Bernard Schneider: Living in a Memorial, The Prague Post, 8.09.1993

08.09.1993

Projekt Beschreibung

Bernard Schneider: Living in a Memorial

By Alan Levy Our neighbors in Austria have a bad conscience. True, the wartime Allies labeled Austria the „first victim„ of Hitler‘s aggression, but anybody who has seen newsreels of the welcome he received after Nazi Germany annexed its neighbor in 1938 will recognize hundreds of thousands of willing victims. After „The Final Solution of the Jewish Problem„ was formulated at Wannsee in 1942, the ratio of Austrians to Germans on the staff of master genocidist Adolf Eichmann (who grew up in Austria) was 4-to-1, even though the ratio of the two countries‘ populations was roughly the reverse. An Austrian joke goes, „We‘re the people who invented public relations – by making Beethoven into an Austrian and Hitler into a German.„ (The composer was born in Bonn, Germany; the tyrant in Braunau am Inn, Upper Austria.) Since 1986, however, when the World Jewish Congress revealed that victorious Austrian presidential candidate Kurt Waldheim had served in Yugoslavia as right-hand man to an Austrian general executed as a war criminal in 1947, Austria has not been allowed to forget its past – and, indeed, that form of collective amnesia now bears a pseudo-medical name: Waldheimer‘s Disease. „I must be the conscience of the world,„ Waldheim told me shortly after he was elected head of the United Nations in 1971. To me today, however, a long-haired, baby-faced 30-year-old student architect named Bernhard Schneider, who has spent the past year commuting 65 kilometers (40 miles) each way, every workday, from Prague 6 to the infamous ghetto prison of Theresienstadt (Terezin), represents the good conscience of Austria. Late in 1991, the Austrian Parliament reformed its alternative-service program for conscientious objectors to military conscription. Such token „make-work„ options as gardening or monitoring school crossings were eliminated in favor of more menial and manual labor in hospitals, bloodmobiles, old-people‘s homes and institutes for the disabled – eight to 10 months of such civilian service (Zivildienst) in lieu of eight months of soldiering. And, thanks to agitation by a Tyrolean anti-racism crusader named Andreas Maislinger, a statute was added sanctioning 12 months of Gedenkdienst (remembrance service) in three Holocaust memorials around the world: Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, and Auschwitz in Poland. Theresienstadt wasn‘t on the list. Enter Bernhard Schneider – and then there were four. Born in Lilienfeld, Lower Austria, Schneider had not been a conscientious objector upon graduation from high school in the early 1980s. In fact, he‘d tried to fulfill his military obligation before entering the University of Vienna, but the army had no room for him at the time. Over the ensuing decade at the university, with heightened awareness and student deferments from the draft, his dislike for bearing arms deepened into aversion. But a real turning point came a few years ago, when his father, a forester, survived a bout with stomach cancer that put him into intensive care on six occasions. „The atmosphere in intensive care,„ Bernhard recalls, „was so serene and reassuring, the people so friendly and helpful, that you almost wanted to be there. And when I found out that two of them were people doing their alternative service, I decided I‘d much rather do that than shoulder a rifle.„ Then he heard of Gedenkdienst and decided this was for him. „I knew I didn‘t know anything about the Nazi years. My history teachers always seemed to run out of time when they got to the First World War. And meanwhile there was the Waldheim affair and neo-Nazism growing strong in Austria. To do some constructive atonement for the evil of the Holocaust became more and more urgent to me – and to do it in a foreign land as a representative of Austria was irresistible.„ When he went to see Maislinger in Innsbruck, he was told there were 160 applicants for five slots, but he stood a good chance because his architectural training would be valuable everywhere. „Does it hurt that I have a wife and newborn daughter?„ he wondered. „Not at all,„ said Maislinger. „It will give your baby the possibility to know two languages.„ „She already does,„ said Schneider, explaining that his wife, painter Natalia Mezricky, was born in Austria shortly after her Czech parents emigrated in 1965 and spoke Czech at home. So little Sophie Schneider was being raised bilingually. Hearing this, Maislinger urged Schneider to visit Terezin and see if the officials there could use him at the „privileged„ prison where 33,500 Jews perished and another 84,500 were shipped to extermination camps after living a Gestapo-orchestrated parody of ghetto life. In the Small Fortress, which is the part most tourists see, he was given a desk in the administrative section and started work last October, even before his funding was granted by Austria‘s Interior Ministry. Nothing he had read about Theresienstadt beforehand compared in impact to the everyday revelations of horror – discovering that wildflowers grow in the grass between the firing squad and the execution stand, but nothing grows behind it – or the experience of meeting survivors who came back to visit. „Of course,„ he says, „I could see only a shadow of what the experience meant to them when they told me how it was.