Austria opens "painful" exhibit on Nazi annexation

VIENNA Mon Mar 10, 2008 12:13pm EDT

1 of 4. Austrian artist Alfred Hrdlicka (R) and State Opera Director Joan Holender look at the artwork 'Der Schreibtischtaeter' (the writing table perpetrator) by Hrdlicka, during the opening of an exhibition to commemorate the occasion of the 70th anniversary of Austria's Anschluss (absorption) by Nazi Germany in Vienna March 10, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Leonhard Foeger

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VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria opened an exhibition on Monday showing how Jewish employees of the State Opera were purged under Nazi rule as the nation began solemn commemorations of its annexation by Hitler's Germany 70 years ago.

Vienna's opera house is one focus of post-World War Two Austria's feelings of guilt about the way it quickly accepted the Nazi takeover and, after the war ended, reinstated few of those persecuted during the Third Reich.

The exhibition at the ornate State Opera House, then as now an important part of Viennese life, details the fate of 92 members of the company -- many of them Jewish -- who were excluded, persecuted or murdered after the "Anschluss".

"The Opera is one of the institutions ready to face up to its past even if it was painful at times," Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer said in opening the exhibition. "Such institutions in Austria in 2008 are sadly still the exception."

The display, which includes newly discovered documents, shows in grim detail how administrators broke off links with artists, often Jews, who were deemed unacceptable by the Nazis.

Scenes of German troops being greeted like saviors when they marched in on March 12, 1938 still haunt many Austrians.

Austrians long tended to portray themselves as victims of Nazism. But recognition of complicity in Nazism, and gestures to atone, grew after it emerged in the 1980s that then-President Kurt Waldheim hid his past in Hitler's wartime officer corps.

Austria had some 200,000 Jews at the time of the Anschluss. Many fled but about a third perished during the war. The country has around 10,000 Jews today.

INTROSPECTION

The anniversary has sparked a wave of reflection, with special programs on television in Austria and Germany and an appeal by the Catholic Church to learn the lessons of the past.

Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, the archbishop of Vienna, launched a booklet of documents about the period titled "Remember the days of old, consider the ages past," a phrase from the Bible's Old Testament.

On Tuesday Vienna's Jews will reopen the Hakoah sport club complex 70 years after it was seized by the Nazis.

It took decades to acquire property to re-establish Hakoah near the original site. The Jewish sports club provided a number of Austrian athletes for Olympic games before the Nazi takeover.

A candle-lit vigil will be held on Wednesday, the Anschluss anniversary, at the city's Heldenplatz (Heroes' Square), where Austrians massed to cheer Hitler days after the annexation.

And the two houses of parliament will hold a special joint session on Wednesday morning to mark the anniversary.

When the opera house reopened in 1955 with Beethoven's "Fidelio", the great German Jewish conductor Bruno Walter, who had been a leading figure there before the war, was in the audience. He never directed opera there again.

"Shamefully, the acquiescence of the Opera was not found disturbing by many outside the house," Gusenbauer said.

One historian has estimated that one third of Austrians actively supported the annexation, a third acquiesced in it, and one third opposed it.

Opera House director Ioan Holender, of Romanian Jewish origin, said in the program for the exhibition: "We do this today ... to remind ourselves of our history, to show our respect for the victims and the dispossessed."

(Editing by Keith Weir)

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