In April of 2008, I returned for another visit to St. Anna/Aigen. I was greeted, awakened by newer memories. While we were digging the trenches in 1945, during hard work, there was no time for socializing talk. But I was told by comrades to watch out not to get into trouble and to not commit any infraction. They warned me that the punishment for any minor infraction would be very severe. And it was described: I would be punished, let’s say, by receiving 20 lashes. I would be tied to a tree and a volunteer from the Ukrainian group would mete out the 20 lashes. Another Ukrainian would do the counting. At the eighteenth or nineteenth lash there would be a very vocal disagreement about the actual count. One would say that it was only sixteen; another would say it was only seventeen lashes. Eventually a settlement would be reached by starting from zero and promising to count better the second time around! Imagine a punishment of 50 or 60 or even more lashes. The practice was to have the punishment meted out in public. It added more drama to the spectacle. The victim was tied to a linden-tree at the Church Plaza, opposite to the War Memorial Monument. Tied to the tree without any cushioning cloth, bare or barely wearing anything. The lashes had to be applied to the skin. In 1944-45 the linden tree was about 40 years old with ample girth. That created even more suffering for the victim. Isaac Newton’s Third Law of physics says: Any force exerted to a non-moving body, will have a reaction force in equal value but in opposite direction. It means that a blow of force on the victim’s backside immediately created an opposite force on the victim’s front side. Since the victim’s body was propelled forward, his body received the opposite blow from the linden tree. And the not so smooth tree barks were instrumental to enhance the pain. Also any involuntary jerking motion of the body inflicted more and more pain. The crying out and the grimaces on the face of the victim added to the circus-like atmosphere for some of the spectators.
Let's step back for a minute. A victim tied to the linden-tree to be punished. Imagine the terror in the victim’s mind. Bare or barely wearing anything before public eyes is terrifying enough – If you go to a doctor’s office you are intimidated just from the thought of getting undressed. Here, the victim’s clothing is stripped off leaving him standing there without any protection around the body while hugging the tree. There is no way to move away from the oncoming danger, nowhere to hide for protection. The terror sinks in: what blows will my body have to endure and how would it endure? Only the blow of the lash will be strong enough to break that terror. No matter how strong the blow of the lash will be, only that blow will break the terror in the victim’s mind by registering a momentary survival. And the cycle will start immediately.
About sixty-years later, lightening struck that very same linden tree and the tree was dying. There was nothing left but to cut down the tree. An artist, a sculptress, Roswitha Dautermann created a beautiful statue out of the tree. A singular Christ-like figure, 6 meters tall and with arms stretched to 4 meters wide. From waist down the statue represents a traditional rendering of the Crucifix. The feet of Jesus are nailed to the upright member of the cross. From the waist up, the figure represents the body of Christ and the cross as in one piece, as if the cross is melted into the upper body of Christ. In my interpretation, Ms. Dautermann is conveying that Jesus – a Jew – was suffering while crucified to the cross. In 1944-45 the linden tree bore many bound, suffering Jews. The tree felt the blows that those tortured Jews received. The linden tree soaked up their spilled blood. The tree did not want to be a cross again and the tree melted into Jesus’ body. With the out stretched arms and the almost defiant face, the tree is declaring: I’ve had enough suffering, let be peace with content.
The unveiling ceremony for Ms. Dautermann’s sculpture was held right after the conclusion of the Sunday service in the Church where the topic of the sermon delivered by Father Mario Debski was Maria Lackner’s role in my survival.
I was present at the unveiling ceremony.
After the unveiling of the Christ statue, the following Friday afternoon, a musical combo entertained the residents of the local nursing home. The members of the combo were three leading ladies from the community and me:
• Elisabeth Weinhandl, the wife of the mayor, voice and guitar.
• Gabi Wahlhütter, retired teacher, wife of a previous school principal, voice.
• Maria Trippl, teacher, the wife of the school principal, voice and guitar.
• Sandor Vandor, voice.
We were singing popular German songs.
I was singing a song of another Linden Tree, The song titled “Der Lindenbaum”, which is tied to the fame of the Austrian composer Franz Schubert. Elisabeth Weinhandl accompanied me on her guitar. For me this became another venue to say THANK YOU for the elderly, by singing a warm melody.
