Plans to erect a Holocaust memorial on Judenplatz (literally, "Jew Square“) were all but obliterated in the late 1990s. Why? The city had discovered, underneath the proposed site, the remains of a 13th-century synagogue which had been burned down in a pogrom in 1420. Vicious persecution by the Catholic Church had led hundred of Jews to commit suicide here, rather than renounce their faith.
Critics argued that the medieval site was a more fitting metaphor for the persecution of the Jewish people than the design by British sculptor Rachel Whiteread. Others openly opposed the very idea of confronting Austria’s troubled past or expressed a preference for a less conspicuous location, away from the city center.
After years of heated public debate, the memorial commemorating the 65,000 Austrian Jews who were murdered by the Nazis was finally inaugurated in October 2000. Whiteread’s design is a brutally stark concrete structure reminiscent of an inverted library, with the names of the Nazis’ death camps inscribed in its base.
Underneath the square, Museum Judenplatz integrates the archeological remains of Or-Sarua synagogue with a permanent exhibition on Jewish life in the Middle Ages. Beautifully designed by Austrian architects Christian Jabornegg and András Pálffy, the site is a chilling testimonial to century-long persecution. Careful restoration of the ensemble of buildings flanking the square and the solemn calm of the Holocaust memorial makes for one of the most noteworthy squares in Vienna’s historic city center.
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