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When Monuments

Can Not Speak

Olga Bubich

How memorial sites dedicated to the tramatic past can prevent us
from making the same mistakes today

Dedicated to Maxim Bubich

Born 12.2.1886 in Gorodyachitsy (USSR)

Died 31.1.1945 in Gusen

“Space is assumed here not to be a static

and fixed support of the historical events,

nor a naturally given, neutral dimension

but a social product and

a productive force.”

Pamela Colombo and Estela Schindel,

Space and the Memory of Violence

Scheiße!...” he whispers, tearing his eyes from the mobile phone and uneasily looking around. “Mauthausen OÖ Gedenkstätte/Memorial,” repeats the indifferent voice of the announcement – obviously not the bus stop the little passenger in bright sport shorts was planning to get off. For a while, we remain the only travelers on Bus 361 that rattles along the gravel road through the bucolic landscape of Upper Austria. And although our stories and destinations have little in common, still there is something that brings us together. We are both afraid of what we could find there. He probably more.

The creation and management of sites dedicated to remembrance is crucial and, in many ways, reflects not only the history of the former places of terror but also political course of the state – its past, present, and future. On my trip to Mauthausen and Gusen memorial sites, I expected to find a monument to grief attended by travelers from all over the world, a space for mourning and a promise to learn the lessons that had cost hundreds of thousands lives. Instead, I discovered something else: fearful scarce concentration camp visitors hastily passing by the plaques and the flocks of teenagers moving from barrack to barrack in scared sacred silence, exposed to the place of death of 90 000 people as a part of obligatory school curriculum. “You know what,” a friend would write me later that day, “a guy who once worked in Mauthausen told me that it took them much effort to stop teachers who accompanied the groups of 14-year-olds from closing the kids in the lower ground level execution cellar so that they “could better feel the atmosphere”.

Images taken during my visit to Mauthausen Subcamps, 2023, Upper Austria

I wonder whether fear can help remembering. Do the fearful learn better? Can fear teach love? Can fear teach at all? Supported by the ideology of Austria as the Nazi’s first victim, forgetting became a publicly proposed and largely implemented strategy and for a long time silence remained legitimized. Fear of the punishment once experienced by the locals under the Nazi regime turned into a fear of remembering.

Even though Mauthausen, alongside with Auschwitz, is the extermination camp the world knows best, the memorial looks almost deserted. Now rather a destination for school excursions (only recently introduced as a part of obligatory educational practice in some parts of the country), the camp is not easy to reach by individual travelers: for example, the last bus from the site leaves at 3 pm. The road to the infamous Stairs of Death – a place where prisoners were forced to carry 50-kilograms’ stone blocks up to 186 steps – is closed and to see the site one has to find their way through the forest with no clear guiding signs. Eventually reaching the destination, you would find the quarry abandoned and overgrown with trees and bushes.

The plaques at the entrance to the former camp are rare and often specific in content: to the right one sees a long grey wall with the commemorative tablets granted by various states, almost a competition in the quality of stones and decorative elements assembled to show off grief. “Soviet citizens – 32 180, Polish citizens – 30 203, Hungarian – 12 923, Yugoslavian – 12 870… ” lists one of the oldest marble plaques dating back to 1947. Out of 32 180 Soviets, the only person to be mentioned by name is Dmitry Karbyshev, a Red Army general frozen to death by the camp administration.

Still, some commemoration work has been done: in 2009 two new exhibitions at the Mauthausen Memorial were developed and introduced to the public in the space of so-called “prisoners’ infirmary”, with one of them dedicated specifically to the attempts to bring the guilty to court. In 2013, the “Room of Names” was launched featuring the names of those deported to the camp in the original spelling. These efforts deserve recognition but the obvious question is still here – what took Austria so long? Is it enough? How much would be enough?

Mauthausen Subcamps, 1938-1945. US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Retrieved at

My journey continues towards to the nearby town of Gusen where even less reminds of its ancestors’ recent past. Together with Mauthausen, its subcamps were quoted as “the most profitable concentration camps of Nazi Germany” bringing the Third Reich in 1944 alone about 87 million EUR (recalculated from the currency of those times). Slave labor of the prisoners was used in quarries, mines, munitions and arms factories, as well as plants assembling Me 262 fighter aircrafts with the total number of inmates reaching the unimaginable 190 000.

But the traces of the crimes against humanity were erased to give space to a pure utopian society: after the liberation in 1945 all the barracks got demolished and the former massacre site was redeveloped into a peaceful village. The former Bergkristall tunnels are now privately owned and not open to public, as is the former entrance to the concentration camp – today a neat white Austrian house shining with the freshly painted walls.

The only monument to be found in today’s Gusen is a rather modest concrete structure built on the funds raised by the concentration camp survivors. Truth be told, Austrian authorities did eventually establish a visitor and educational center adjacent to the memorial – in 2005. It took the officials more than a decade to start talking about assuming the responsibility. At the same time, on the central square next to the Sankt Georgen an der Gusen church another memorial towers ­– a so-called “war monument” (Kriegerdenkmals) erected to commemorate the soldiers killed in both World Wars. Obviously, Austrian National Socialists are among them.

Memory is said to be a complex process that carries parts of the past but it can also be used as a tool of disguising it. Landscapes represent, and are represented by, political processes: politics of memory, where the past, as James A. Tyner puts is, “becomes subject to dominant power relations that determine what, if anything, is memorialized.”

Screenshot from the personal site of Renate Herter that illustrates the second stage of the artist’s installation “Making Visible by Concealing” (June – end of October 2013).

Temporary wrapping of the so-called war memorial.

