Shoah Wall of Names Memorial © Christian Michelides, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

A missed opportunity for Vienna

Wolfgang Bill Price wrote this text about the inauguration of the Shoah Wall of Names Memorial in Vienna shortly before he died in hospital of a heart attack on November 24, 2021, having survived Corona in intensive care a few weeks earlier.

On November 9, 2018, a symbolic ceremony took place in Ostarrichipark, starting the creation of a »Memorial to the Jewish Children, Women and Men of Austria who were murdered in the Shoah«. Austria intends with the Shoah Wall of Names Memorial to foster an awareness of remembrance, for the present-day as well as for its future generations. Austria took the event as an opportunity for deep reflection on the fate of the approx. 65,000 Jewish victims and to pay tribute to their lives.

I was included in an invitation to the event on November 9, 2021. Born in Germany, 1930, as a Jew, I personally experienced Kristallnacht. My father’s business establishment was plundered. We later sought to salvage some goods that were embedded with glass shards. The family fled Berlin soon thereafter. The extended family, uncles, aunts, grandmothers, cousins, 12 people in total, perished in various concentration camps. The two grandmothers had short lives in their camp. In their name two tamarisks were planted on Israeli soil in their honour.

Naturally, I was pleased to attend what I thought to be a duly solemn memorial event. The event from the stage was neither solemn nor fittingly memorial. It was in fact akin to an ORF news report and media event. Throughout, individuals with large video cameras were on stage taking close-up portraits of commentators. The event opened with »first of all« honouring with »special greeting« Mr. Tutter for giving 65,000 names back their dignity.

It seemed a rather shocking opening for a memorial. What should one expect on such solemn occasion? Would a temple or cathedral holy service commence in such manner? Would there be strains from a Mozart or Zeisl requiem? Perhaps Zeisl’s »Requiem ebraico, the 92nd Psalm« or Mozart’s »Requiem in D minor, K. 626«, a requiem composed in part in Vienna. Or perhaps a moment of respectful rising in silence as a form of vigil. Or perhaps a greeting from one of the religious orders with a solemn, dignified opening gesture. Or…

What appeared instead was an announcer. The first 15+ minutes honoured not the victims but the person who conceived the project. Why not also the Bundesimmobiliengesellschaft m. b. H. commissioned to construct the project? Or one of those who devotedly engraved the names in rock.

Now, who visits a grave site on Allerheiligen to honour the person who created the stone grave marker – no matter how artful the stone engraving? I recalled the thousands of candles placed at the site of the terrorist attack a year or so earlier. The milling crowds seemed sombre. There was genuine sorrow (without announcer or speakers). In contrast there was no fitting commemoration for the 64,000 other than often repeating their numbers. No wreaths. No honour guards. No Hebrew prayer for the dead. A sterile reception. And the speeches likewise were cant.

A fitting dedication would have cited how Vienna, as a result of Shoah, has become an honourable civil society citing acclaimed events. Why not have cited how Vienna distinguished itself as a Human Rights City, linking the work of the city to human and fundamental rights obligations? It is Vienna’s deeds that matter for memorializing their lives, not a mere stone wall with names. What has Vienna, or Austria, to show for those lives other than a large gravestone?

We had praise for the city for making the plot available, made mention of the Chancellor’s hand in the matter. Even a simple commemoration in the Jewish tradition would have one feeling sorrow, perhaps grief. On Allerheiligen there was more sorrow evident than in the tent. And tourists visiting St. Stephan’s Cathedral will feel more awe than for what was arranged for the Shoah event. Here one had a dedication, not a commemoration. It happened to be a wall with names. It might as well have been a bridge, or a new office building.

In memoriam Wolfgang Bill Price 1930–2021 © Florian Fusco