In November of 2007, a group of 14 Austrian Catholic Bishops were visiting Israel as guests of the Israeli Government. The Bishop, Dr. Franz Lackner, was one of them. The feeling of the awe in visiting Yad Vashem planted a seed in Bishop Lackner’s mind. The bishop’s portfolio contains Catholic Youth Development. He was already thinking of a theme for the ”72hour” project (72 Stunden ohne Kompromiss) that his youths from the Graz-Seckau region would participate in the fall of 2008. From Jerusalem, he phoned cousin Mary, Maria Lackner’s daughter to invite me to participate in his project. I signed on immediately without knowing much about the upcoming project. Later, we discussed the project in person. That personal meeting took place within a Sunday family lunch. Shortly after the unveiling ceremony of the new St. Anna Christ Statue, members of the Lackner family, Mayor Weinhandl’s family and I were present at the family lunch. The project was revealed: build a memorial monument for the slain Hungarian Jewish forced laborers, in the killing ground, in the Hölle, within the context of the 72hour project and with youth participation. After discussing the project, I definitely confirmed my participation.
The artist, sculptress, Roswitha Dautermann joined our discussion for creating the Memorial Monument.
In the afternoon we all went to see the site. We visited the Höllgraben and the Schuffergraben. At the Schuffergraben, Maria Lackner, with a youngish brisk walk and exhibiting familiarity with the area, pointed to the exact location where the wooden barracks that was my home for a few days once stood. And that confirmed that my memory was correct.
Maria Lackner reported in her eyewitness testimony that the Nazi commander withheld requisitioned food from the Jews. And the already spoiled food was thrown to the trash heap. Cäzilia told me that the spoiled food included moldy bread. Two oxen- pulled carriages full of spoiled bread. Now I know where the molded bread came from.
In the Hölle there was one building were the Prassl family lived. That building was completely isolated. There were no connecting roads built to make easy passage to the building from any of the roads passing near by. The family, parents with four children lived there, tended their household and their animals. Regularly, they walked back to their home by passing the granite barracks. The granite barracks were the homes for Jewish forced laborers. The German soldiers knew about the family and they let the family live in peace. That created the situation were a local family lived practically amongst the compound of slave laborers. They must have had intimate knowledge about the condition of the slave inmates and their movement schedules. The very sick laborers from St. Anna were moved to the wooden barracks to live out their last hours or days before dying or killing them. I was among them. Without guards, without any personnel caring or watching us, which was in full view of the Prassl family. They were very generous, helping people. Could it have been that the mystery person who stoked and kept the fire burning in the stove in my room, could have been the mystery person who left the moldy bread, loaded with penicillin, in my room came from the Prassl family? The answer is: I don’t know. The circumstances are pointing in that direction. On the day of liberation, when I started to walk towards Hungary, towards home, did I ask for direction from the Prassl children? Again: I don’t know. I am in doubt that I will ever know the answer.
Roswitha Dautermann, the Austrian artist and sculptress who created the St. Anna Christ Statue, came up with the ingenious design for the Memorial Monument. Twenty-two young people (ages 15 to 20) participating in the 72hour project of 2008 built the Memorial Monument. I put the corner brick in place.
Let me describe the Monument:
The freestanding four brick columns are suggesting the four corners of a majestic building in ruin. Once upon a time that building was the depository of The Bill Of Rights. The Nazis discarded the Bill of Rights and they left the building in ruin. The depository was rebuilt, and in the construction, brand new bricks were used. But randomly interspersed among the new bricks one can observe odd, old, used bricks. You can easily recall that in the Schuffergraben the wooden barracks, where I was staying in the last 8 or 9 days before liberation was burned down and the brick building was blasted away in the afternoon of April 5th. Ever since, bricks from that building are still on the field. Mayor Josef Weinhandl single handedly collected bricks and brick pieces from the field and those were built in, randomly dispersed into the four towers. A new, reborn Bill Of Rights, in four tablets, each in a different language – German, English, Hebrew and Hungarian – was placed in the ruins of the “old housing.” The setting has a large tree with a big enough canopy to protect the new Bill of Rights. The big canopy resembles the canopy of trees protecting “A Blade of Grass.
The young people erecting the monument were fulfilling the artist’s vision to build the monument with new bricks to show that the new generations are upholding the principals of the new Bill of Rights. By randomly putting old bricks, from a dynamited barracks within the structure, the artist is saying that members of the older generations, who were living in a misguided society, are also welcomed members of this new society because they are also upholding the new Bill of Rights.
