Tuesday. February 18. Afternoon.
Visit to the Wiener Holocaust Library.
We went on foot to the Wiener Holocaust Library, as it was only a few blocks from our hotel, surprisingly. It’s housed in a beautiful white building with black, wrought iron fencing in the front and around the small balconies above; an inviting appearance. We took a class picture on the front steps before entering this hallowed space of remembrance. As we went in, we were met by our tour guides, who were not actual librarians, and that was okay with me. We were free to wander around in the foyer, where there were multiple displays of Holocaust survivor pictures in black and white, storyboards and encasements of personal accounts, (one entitled “…the Search for Truth,” and another, “Search for Justice”) and a rack of magazines and newspapers & journals related to genocide and holocaust issues, I think, many of them in German (didn’t really have time to look at them closely), as well as yellowed documents relating to transporting Jews and telegrams, that sort of thing. I wish I’d had more time to loiter and really read it all, and take it in more slowly and deeply. In a group I always feel rushed and cannot engage in the time it requires me to hook into something, but especially something that significant. It was clearly very emotional material and maybe part of me knew that I shouldn’t try to get engaged so quickly; that it wouldn’t do justice to it, and I would also be feeding a dark side of my feelings in such a rapid manner that to disseminate it, to extinguish it, in the middle of a group of people was more than I could bear. I found myself opening up to the trauma while protecting my heart at the same time. Is it possible to put up emotional walls while also letting terror seep in? Human cruelty displayed through evidential writings, photographs, documentation…. books, namely, on the main floor of the library, arranged according to subject matter that threatened to undo me from the core outward. If there were any innocence about the world at all left in me, this destroyed it. Subjects included on the shelves were: Restitution, Nazi Ideology, Exile Art and Literature, Memorial Books, Encyclopedias. The very idea of there being encyclopedias of gathered information of this sort of drove a knife through my heart. The disbelief I encountered in myself at every turn was disturbing. I just found myself saying over and over, out loud, “OH, MY GOD.” And meaning it.
I did not take notes during our time there and wish now that I had. I don’t know why I opted for that, except that I had an inkling of wanting to just let the experience wash over me without the distraction of trying to record it via writing. I took ample photographs, hoping that the images would prompt my memory sufficiently. Maybe the act of writing reminded me too much of how the Nazis recorded everything systematically. That would have been a subconscious rejection of that mode of experiencing the library, but nevertheless, maybe my soul felt so unprotected that the act of pen to paper felt too vulnerable. I am still not sure. I noticed that the walls in the library were painted the cleanest white, and in the entryway a pale pink. All of the light fixtures were white and modern and clean-looking as well. Part of me wondered who orchestrated the décor for the environment, and the implications behind it. These details matter to me. I suspect that it was deliberate. I felt calmly soothed by the choices and wondered who analyzed or thought about the psychological effect the library would have on people and how it could be eased, or at least tolerated, by having a “washed anew” feeling, an “ephiphany” sort of feel. The pale pink felt like a baby color, and in that way made me feel that the brutishness of the material in the room was meant to be contrasted by softness in the way that a fairy tale has a wicked character balanced by a princess. In this case, the learning curve of what happened and the future of humanity is supposed to have an “and they lived happily ever after” quality to it, but not in quite that simplistic a form. Very little to do with what I am probably supposed to be learning, but I find myself fascinated and distracted by that sort of thing. It’s important to me. Environment matters.
I took chunks of pictures of the books themselves. Not only am I enamoured with old books, but in this case I was so astonished by many of the titles that it was easier to snap a photo than to try to write them down anyway. Titles such as “A People Betrayed,” “Balkan Genocides,” The Path of a Genocide,” The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman, Turkey,” “Saviors and Survivors,” Hitler’s Silent Partners,” “Fascist Voices,” “Mussolini’s Italy,” “Fear and Hope,” Genocide: the Human Cancer,” “Confronting Evils,” “The History and Sociology of Genocide,” “Voices from S-21: Terror and History in Pol Pot’s Secret Prison,” “Not on Our Watch,” “Nazi Cinema’s New Women,” “The Holocaust Experiment,” “Jews in Eastern Europe,” “World Fascism,” and the list goes on. And on. And on. Wall after wall, shelf after shelf of barbarism. Twisted humanity. Superiority complexes and cold philosophies of persecution. There was a set of encyclopedias that disturbed me deeply called “The Encyclopedia of the Righteous Among the Nations.” The tomes recounted the countries, book by book, of Belgium, France, Poland, The Netherlands, Europe (Vol. 1 and 2), and Supplementary Volumes 1 and 2. I almost got nauseous seeing those, with the book jackets displaying the flags all colorfully, especially given my current thoughts on the institution of organized religion right now. It served to sicken me and raise an eyebrow on the opinions of those in positions of religious authority on any given point on our timeline of religious hypocrisy as a people.
Our guide was knowledgeable, for her young age, and for not being a librarian. I thought she did a really good job of answering the majority of our questions. Being a history major, she was smart and good at her job. I didn’t feel like I needed to know all the underpinnings of the cataloguing and such that some of my cohorts were jonesing for, and that’s okay. I am learning that it’s not necessary for me to feel inferior about the way I approach my curiosities as being different than other students’ approaches. So many of my cohorts seem to have such a better grasp on the profession than I do, and definitely more experience and worldly perspective, as is evident by their questions and ponderings. I have chosen to learn from them and not let that make me feel like a lesser professional. It’s amazing to me how we each take in these experiences in unique ways and bring different perspectives to the table of academia. It’s fantastic. Librarians are really brilliant people. Not to mention fun. And funny. I enjoy smart people and therefore feel that I have chosen my niche wisely!
We were ushered into the refrigerated portion of the library in the basement. As I understand it, that used to be a wine cellar. So that’s cool. Cold, steely, white, studded doors that bore white labels bearing phrases such as “Camp Leaflets N500,” “Right Wing Catalogues,” MS Collection,” “Reference Section R1-R2 (XIII) WHO” (I have no idea what that means). We were shown books in which Hitler was shown to be a benevolent, loving, caring “father to all,” especially the pure haired-and-skinned, beautiful children of Germany through photographs; an attempt to bamboozle the German people into loving him and wanting to follow him. I didn’t know that kind of propaganda existed and I wondered if I would have been fooled into thinking he was a kind-hearted human being who had our nation’s best interest at heart as well. It sickens me to answer that with a “Yes, probably.” One of my greatest faults, I would imagine, is giving people the benefit of the doubt who do not deserve it. Seeing that book made me question all kinds of things about the way I view people’s character and where the truth REALLY lies in the way people portray themselves. An entire nation was seduced by the power of manipulated imaging through well-placed and thought-out deception. The implications are staggering.
We saw a Nazi Youth coloring book/paper doll set, a representative tea bag that was used for communication in the underground movement by hiding messages in them; many photos from the archives that related families’ personal, heart-breaking stories. There is too much of that to try to include in this journal, but it brought it all very close to home to hear people talk about their children and parents and to see their pictures preserved for us all to see. We also saw a pretty CURRENT Nazi magazine, and learned that it is STILL going on. It was in German, and as I recall, printed sometime in the last couple of years, called “Der Freiwillige,” with a photo of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed young man sporting binoculars and a military, Third Reich-looking hat. Shocking that the hatred goes on. The good news is that we have taken lessons from it, and that awareness of what happened is being held ransom around the world, in the hopes of preventing it from happening again. May not be successful, but at least we are trying. Librarians get to be part of the heroic strategy to call up that awareness and keep the information alive.