Five years in the making, a stark, grey structure forces Austria to confront its past

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The Independent Online

An eighteen-word inscription, in German, English and Hebrew, graces three sides of the threshold of the new Viennese memorial. Around a Star of David, it reads: "In commemoration of more than 65,000 Austrian Jews who were killed by the Nazis between 1938 and 1945." The message is stark in its simplicity.

An eighteen-word inscription, in German, English and Hebrew, graces three sides of the threshold of the new Viennese memorial. Around a Star of David, it reads: "In commemoration of more than 65,000 Austrian Jews who were killed by the Nazis between 1938 and 1945." The message is stark in its simplicity.

The memorial, created by the British Turner Prize-winner Rachel Whiteread and championed by Simon Wiesenthal, an international Nazi-hunter and Vienna's most famous resident Jew, will be unveiled today, with great ceremony. But getting the bleak, concrete structure - a sealed library turned inside out and all the books turned binder in - this far has been anything but simple.

What is, unbelievably, Austria's first memorial to Jewish citizens murdered in the Nazi genocide has been five years in the making. It has survived tumultuous political times, in particular the rise of Jörg Haider's right-wing Freedom Party. As Whiteread constructed the memorial, the ascent of the handsome, populist Mr Haider forced Austria to deconstruct its war-time past, opening up deep divisions about the extent of Austrian collaboration with the Nazis and the genocide.

Whiteread was upbeat yesterday as she breezed past her latest baby in Judenplatz (Jew Square), the site of a medieval Jewish ghetto where hundreds of people were burned or committed suicide in 1420 and 1421 rather than convert to Catholicism. "I'm just really happy it's here and finished," she said. "I'm happy that the city of Vienna has it."

After five years in which the project became a hostage to political wranglings, she refused to answer any political questions. "That just inflames the situation," she said.

Whiteread's design allows for the individual "books" in the memorial to be replaced in the event that they are defaced with spray-painted swastikas, as has been the fate of other war monuments in Vienna. The work will be under constant police guard.

Yesterday, as the memorial was draped in white cotton in anticipation of today's unveiling, Austria's divisions were still being played out in the beautiful, baroque square.

At one corner of the Judenplatz is a superb new museum, where a medieval synagogue, burned and ransacked by the Viennese in 1421, once stood. This, which also opens today, was built to satisfy Jews who did not want a genocide memorial built on the unmarked pogrom site. Deep in its bowels, in a long, silent, dimly lit room, is an unexpected treasure - the foundations of the ransacked synagogue, excavated before the Whiteread memorial could be built.

Gerhard Milchram is the museum's Jewish curator. He shows me a room, with three big-screen computers, with access to the names of 62,000 of the victims commemorated outside. These are the Jews, rounded up by the Nazis and eager Austrian helpers, whose places of death - camps such as Dachau and Belsen, recorded around the memorial base - are known thanks to records kept by the Austrian resistance. The rest are missing and untraced.

On the other side of the square, Wolfgang Bishof, the owner of a stylish furniture shop, is fuming at the Jewish memorial and museum. Four years ago he gathered 2,000 signatures against the development. His campaign failed. But he says that truth and justice were sacrificed to politics. Four years ago, Mr Bishof complained to a British journalist about a "foreign Jewish artist" winning the prize for the memorial - in fact Whiteread is not Jewish - and that "the jury was not exactly Aryan".

Perhaps those who say that Austrians speak with forked tongues when it comes to anti-Semitism are right, or perhaps Mr Bishof was misunderstood. But today he insists he is not against the Jews and has no truck with Mr Haider. "But I cannot make a point without being called a Nazi and anti-Semite," he said. "For five years I suffered a 40 per cent loss of business because the square was like a building site," he said. "We have had no compensation and yet thousands of millions of schillings have been spent on the memorial and museum."

His neighbour Wilheim Gundel, 59, owner of the Zum Scherer restaurant, claims thatcommercial losses have forced him to abandon his plan to retire at 60.

Mr Bishof also attacked Whiteread's creation on artistic grounds. It is true that it jars with the square's baroque style and sense of space. Vienna's liberals and some Jews also complained about the setting. One British tourist described the memorial as a "bunch of breeze blocks from the back and a mausoleum from the front".

But speak longer and Mr Bishof's resentments go deeper. They concern more the uncomfortable excavation of the memories of the more immediate past than the synagogue's medieval foundations. "The things that were done in the war were not done by my generation," Mr Bishof said. "I should not be held responsible."

Vienna is a conservative city and in truth some Jews would also like to let the past be. But many, like Mr Wiesenthal, think it sin and folly to forget. At an early meeting with businessmen opposed to the memorial, Mr Wiesenthal reminded them some of their businesses were housed in buildings seized from their Jewish owners after Germany annexed Austria in 1938.

The fact is that it is easier to put history to bed if all debts and injustices are settled. When the Nazis marched into Austria, and turned on one of Europe's largest Jewish communities, they tapped into deep-rooted anti-Semitism that reached back through centuries of persecution, murder and expulsion to the murder in the early 12th century of 15 Viennese Jews by Crusaders.

And Mr Haider's rise has revealed that that anti-Semitism in Austria is still alive and kicking, and that Mr Bishof is misguided to place guilt so confidently with dead and dying generations.

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