Scott M Williamson
Saturday in Vienna
6 May 2023. I didn't remember today was Coronation Day until I saw it on a TV outside "Jews' Square" in Vienna. I experienced the "pomp and circumstance" as jarringly dissonant. I started this Saturday with silent time in Judenplatz, home to a Museum and Memorial to the 65,000 Austrian Jewish victims of the Shoah. z.l.* [Hebrew abbrev. for *may their memory be for a blessing]
I recalled a conversation with colleagues from the mid-'90's when the National Holocaust Museum in D.C. was still new. "It was manipulative," the two agreed. A split-second may have passed before my jaw hit the floor. Two months later, I was with a small group on my first visit to Germany and first experience visiting one of the camps (Buchenwald, outside of Weimar). I trace the circuitous journey of my own Jewishness with these memories.
I'm curious to know how those same colleagues would find Rachel Whiteread's (b.1963) cubed concrete sculpture "Memorial to the Austrian Victims of the Shoah." Manipulative? Meh?
The pavement stone below marks the location of what was once "one of the largest Synagogues in Europe...before the Jewish Community was expelled or murdered." In 1421.
I'm also curious to know how many passersby miss memorials like the wall plaque below on Beethovenplatz, home to one of the worlds' most famous musician memorials. It says, "we remember each student and teacher who was forsaken in 1938 because they were Jews."
"Beethoven Square," with its imposing monument, reminded me of the incredible sonic presence of the Vienna Philharmonic (VPO) the night before at the Musikverein. I was moved to tears by the sheer sound, at times detaching my attention from Prokofiev and Shostakovich in order to process an aural experience which was, in a word, flawless.
A contingent from our group grabbed some of the last tickets to the VPO's pre-tour program. The Musikverein is a literal temple to classical music, run by the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (the "Association of Friends of Music"). Home to one of the world's great orchestras, its pristine façade masks a checkered social and political history.
The irony of this polarity - worshipping at the Music Temple of Aryans followed by observing mitzvot at the Shoah Memorial - was not lost on me. Like a morbid Jewish joke, the irony was doubled as the Judenplatz's biggest edifice is a statue of the Lutheran philosopher Lessing.
What I'm processing as I draft this post is: how are these opposing spaces and histories affecting the other as they mingle in what is already memory? In this dialectic, is synthesis desirable or even possible? What if these experiences were reversed or reordered? If I had gone to the Judenplatz ahead of the concert; how might I have heard the music of the philo-Semitic Soviet composer, Dmitri Shostakovich? If rhetorical, these are deeply meaningful questions to me.
My own experience is more authentic when I am able to hold the polarities of "negative capability" at one and the same time, however unbalanced or incompatible they may be.
Walt Whitman's "Reconciliation" resonates here:
WORD over all, beautiful as the sky!
Beautiful that war, and all its deeds of carnage, must in time be utterly lost;
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night, incessantly softly wash again, and ever again, this soil'd world:
…For my enemy is dead—a man divine as myself is dead;
I look where he lies,... I draw near;
I bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face
in the coffin.
The heart-shaped lock on the stairwell of the Beethovenhaus resembles an eternal flame or a votive reminder of a mythical god's return. Somewhere between history's chronicles of human violence and art's embodiment of resilience is a harmony holding dissonance and consonance in tension, unresolved. Vienna is a place where such polarities are ever present.