Roswitha Dautermann, the artist, created the symbolic space for the depository of the new bill of rights. She created a room, a space that has symbolic volume. The length, width and height of the inner space defined by the 4 corners are two and a half cubic meters. If you recall the sketch in the MIDDLE SCHOOL chapter, the area of the cross section of the trench, the Panzergraben, multiplied by the length of one meter is about 25 cubic meters. That equals the volume of space, which had to be created by excavating and moving earth by ten forced laborers daily. The daily quota for one slave laborer was two and a half cubic meters.
A mature oak tree and a newly created lamppost define the axis of the monument. An east – west road cuts through the north – south axis of the monument. The lamppost is placed just north of the road. Toward the top of the lamppost an inner space is created to house a solar powered lamp inside, glowing with flaming red, like an eternal light. All four sides of the lamp space are covered with etched panes of glass, glowing in flame red. In the darkness of the night, it seems like the glowing eternal light is suspended in the air. Glowing, but not disturbing the serene countryside. The traveler’s headlamps will make the monument visible during the night. Etched with the word peace in four languages, German, English, Hebrew, Slovenian, FRIEDE, PEACE, SHALOM, MIR. Sending the message of peace to the four corners of the world. And the name of the monument became "Mahnmal für den Frieden" -- Memorial for Peace.
The southern side of the lamppost looks over a narrow pathway designed for a single person to walk, in a place where a single person was compelled to walk the end of the road, the “final journey”, the “letzten Weg”, before the grave. The pathway is paved with rough-hewn volcanic rocks because that road wasn’t ”smoothly” paved. It is a pathway designed for a single person to walk and contemplate the horrors of the past.
In the front of the oak tree a burned and glazed ceramic cube is placed, suitable to sit on. A narrow pathway for a single person to walk through the brick columns to reach the glazed ceramic cube, where one can sit and review the monument and contemplate. The ceramic cube formed and burned similarly like a single piece of brick, a unit for a larger structure, perhaps much like a human being is part of a larger structure, the society. The ceramic cube, viewed within the entire structure of the monument, is relatively small in size, but represents a huge, significant symbol: local people whose actions demonstrated humanity amidst the barbarism. A sizable portion of the population of St. Anna and vicinity risked their own and their family’s lives, bravely, heroically bucking the Nazi trend and helping the Jews.
Two wooden benches, one on the east and one on the west side of the oak tree, are provided for the visitors’ comfort.
I sat on one bench and contemplated:
People erect Memorial Monuments – as the name “Memorial” implies – to keep the memory of victims past for future generations. This Memorial for Peace Monument was erected to memorialize the slain Hungarian Jewish Forced Laborers killed by the Nazis. This very impressive Monument eloquently expresses that thought. Every detail symbolically provides the deepest thought about the horrors those people were subjected to and the many who were brutally killed. Those people were my comrades. I survived! The local citizens helped people like me to survive. Maria Lackner was active in my survival. The ceramic cube is to commemorate the bravery of the local citizens for future generations. As a living survivor, I was able to testify that during the rein of the darkest horror of recent history, here in St Anna and vicinity, there were still good people helping the down trodden. My THANK YOU note put light on the noble mission of the local citizenry. My quest to loosen the chain and lighten the anklet the Nazis forged on my legs helped me shine the light on the heroic brave acts of the locals in 1944 – 45.
Then I contemplated a bit more:
Would the single person’s pathway, paved with rough hewn volcanic rocks, be the road to the abyss in the dark and could the ceramic cube mark the spot where Maria appeared as a Princess of light with Martha as Maiden at her right? The local citizens helped not only me but also many others to survive. The ceramic cube represents the numerous, nameless, brave souls who helped Jews to survive.
The Austrian people are speaking out. They are dealing with their history. The religious leaders like Bishop Dr. Franz Lackner and Father Mario Debski, are preaching the right moral values. The municipal leaders, like Mayor Josef Weinhandl, are leading in the right direction. The artists, Christian Gmeiner and Roswitha Dautermann are communicating the right messages. Historians, Dr. Eleonore Lappin and Franz Josef Schober collected and published facts. Elisabeth Weinhandl interviewed eyewitnesses, searched the archives and wrote the German version of the epilogue to this story, (While my grandson, Jacob Vandor, son of Ron Vandor, wrote the English version of the epilogue). Citizens of Sankt Anna am Aigen: Alois Ulrich former mayor of St. Anna, Frieda Neubauer, Maria Baumgartner, Johann Weidinger were eyewitness speakers at a remembrance service. The students and their teachers in the Josef Krainer Grenzlandschule spoke out with their exhibited easels. Young people who volunteered to work on the Memorial for Peace in the Hölle were speaking out loud and clear with their actions. And the world is listening.