Dr. Karen Frostig’s ‘important, difficult’ undertaking was occasionally stalled by a hesitation about outsider voices and difficulties securing funding
Wednesday, April 16, 2014
The project is the first public art memorial of its kind in Europe and the first public naming memorial in Vienna to symbolically represent the multiple groups of persecuted Austrian victims and dissidents of the Nazis: Jews, Roma and Sinti, mentally ill and mentally and physically disabled, homosexuals, dissidents, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Carinthian Slovenian partisans. The victims include Dr. Frostig’s grandparents and 16 other family members, who were murdered between 1938 and 1945.
“Merging my roles as artist, daughter of a Holocaust survivor, writer and community activist, I have created a vision of remembrance that is fresh and inclusive, engaging and reflective,” says Frostig, an associate professor of creative arts in learning.
The Vienna Project forges a dynamic relationship between art, new technologies, history, archival research and Holocaust education. The memorial project opened at the Odeon Theater on October 23, 2013 featuring poetry, music and digital projections along the Danube Canal. Sandra Selimovic, a Roma rap artist, caught everyone’s attention with her presentation of the Roma experience, past and present.
The very next day, students from Angewandte began the “Sidewalk Installation” memorial that included spray-painting 38 sites where crimes of aggression, humiliation, and exclusion occurred in Vienna between 1938-1945, as well as sites of rescue and resistance. The sprays contained the project axiom “What happens when we forget to remember?” in 10 languages. The sprays are located in front of the Austrian Parliament, the University of Vienna, the Natural History Museum, Morzinplatz, and other noteworthy places for public viewing. Other forms of public engagement in conjunction with the 38 sites include performance art, installation, poetry, movement, ritual, interactive research, silent vigils, guided tours, survivor interviews, film screenings and community forums. The project also has an active website, project blog, Facebook page, Twitter account, and a smartphone app to reach international audiences.
Last year marked the 75th anniversary of the annexation of Austria into greater Germany. The project involves an international team of artists, designers, historians, technologists and educators. The project is now in its culminating phase and is raising money for a Naming Memorial, which will be publicly installed in an Oct. 18, 2014 closing ceremony at the historic Austrian National Library at Vienna’s Hofburg Palace.
The ceremony will include remarks from prominent Austrian leaders; a video message from Ambassador Stuart E. Eizenstat; Nikolaus Gansterer’s “Memory Map” with a selection of letters read by family members of Holocaust victims, a talk by writer Doron Rabinovici addressing the question “Who is a victim?” and symphonic music.
According to Frostig, guests will then venture outside onto Josefsplatz “to witness a momentous display of 85,000 names of Austrian victims of National Socialism.” The memorial was conceived and developed by Frostig — a dual citizen of the United States and Austria — and implemented by Austrian video artist Elisabeth Wildling. The visuals will be projected onto the facades of the ornate surrounding buildings.
Inspired by reading her grandparents’ letters written to her father who was expelled from Vienna in 1938 following an arrest by the Gestapo, Frostig traveled to Vienna in 2006 to come to grips with this horrific part of her family history.
“My father’s history as a Holocaust survivor was always in the air, even though it was never talked about,” she says.
And it wasn’t talked about in Austria at all until 1986, Frostig says, explaining that the nation still officially considered itself a victim of the Holocaust, even though thousands of Austrians — most notably Adolf Hitler — perpetrated the genocide. Her initial hope, she says, was to publicly read her grandparents’ letters in Austria’s capital as a way of coming to terms with this difficult history. Three years later, “The Vienna Project” was born.
“This was the project that wasn’t supposed to happen,” she says, talking about how Viennese skepticism and hesitation about outsider voices eventually gave way to cooperation. Unlike the United States, which has focused for a number of decades on remembering the Holocaust with museums, programs and naming memorials, as well as in popular culture, Austria and many other countries in Europe have had a much slower record of acknowledging this past.
Progress is now evident. The support and interest from the Austrian government has been unexpected and greatly welcomed. However, the silence that continues to surround the national narrative of genocide and murder of multiple victim groups remains a difficult narrative, and now vision, to assimilate.
Resistance to this difficult memory is understandable. “Can you imagine getting this close to the White House?” she says, referring to a picture of spray-painting in the courtyard.
Despite some surprising support from Austrian officials, the decentralized nature of the city of Vienna slowed progress considerably. In addition, Frostig doesn’t speak German, making communication much more laborious than it would be in the United States.
Still, she says, she didn’t face anti-Semitism in her dealings with Austrians, “just a hesitation about outsider voices.”
“This is the most important and most difficult project I have ever undertaken,” Frostig reflects. “The Vienna Project is about sustaining memory at a time when survivors are reaching their final days.”
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