Outside the Circle

Cindy Milstein

History Should Always Get in Our Way

I hadn’t realized the depth of how much I need a break from the weight & responsibility of this past year until I landed in Vienna in June 2013 and my jet-lag dissipated. Rather than catch a train to some more countercultural &/or politically happening place for my two precious weeks here — minus two days for a talk in Klagenfurt that paid my way — once I woke up, I understood how tired I was. So my plan was to “do nothing,” which I thought meant incredibly long, pointless walks around the city without destination or map, stopping when the mood struck me to lounge in a park or by a canal, or drink espresso in one of the many (many) still-social & usually charming cafes, in which people still read newspapers & books & talk to each other, with nary a laptop in sight.

But history got in my way.

Like the layers of the pride & joy of Viennese culinary treats, apfelstrudel (apple strudel), memory feels like it’s layered onto the architecture of this city: feudalism, anti-Semitism, fascism, Nazism, Communism, xenophobia. The built & sculpted urbanscape holds bohemian movements on its walls too, yet somehow domination & death seem to be triumphant, time & again, including in how they stamp themselves onto the fabric of the streets, buildings & parks of metropolises. (Here’s wishing that the big-city revolts of late will win, among other things, the victory of making indelible marks on their civic spaces, so as to shape how we see & remember ourselves & what we care about.)

Maybe I’m just not a good tourist. Instead of castles, cathedrals & culture, I see this:

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Random plaques on the sidewalk or sides of apartments, scattered in the many places of Vienna where Jews were taken away, without resistance by their neighbors, during the time of the National Socialism, reading, in this case: “To commemorate the 39 Jewish men and women and a girl who were crammed into a collection flat in this house before they were deported by the Nazis. Only one woman survived.” Memory is, or should be, a constant reminder of what we’re not seeing or doing today.

Or I see this:

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Five rainy-gray hours of walking, with hardly a person in sight, through one of the most picturesque, moving, and schizophrenic cemeteries I’ve ever visited, the enormous Zentralfriedhof on the outskirts of Vienna, only makes me want to return here and to Europe soon. There’s something about a place where thousands of victims and resistance fighters of National Socialism along with thousands of broken & overgrown (& thus nameless, forgotten) Jewish tombstones and the graves of avant-garde writers & artists lie side by side with fallen Bolshevik soldiers (praised by Stalin on the massive red-star & hammer-&-sickle monument) and masses of people killed in WWI trenches or from the bombings in WWII, Nazi collaborators and outright Nazis, and anti-Semitic politicians that brings the stakes of struggles today into sharp relief. This fist, from a monument to victims of the fascism of 1938-1945, captures the mix of anger, resolve, frustration, and tears such a place — such history, and such ongoing rebellions against all varieties of domination now — elicit.

I’m definitely not good at doing nothing — or taking a break from weight & responsibility.

* * *

If you’ve run across this blog post as a reposting somewhere, you can find other blog-musings and more polished essays at Outside the Circle, cbmilstein.wordpress.com. Share, enjoy, and repost — as long as it’s free as in “free beer” and “freedom.”

(Photos by Cindy Milstein: “Steine der Erinnerung” project, Leopoldstadt, Vienna, June 2013; monument seen through the mists of time at Zentralfriedhof Wien, June 2013.)

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This entry was posted on June 26, 2013 by in Dispatches from Life.
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