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While the authorities do not hurry to invest into uncomfortable dialogues, memories of traumatic past seem to be faster and more efficiently mobilized by artists and local enthusiasts. If there are no monuments to transmit the remembrance, maybe it is their absence that can speak instead. Trying to attract attention to the historical memory paradox, in 2013 the artist Renate Herter made her intervention “Passage against Oblivion” (“Passage gegen das Vergessen”) during which she covered the controversial stone decorated with the Iron Cross. Using the method introduced and popularized by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, she challenged the familiar memory landscape and attempted to give the voice to the void – to “re-evaluate historical contexts” and question the site of placelessness. As a part of the art project a line was also drawn on the cobbled way in front of the church featuring the words “forget, devastate, contradict, uncover, stand against.”

One of the tangible effects triggered by art activism was a shift in the local church commemoration practices: in 2015, for the first time since the end of the WWII, the victims of Gusen and the Bergkristall tunnel facility were mentioned in the All Saints’ Day service of the parish of St.Georgien an der Gusen held by the parish priest Franz Wöckinger. Previously, it was the fallen soldiers only who had been spoken of. “This liturgical celebration on All Saints' Day opens up the space to also give “a face” to those thousands of victims who died cruelly in the parish area of St. Georgen, were never buried with dignity and remained silently hidden in parish life for decades,” comments on the case local activist Christoph Freudenthaler. [1]

Another artistic initiative dealing with memory and life on the site of the former concentration camp is “Audioway Gusen” – a 90-minutes’ audio-guide created by the artist Christoph Mayer in collaboration with Andreas Hagelüken and Kai-Uwe Kohlschmidt in 2007. Despite not being defined as a historical memorial in the conventional sense, the project does reconstruct “the buried memory of a place” bringing together personal recollections of survivors, former camp security guards and witnesses from the local dwellers: through voices, abstract landscape sounds and documentary chronicles.

You hear what can no longer be seen,” the essence of “Audioway” is described at Mauthausen Memorial site. “One sees what is present. People articulate what otherwise would remain unsaid. With the exception of the memorial in Gusen, erected on the initiative of former prisoners, and a few unidentified buildings, current landscape is present as a plain residential area. Single-family houses have replaced the barracks on the former camp site and transformed Gusen into a place of post-war Austria. Where once SS members and kapos tortured thousands of people to death, kids now play in the front gardens. […]

The audio collage of sounds and voices creates a virtual mindspace, thus making the discrepancy between what is seen and what is heard palpable. It recalls the reality of the concentration camps, but also their problematic post-history, still topical today.”

Images taken during my visit to Dachau memorial site, 2023, Germany

When official culture promotes misremembering, monuments can take alternative forms. One of them was introduced by Esther Strauß who offers her own understanding of the latter and becomes a symbolic type of monument herself [see the full description of the project on the artist’s site]. “Unlike a sculptural monument that never leaves its location, a performative monument takes place in the midst of life,” the artist writes commenting her decision to perform a commemoration gesture against the oblivion of the Roma, Romnja, Sinti and Sintize kids murdered in concentration camps – to bear the name of one of them. She applied and eventually managed to legally change her name into that of Marie Blum. In 1943 this name was given to a baby born in Auschwitz-Birkenau camp – the girl was killed three days later in Sector BIIe where Roma, Romnja, Sinti and Sintize were interned.

Bringing together what is perceived as “historical” and as “private”, Esther stands against their separation and advocates the necessity to “take responsibility for what has been done, decided, and supported. “Sometimes I have the impression that the culture of remembrance in Austria serves to make us forget that the National Socialists were our great-grandparents, grandparents, parents. Within the performative monument I am artistically answering this conflict with regards to my own family history which includes members who supported the NS-regime,” she states. In her project, Esther places a special importance on the necessity to demand a central memorial for the estimated 250,000 – 500,000 Roma, Romnja, Sinti and Sintize and others who were identified as “gypsies” exterminated by the Nazi regime and their allies. The fact of their genocide was only recognized by the European Parliament in 2015.

The performative monument, however, developed beyond Esther’s initial intention, with the name of Marie Blum now also present in the birth certificate of the artist’s daughter Lilou born on March 8, 2020, when the project was still ongoing. The personal tragedy of the little Marie deprived a chance to live a full life entered the living discourse of collective memory, mobilized as another form of knowledge and counter-memory activism.

Still photograph from the Soviet Film of the liberation of Auschwitz, taken by the film unit of the First Ukrainian Front. 1945, Auschwitz, Poland. Photo credit – US Holocaust Museum, courtesy of Belarusian State Archive of Documentary Film and Photography.

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In the fight for the right to remember and request justice, only time will show if the actions of individual artists, culture workers, and local communities’ activists would be enough to prevent collective amnesia. But one thing is clear: it is not on the denial of their ancestors’ bloody past that the new generations must be brought up. Progressive memory activism needs another language and other monuments. History can really teach lessons, if numbers are replaced by victims’ names and private stories, and fear – by the range of genuine emotions. By guilt, by shame, by repentance, by responsibility acceptance and request for forgiveness. Fractured pasts can be cured but never by silence and fear.

Bus 361 would stop off the road in the middle of the vast green field to let the little disoriented passenger out. I hope he would find his way home and be able to dream for his country a different past. Meanwhile, I continue my trip towards Mauthausen alone.

Other sources quoted:
1- Freudenthaler Christoph, Gruber konkret: Zur Entwicklung der Gedenk¬Organisationen und zu deren Wirkungsebenen, in: Freudenthaler Christoph, Schlager-Weidinger Thomas (eds.), Dr. Johann Gruber - Annäherung und Anstoß, p. 85f.