New Austrian exhibition at the Auschwitz Memorial
“Far removed. Austria and Auschwitz” is the title of a new Austrian national exhibition opened on 4 October in Block 17 at the former German Nazi Auschwitz I camp.
The opening event was attended by Auschwitz survivors, an official Austrian delegation headed by President Dr Alexander Van der Bellen and President of the Austrian National Council Dr Wolfgang Sobotka, Polish Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Culture and National Heritage Prof. Piotr Gliński, co-creators of the exhibition, as well as the management and staff of the Auschwitz Museum.
The guests passed through the gate with the inscription “Arbeit Macht Frei” and the camp premises to the auditorium of the International Center for Education about Auschwitz and the Holocaust, which was the official opening venue of the exhibition.
'A nation can only consider itself proud and great if it does not sweep a national disgrace or something it is not proud or pleased about under the carpet. It is part of the history of every nation,' said Auschwitz survivor Marian Turski, who described the new Austrian exhibition as mature and thoughtful.
He noted that it is good that the new exhibition presents the historical truth: 'There is no nation or almost no nation at all, that can only be proud. At the same time, each of us must be consumed by anxiety of conscience towards those who committed detestable acts.'
'The most important thing is for you to be able to protect your generation from what happened to us. If you can create a society where human rights are respected and where there is no dehumanisation of the so-called stranger - then you will honour those who couldn’t say a thing while being murdered,' Marian Turski addressed the audience.
'Racism and antisemitism did not fall from the sky. Auschwitz did not fall from the sky. Antisemitism had already appeared in Austria before March 1938, when the Germans entered Austria and were welcomed enthusiastically in Vienna. These seeds, which had been scattered earlier, sprouted and flourished. Neighbours who had previously coexisted peacefully became enemies. They enriched themselves on the property of the Jews,’ said President Alexander Van der Bellen.
'It is our wish and obligation to keep the memory of the victims alive. It is our wish and duty to remember that the victims and perpetrators were not only part of our society but were also shaped by it. Austria and, I quote here: “is partly responsible for the suffering that, albeit not the Austrian state as such, but its citizens brought upon individuals,' the president added.
'A new exhibition entitled “Far removed. Austria and Auschwitz” tells the story of the prisoners and the perpetrators who were members of our society. We cannot allow this to happen again,' Alexander Van der Bellen emphasised.
'In a moment, an exhibition will be unveiled in block 17, prepared by a specialist institution, the National Fund of the Republic of Austria for Victims of National Socialism, in cooperation with the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, and devoted to the history of this site, associated with Austrian citizens: victims who survived the ordeal here, but also the perpetrators who contributed to these crimes of genocide, which are still difficult to describe and understand,' said Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Culture, National Heritage and Sport Piotr Gliński.
'The presence of so many people gathered here: The survivors, representatives of the Austrian authorities, religious organisations, people responsible for cultivating memory and traces of the past, is of immense importance. There can never be too many such days, especially in this place, full of prayer, reverie, memories and reflections on how low man can fall and how precious the gift of life is. It is our duty and responsibility to remember and pass on to future generations the memory of victims - both those murdered and those who survived but have been irreparably wounded in body and soul,' stated the Deputy Prime Minister.
'I wish to thank the Austrian authorities present here for concrete actions related to remembrance: for today’s exhibition and the purchase of neglected properties on the grounds of the Gusen camp. However, all present today must be aware that this process is incomplete and that the obligation requires further actions,' Piotr Gliński added.
'The exhibition we open today remind us of every single person subjected to unimaginable suffering here. And so - this place for us, Austrian women and men, is exceedingly important. It is essential because it reveals the fractures in our history, including the fractures after 1945; fractures that still affect us today, and still affect us profoundly, and evoke our anger and sadness,' said Wolfgang Sobotka, President of the Austrian National Council.
'They affect us but define a clear mission of action for today and tomorrow. There were too many Austrians then, actively involved in the genocide crimes of the national socialist regime. The perpetrators, accomplices and accessories were largely ignored in the previous exhibition. However, the new exhibition places the perpetrators and their deeds in the proper perspective,' he stressed.
'Auschwitz is a unique educational site for humanity. The international community of nations is bound together by the memory of the pain, suffering and murder perpetrated by the German National Socialists. Austrians also played a part in these crimes. Remembrance also means that joint efforts led us to overcome National Socialism, and Auschwitz became a symbol of the declaration “never again,' said Hannah Lessing, Secretary-General of the National Fund of the Republic of Austria for Victims of National Socialism.
'Managing the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum is a great responsibility. It functions as the custodian of memory. Since Piotr Cywiński became the director of the Museum, Auschwitz has become a model place of remembrance - both on a European and world scale. The Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation has ensured that many countries contribute to preserving this memory for posterity. I thank the Museum, Director Cywiński and his team for their outstanding and motivating cooperation that has bound us very closely,' added Lessing.
'We will soon move on to the exhibition and pay tribute to the murdered. Two concepts will accompany us, and that is history and remembrance. They are very closely related but not identical. History consists of facts, dates, numbers and events. Memory is much more connected with experience, maturity and responsibility,' said director Piotr Cywiński
'Memory is the key to designing our future. Memory is rooted in the past but manifests itself in the present. And as we open this exhibition at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial, we must remember that we are doing so in a place constitutive of the entire European, and perhaps even the global post-war period,' he added.
'I would like to wish everyone here today, regardless of the positions we hold, that this be a day for growing in experience, maturity, and responsibility,' he stressed.
After the ceremony, the guests paid tribute to the victims of the German Nazi concentration and extermination camp by laying wreaths at the Death Wall in the courtyard of block 11 and participated in a guided tour of the exhibition in block 17. Lastly, they visited the site of the Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp.
The new Austrian exhibition “Far removed. Austria and Auschwitz” replaced the exhibition presented in Block 17 from 1978 to 2013.
In addition to the fate of Austrian victims of Auschwitz and the resistance movement co-founded by Austrian prisoners, the new exhibition also tells the story of the involvement of Austrians as perpetrators and accessories in crimes committed in the camp.
“Austria was part of the Third Reich from 1938 to 1945. Austria’s history during the Nazi period obligates us to commemorate at least 110,000 Austrians who were victims of Nazi terror. They were murdered because they were Jews, “Gypsies” (Roma and Sinti), mentally or physically disabled people. They were persecuted and killed for their political views, religious beliefs and activities in the resistance movement or because they did not conform to the prevailing norms. Between 18,000 - 20,000 Austrians were deported to Auschwitz and later murdered or died due to the living conditions in the camp. Only an estimated 1,500 survived” - we read at the entrance to the exhibition.
“The history of Austria under National Socialism also commits us to remember the co-responsibility of a substantial part of the population for permitting criminal acts of lawlessness. There were relatively few Austrians among the staff of Auschwitz, but some of them held key positions in the planning and execution of the mass murder. Although women did not have the same access to positions of authority in the camp system as men, some Austrian women participated in the crimes as supervisors, the so-called Aufseherin." - it stated.
The exhibition ends with a quote from Auschwitz survivor Ruth Kluger: “We say “Never again”, but look at all the massacres that have happened in the meantime. Saying it should never happen again is absurd”.
The exhibition was created by the scientific-curatorial team of Hannes Sulzenbacher and Albert Lichtblau, and the architect Martin Kohlbauer. The project to rebuild the exhibition was coordinated by the Secretary-General of the National Fund of the Republic of Austria for Victims of National Socialism, Hannah Lessing and Head of the Coordination Office of the National Fund, Claire Fritsch and her team.