Lifelines as traces of the expulsion from Herminengasse

Lifelines as traces of the expulsion from Herminengasse

Der Standard, October 19, 2017

German original:

Since Thursday [10/19/17], users of public transport can find a memorial for the deported Jews who once lived in Herminengasse inside the Schottenring metro station.

Since Thursday, thin black lines stretch over the walls of the exit Herminengasse in the Schottenring metro station in Vienna. Left and right of the narrow tunnel, thin lines lead from faintly drawn houses, which can be found in reality at the other end of the elevator, to names of around 30 concentration camps, written in capital letters.

On October 19, 1941, the ninth transport, in which 1,000 persons were deported, departed from the Aspang station in Vienna to the Litzmannstadt ghetto - a day which was chosen symbolically for the unveiling of the memorial in the metro station. The project of the Wiener Linien (the Viennese Transit Authority) and Kunst im öffentlichen Raum (Public Art Vienna) should “not use a sledgehammer” to remind of Austria’s history at the time of National Socialism, as the German artist Michaela Melián told the STANDARD. Rather, it should “homeopathically stimulate” to confront oneself with the “collective subconscious knowledge about the murderous political act of expulsion during this time.”

From 600 to 1,322 names

When Melián took over the project, she found “very scanty records”, she tells. On a list provided by the Documentation Center of Austrian Resistance (DÖW), 600 names were listed in alphabetical order. The list reflected how fundamental the annihilation policy was, since what happened to most of the people remains unknown until today.

Together with the historian Tina Walzer, the commissioned artwork became a research project. The first step was to reorder the list. The names were assigned to house numbers. Then, residential registrations and especially de-registrations of the persons in the buildings in the Viennese district of Leopoldstadt were synchronized with the days of the deportations. The aim was to find persons who were persecuted as Jews in Herminengasse and survived, or did not appear in the list which was provided by the DÖW for some other reason: because they had been able to flee Vienna before the deportation, or had already died in Vienna, or because they had been displaced from Herminengasse to other addresses before the deportation took place.

It soon became evident that there were several hundred more victims. Of the 21 buildings which Herminengasse comprises, eleven were owned by Jews at the beginning of the NS rule. Nine of them were expropriated. In two buildings, collection camps were established, in another eight there were collection flats.

1,322 persons who resided in Herminengasse between 1938 and 1945 could be evidenced. “In some cases it soon became obvious that the buildings must have served as collection camps,” Melián says. “Between 1941 and 1943, more than 300 people lived in those houses.”

One line – one person

In her artwork, Melián presents “one line for each person who was brought away from one of the houses.” This line leads from the houses in Herminengasse to the concentration camps and the ghettos. In the cases of 800 Jews the research team was able to clarify where they were brought. “Many were transported several times and were in different concentration camps.” For 500 further persons a blank space remains. It is “illustrative for those people we do not know what happened to them.”

The abstract realization through lines was chosen deliberately, says Melián. “It is a short tunnel at a place where nobody has time to stand for a longer period of time. There is a draught and it is cold. It would not be dignified to write down names here or hang up personal pictures.” The lines are the “graphic translation” of the stories of the people who lived in the houses. “A line can be many things: a lifeline, a trace of expulsion, a geographic and biographic route.”

A longer version of the story, sprinkled with personal photos and further records, can be found in the book which emerged from the research. For the Wiener Linien, it is “particularly important to not simply install a commemorative plaque,” explains Günter Steinbauer, chairman of the board. Melián’s work accomplished to “make the tragic events tangible in a sensitive manner and translate them into the modern day.”

(Oona Kroisleitner, 10/19/2017)