The whole subject of the war and the holocaust was something I had intended to avoid on this trip (Don’t mention the war) but as I followed the Rhine there were many poignant reminders – sculptures, Plaques, destroyed bridges etc that put me in mind of my own father’s experiences on the push through to Germany in the months after the Normandy landings. As I progressed further south, I became more and more uneasy with the idea of ignoring – glossing over a period with such resonance. Mauthausen had been praying on my mind for some time; in fact ever since I’d realised my route would take me close to, or possibly even through it. Mauthausen was one of the most feared concentration camps of the Nazi regime – a place of grotesque inhumanity where the most appalling treatment was visited upon its inmates; usually resulting in death. I’d talked it over with Becky and decided not to visit the camp, but instead write about my reasons for not doing so. I am of a generation whose fathers fought in the war and so, oddly, the events of sixty years ago seem quite close and personal. I am fully aware of the arch cruelties perpetrated by these unspeakable people and felt that such a visit would be an unnecessary trauma near the end of my journey. As I’ve already said elsewhere on the blog, Mauthausen wasn’t that easy to avoid and seemed to keep dragging me in, but I stuck to my decision and moved on. Holocaust memorial, Judenplatz, Vienna
A few days later and I’m walking through Vienna with Becky and the crew. We enter a beautiful, sunny square surrounded with tall, handsome and richly decorated buildings. There are restaurants with tables and chairs out; people sitting enjoying themselves and a lovely sense of calm. There are many such squares throughout Vienna but this one has a special resonance: It’s the ‘Juden Platz’. At one end, seemingly at odds with the elegance of the square is a kind of bunker – a large concrete cube with double concrete doors at one end – no handles. In the floor, all round the cube are the names of the concentration camps Auschwitz, Belsen, Buchenwald, and of course, Mauthausen, and in front of the doors is an inscription in memory of the 65,000 Austrian Jews murdered by the Nazi’s.
The memorial, by British artist Rachel Whiteread, was unveiled in 2000 and resembles an inside out library, the spines of the books turned inward. I think it sits well in its place, striking the right balance of spatial empathy versus incongruity.
We spend quite some time taking in the enormity of what it represents. Then take a seat outside a café and order a drink, but before it arrives we spot a small gallery in a corner of the square. Becky and I leave the others to their drinks and wander over to take a look. The gallery is closed but the man inside motions to us to wait a minute, then comes to open the door. He’s a man of presence, about 70 years old, with strong features and long, grey/white hair; his name is Thomas. We are to spend the next two hours with Thomas as he takes us on a tour of the gallery and tells us about his life and that of his father – the artist, Adolf Frankl – whose pictures fill the gallery.
Adolf Frankl, along with his family, was arrested in his home town of Bratislava on the night of 28th September 1944 and taken to the railway goods yards, where he was separated from his family and pushed aboard a cattle truck bound for the concentration camp at Sered, Slovakia. Here he survived in appalling conditions and continual fear of transportation under the command of Alois Brunner whom Frankl describes in his writings as a sadist – “I saw how he had people buried alive, and how prisoners were pushed into fires composed of burning Torah rolls”. After several weeks at Sered, Frankl was moved to Auschwitz-Birkenau - a journey he describes as ‘the longest and most awful of my life’ – where he witnessed and experienced many atrocities. By the middle of January 1945 the Allies were advancing on all fronts and the Red Army was closing in on Auschwitz. The order was given to evacuate the camp and the so called, Death March, began. Days of forced marching followed under the most fearful conditions where hundreds died or were shot but somehow, Adolf Frankl survived and was finally liberated in early 1945 by the Red Army.
His wife and children had escaped being incarcerated through a combination of luck and courage and spent the remainder of the war in hiding. As Thomas says: had they not been able to do so he would certainly not have been here to tell the tale.
The paintings bring home the terrible fear and helplessness of this time in a way that photographs can never do – they are witness to the mind’s torment rather than simply that of the body and we are compelled to share in that experience – ‘Shades of the prison-house begin to close about us’. For many nights after witnessing Adolf Frankl’s paintings, my dreams were filled with his images brought to life – I spent my sleeping hours with him in Auschwitz – Birkenau - proof surely of the work’s power, and ironically, in the end, this was every bit as disturbing and thought provoking as visiting any concentration camp. Probably for me, more so.
Meeting Thomas Frankl was a great pleasure and a privilege and I send him my regards through this blog. All images are shown with the kind permission of Thomas Frankl
You can view more pictures and there is more reading at http://www.artforum.judenplatz.at/ or better still go to vienna and, if possible, talk to Thomas.