Remnants of a War Long Past
MUCH remains of war in Vienna. Last Dec. 7, at rush hour, traffic in and out of town via the Reichs-Bridge came to a standstill. A barge on the Danube had dredged up a fragmentation bomb lying dormant on the riverbed ever since the late days of World War II - the jolt activated its timing mechanism. Three frenzied hours passed while a police boat towed the bomb downstream, mounted explosives onto it, and blew it up. The event reminded many of us who live here that wars don't come and go according to the dates given them in history books. The traces of them linger on for years - they become impregnated into the character of a city.
You see it in simple things that are easy to overlook. Like the disproportionately large number of elderly women who pass by on the street (although this is now beginning to change, slowly).
You notice it in the Viennese mentality; attitudes toward saving, and, in particular, education. (``It's the only thing you can take with you if you have to leave.'')
And in architecture - above all in architecture. Twenty-one thousand buildings were demolished or damaged in Vienna between March 1944 and April 1945. The State Opera, for instance, which was left with neither roof nor interior and only some of its outer walls intact, has been restored to look much the same on the outside - but its new auditorium, though elegant, is sterile and plain in comparison to the elaborate old one.
Other unrenovated facades are more blatantly revealing. They still bear the scars of shrapnel spray. Some show - as clearly as a map - exactly where the bombs fell. In my own apartment, there is a lighter section in the wood flooring about 5 feet square that tells the story.
On nearby streets there are also unrenovated buildings with large painted symbols above the cellar doorways and windows: ``LSK'' (stands for Luftschutzkeller, or air-raid shelter), ``NA'' (Notausgang, or emergency exit). Arrows point to the hiding places - in case those inside should need to be dug out afterward.
But nowhere is the continued presence of the war more obvious - or eerie - than in the antiaircraft towers. There are four sites around town, in parks in the second, third, sixth, and seventh districts. (Vienna's districts form a ring around the inner city). The 10-odd-story companion structures built in 1943 and '44 were designed by Friedrich Tamms both for use as civil air-raid shelters and as antiaircraft artillery platforms. Each pair was meant to give shelter to 30,000 people, and was complete with elevators, electric generators, drinking water supply, air filters, and so on. There were even plans to dress the towers in marble after the war, as ominous Fascist monuments.
But today they stand mostly unchanged from nearly 50 years ago. They are - with walls up to five meters thick of steel reinforced concrete - all but indestructible. They withstood several attempted demolition projects shortly following the war. They are here to stay ... 20th-century dungeons.
What's more, they are, for better or worse, a part of the city's aspect ... no different in that regard from any of the Baroque palaces downtown, or the Beaux Arts buildings along the ``Ring.'' Only one of the structures is in public use; it has been transformed into a ``House of the Sea'' - an aquarium, albeit an altogether somber one. And there are every now and again new plans for some of the other towers (the intent being to try to reclaim the space for the city). The artist Christo proposed a plan for wrapping them in cloth (like the Pont Neuf in Paris). Inge Asenbaum, who formerly had a gallery for contemporary crafts on the Graben, near St. Stephen's Cathedral, is currently working on a project together with Elisabeth Schmuttermeier of the Austrian Museum for Applied Art to transform one of them into a museum for modern jewelry - letting the architecture speak by advertising itself as an enormous strongbox.
ULTIMATELY, no discussion about the architectural remnants of war in Vienna would be complete without mention of the fact that some of the most telling remnants are invisible; that is to say, they no longer exist. They are the hundreds of apartment buildings, churches and synagogues, and palaces, that were never rebuilt after the war's end. In their place others sprung up, built, often cheaply and haphazardly, in the haste and economic insecurity of the postwar years. To see the old compared side by side with the new, as in Edgard Haider's book ``Verlorenes Wien'' (``Lost Vienna''), is to understand another facet of the loss, of the waste.
Some things that remind us of the war loudly demand our attention, like the noon siren that howls at the city market (it was also used after air raids as the ``all clear'' signal). Others, like the traces we see through and through Vienna's architecture, are quieter, reminding us of the other side of war; how insistently silent it can be.
MARIA CZEDIK was in her mid-teens when World War II began, and she stayed in Vienna for most of it. She recently recalled some impressions of the air raids she experienced:
``Oddly enough, the air raids always seemed to come in the morning. We would hear on the radio a half an hour beforehand that a formation was on its way from Carinthia/Styria. I was a student at the Technical University, and during the air raids we simply transferred class from the auditorium to the shelter. If we happened to be having an oral examination, it would continue once we were there. Strange - no one ever dared to say, `I'm too nervous to concentrate.' No one ever did.
``The raids usually lasted about an hour. The sound was ... constant ... like someone unloading coal onto a tin roof.
``The worst part was going back home afterward. There were no streetcars, so you went by foot, and the suspense of wondering, `Will the house still be there?' was unbearable. Awful.
``My mother always cooked like crazy until the very last minute, because she knew that there'd be no gas after the raid was over.
``A little later on in 1944 we students had what was called air-raid duty - we had to be at the university 24 hours a day, and all through the night we had rotating shifts. `Lights out' was supposed to be at 9 o'clock. Well, that didn't suit us students very well - we usually stayed up until midnight playing poker.
``Most of us who lived through that time had the feeling that we were dancing on the edge of a volcano: The future did not exist for us. We knew that if the Nazis won the war it wasn't going to be good for us ... on the other hand, the prospects of defeat didn't sound so rosy either....''