A new, historically revised exhibition for Austria opened at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum on October 4 2021.
The exhibition, entitled “Distance – Austria and Auschwitz” was opened with a commemorative ceremony hosted by the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the National Fund of the Republic of Austria for Victims of National Socialism, National Council President Wolfgang Sobotka, and the Director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum Piotr M. A. Cywiński.
Representing the Jewish community of Vienna (IKG Wien) were President Oskar Deutsch and Vice Presidents Claudia Prutscher and Dezoni Dawaraschwili.
They were joined by Second President of the National Council Doris Bures, President of the Federal Council Peter Raggl, Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg, Minister for Europe Karoline Edtstadler, Minister of Health Wolfgang Mückstein, State Secretary for the Arts and Culture Andrea Mayer, Tyrol Governor and Chairman of the Conference of State Governors Günther Platter, Polish Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Culture and National Heritage Piotr Gliński, and International Auschwitz Committee President Marian Turski.
“Auschwitz is the largest cemetery in the world,” said IKG President Oskar Deutsch, at the ceremony. The last step of the extermination had taken place here, the exclusion had begun in the towns and villages all over Europe, “in the immediate neighbourhood of our grandparents and parents”.
In the past, there was no serious confrontation with the past. Today things are different, also in the new Austrian exhibition: “We no longer commemorate alone as a Jewish community, but together with the state leadership and with young people from all over Austria,” he said.
“Remembrance serves the future, our children and later generations,” which is also why the new Austrian exhibition in Auschwitz is so significant. “It makes it possible to come to terms with what happened. It’s not just about statistics, it’s about human lives,” stressed Deutsch, who also read aloud from a letter written by his grandmother before she was deported to Auschwitz in 1943.
For his part, National Council President Sobotka emphasised that “commemoration demands consequences,” Some consequences are obvious: There can be no compromise with antisemitism. This also means resolutely opposing anti-Zionism and the delegitimisation of the State of Israel. “No ideology, no movement, no party and also no religion has the right to elevate itself above others, above democracy and the rule of law,”
“Confrontation with our history cannot be confrontation with half a story,” he said. He said he wished that visitors to the exhibition would remember the victims of Auschwitz and get involved back in everyday life as ambassadors for human coexistence,” Sobotka added.
Federal President Alexander van der Bellen addressed the fact that many people in Austria are perpetrators. “The racism and antisemitism of the Nazis did not fall from the sky. Auschwitz did not fall from the sky,” he said, recalling that the seeds for the degradation, discrimination and ultimately murder of Jews had already been sown before 1938.
“It is our will and our obligation to preserve the memory of the victims,” Van der Bellen added. It must also be remembered that not only victims, but also perpetrators were part of our society and were shaped by it. We can only do justice to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust if we ensure that “contempt for humanity, scapegoating and violence are never again used as political instruments”, the Federal President emphasised. “‘Never again’ means above all ‘no tolerance towards racism and antisemitism’,” Van der Bellen stated.
Minister for Europe Karoline Edtstadler stressed that Auschwitz should never be forgotten or even trivialised. “The roots of hatred are still present today in the midst, indeed in the depths of society.” More than 70 years after the Shoah, antisemitism is on the rise throughout Europe, indeed worldwide. In the fight against this hatred, the whole of society is called upon.”
Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg also recalled in his speech that not only victims but also perpetrators came from Austria. The new exhibition confronts “this darkest chapter of our history without any blinkers” and clearly acknowledges “the historical responsibility of our country”. “We must face up to the shadows of the past. Be it as a state, as politicians or as individuals. Because only in this way can we succeed in turning a ‘never forget’ into a ‘never again’.”
The Secretary General of the National Fund of the Republic of Austria for Victims of National Socialism, Hannah M. Lessing, moderated a discussion with the curators of the exhibition, Hannes Sulzenbacher and Albert Lichtblau.
The title “Distance” stands not only for the geographical distance between Austria and Auschwitz, but above all for the distance of the people deported to Auschwitz – from Austria and from life.
In addition to the fate of the Austrian victims in Auschwitz and the resistance of Austrian prisoners in the concentration camp, the new exhibition tells of the involvement of Austrians as perpetrators and helpers in the crimes committed there.
The first Austrian exhibition at the Auschwitz museum was opened in March 1978 in Block 17 of the former extermination camp.
At the time, Austria presented itself as the “first victim of National Socialism”, contrary to today’s image of history, and its complicity was largely ignored.