„ They have an alumni association, and Schneider started attending their weekly meetings at the Jewish Town Hall on Maislova Street in Prague. „They welcomed me, and I wondered how people who had been through so much could be so kind. So much injustice – and so many of the people who did it to them have led quiet, normal postwar lives and careers in Germany and Austria that I expected them to be angry and unwilling to talk to me. But they were only pleased that I had come here to work.„ His hosts at Theresienstadt asked him whether they were obliged to assign him ditches to dig and were relieved to hear that his unassisted architectural endeavors would involve enough manual labor to satisfy that requirement of his service. Thus, he not only conceived, invited and hosted a four-day visit to Theresienstadt in April by 14 members of Viennese fantastic-realist painter Anton Lehmden‘s master class, but, on the third day, built and mounted an exhibition of their stark, striking and spontaneous impressions and expression. Now on display in Prague, it will later go to the Austrian cities of Vienna, Innsbruck and Linz (where both Adolfs, Eichmann and Hitler, had studied). Bernhard‘s wife did the sinister sepiatone poster for the exhibit. Thousands of visitors, including many Germans, have written in its guest books and only a handful have scribbled such hatreds as „Germany for Germans!„ and „We‘ll get you next time.„ During his year at Theresienstadt, Schneider also drew up plans for two projects. One is to convert part of the ground floor of the headquarters building in which he works into an archive to be used by Holocaust scholars, who are pouring in from the east now that the Iron Curtain is no more. The second, even more ambitious, would remake the ghetto‘s Magdeburg Barracks, wartime offices of the so-called Jewish Self-Governing Council, into a seminar center and hostel where young people could convene to discuss the Holocaust and latter-day genocides such as in ex-Yugoslavia. He has also sought sponsorships; his most notable success has been a gift of 120,000 Austrian schillings (300,000 Kc, or $10,344) worth of furnishings for the archive from the catalog of Svoboda Office Furniture of Sankt Polten. To ensure that Schneider‘s work goes on, his Gedenkdienst successor, Siegfried Hybner, 26, from Innsbruck, is also an architect. Later this month, at Schneider‘s behest, a class from Vienna‘s Technical University is coming to measure and map all the buildings in both the Small Fortress and, just across the Ohre river, Large Fortress (where the sprawling ghetto is now the town of Terezin). These detailed diagrams will be essential for future reconstruction. (Only two out of every five of the town‘s 200,000 tourists per year actually visit the Large Fortress.) Another class, this one from Vienna‘s Institute for Urban Development, will follow to do research on a master plan for coexistence of the living town of Terezin with the macabre monument that was Theresienstadt. Although Schneider‘s Gedenkdienst will have expired by then, he will surely return from Vienna for that visit because he thinks its subject is what he‘ll write his degree thesis on: „Terezin is unique because a town already existed here since 200 years ago, a military garrison town alongside this fortress I‘m working in. Then, in 1941, the Nazis evicted the inhabitants from the living town to make the ghetto. Today the population is not quite 2,000 – and they tend to be elderly. For this town to live on economically, it will require tourism – but what kind? The fortress has a long history before the Nazis and up to the First World War; it was a stronghold of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. This place is one of the best surviving documents of Habsburg military architecture. Already, the tours of Theresienstadt include 500 meters [1,640 feet] walking through tunnels within the fortress walls that the gunners took to go to their stations. There are 30 kilometers [almost 19 miles] of such corridors that the Gestapo sealed off to prevent escapes.„ Showing me the cell that housed Gavrilo Princip (the Serb who started World War I by assassinating Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his Czech wife Sophie Chotek in Sarajevo in 1914) until his death by tuberculosis in Theresienstadt in 1918, Schneider asks rhetorically: „So do we reconstruct the earlier historic parts at the expense of the Jewish parts, or the other way around? And you can‘t leave it just as a monument to either, because it has to be a living city. But there are people who say, ‘We don‘t want to live in a town that everybody in the world connects with Nazi terror‘; others say that ‘We‘re a place that has to warn the world.‘ My plan for the Magdeburg Barracks is part of that thinking. „The main direction has to be a symbiosis of both situations – plus the problem that we‘re right on the main road to Dresden and Berlin, with all the pollution and destruction that involves. The mayor of Terezin tells me there are 20,000 cars a day through the town. Of course, there will be a solution – and I want to be part of it.„ In his initial detachment, Schneider was talking a little like an Austrian and a lot like an architect. But now, as we stand behind the crematorium in the shade of a maple tree, he remarks, „There‘s a saying my father taught me: If you have just one day left to live, you should plant a tree. This tree was planted by the children of the ghetto in 1943 for the Jewish New Year. So most of them died in the gas chamber, but to know that their tree lives on 50 years later means that they are with me.„ The Theresienstadt exhibition continues through Sept. 19 at the Franz Kafka Society, Staromestske nam. 22, Prague 1. Open daily except Mon., 10-5

Projekt Details

  • Datum 24. August 2016
  • Tags Pressearchiv 1993

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