a greater discussion over art and ideology than who knows how many major exhibitions.” Hrdlicka dismissed concern that pet owners let dogs urinate on the figure. “Hundreds of dogs piss daily against Saint Stephen’s Cathedral. Tear that down if you want!”

In a preliminary move to remedy the situation, the city plans to erect plaques inscribed in six languages to spell out the meaning of the monument. A spokesman for Pasterk’s office said a further idea to stop people from sitting on the horizontal sculpture was to put “a crown of thorns” over the Jew. Other suggestions likely to be more acceptable to Viennese Jewry include the daily placement of floral wreaths next to the figure or completely roping off the monument, around which swirl tour buses and horse-drawn carriages plying the historic district.

Such modifications will not satisfy a segment of the Jewish community long opposed to the monument, which regards the figure itself as an antisemitic caricature perpetuating a distasteful image of the Jew as portrayed in the Nazi propaganda newspaper Der Stuermer. “The Jewish contribution to Austria remains immortalized in a Stuermer physiognomy and in the approved behavior of the Jew as one would like to have him,” said community activist Rita Koch.

“This monument does not educate and it has not fulfilled its aim,” Koch advised Pasterk and Hrdlicka. “People have told me they would like to buy dynamite and blow it up. I said, `No. We will try to eliminate this monument through democratic means.’ That is what we are striving for, the elimination of this Stuermer figure from the heart of Vienna.”

Calls for a referendum among Jews for the sculpture’s permanent removal have so far been deflected by Paul Grosz, president of the Viennese Jewish Community. “This monument does not belong to the Jews, nor was it made for the Jews,” he said.

Another community leader, Leon Zelman, echoed this view. “This monument was not created for us. This monument was made as a decisive challenge to the many who pass by the square and are forced once more to face this and think about it. … Let us raise our voices not to cry out that this thing has been created with malice. Let us raise our voices so that its presentation will be in accordance with our deepest wishes.”