Lecture explores Holocaust remembrance in Austria

February 27, 2015

The Women’s Studies Research Center (WSRC) hosted a lecture on public memory by Dr. Karen Frostig, one of their resident scholars, titled “What Happens When We Forget To Remember?” on Thursday, Feb. 26.

Frostig serves as president and founding artistic director of the Vienna Project, which is a fairly new “process-based expression of remembrance” of the Holocaust. It began in 2013, to mark the 1938 anniversary of the Anschluss, when widespread anti-Semitism began in Austria, and it concluded one year later.

As a dual citizen of the U.S. and Austria and a child of Holocaust survivors who lost many family members, Frostig has a personal connection to the field of public memory. Her work is based on discovering “the place of public art as a vehicle to bring people’s attention to history.”

She was quick to clarify that the Austria of today is very different from that of the World War II era, when the country had the highest percentage of anti-Semites. Today, Austria is known as Europe’s new artistic capital, as it gives the most funding to support arts organizations. Vienna has also recently been nominated as a “City of Human Rights” in regards to immigration issues based on Austria’s record of providing temporary asylum for refugees. Artistic expression has become a way to combine the arts and human rights, as “public art and politics are linked” closely in Austria.

The new project represents reconciliation, Frostig said. Though some argued that Austria did not need more memorials, the Vienna Project filled a unique niche as an “inclusive” memorial. They took extra care to include the names of underrepresented Holocaust victims in addition to Jews: the thousands of Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals and political prisoners from Austria who were killed in concentration camps.

The culminating event at the project’s closing  featured the “Naming Memorial.”  91,780 victims’ names, representing seven different victim groups, were projected onto the walls of the Austrian National Library at Josefsplatz. In an effort to create an “inclusive memorial,”the names were listed together, but differentiated by group. Using tools of design, such as font and spatial arrangement, differences were preserved between the groups, while avoiding a hierarchical presentation. This arrangement enabled us to  accurately depict the history, while avoiding new forms of erasure. The project combined art, technology and education for the cause of public memory.

Frostig said that the emphasis on individuals’ names represents the impact of genocide: “It’s not just destroying an individual, it’s eradicating a people … Families were destroyed.”

Over the year that the Vienna Project took place, other events included performance-art based “silent witness vigils” and “memory spaces” in front of historically significant sites.

She also described the evolution of Austria’s Holocaust education programs. With the help of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Israel, it has become a way to teach children universal civil and human rights lessons about protecting minorities. Education is mandatory, and every student is required to visit Mauthausen, the site of a concentration camp.

She is proud of the Vienna Project’s work and hopes it will leave a lasting impact: “This is a new model of memorialization that we hope reaches a lot of people. This moment of engaging people and having the conversation is important.”

Correction: This article was corrected on March 23, 2015, to better describe the Vienna Project.

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