With our new bicycles we can see the city fast. Orien and I cruise through Augarten, a huge gorgeous park in Vienna’s 2nd District. We peddle past couples picnicking, dogs chasing frisbees, children playing and suddenly we stumble upon a massive Nazi Gun emplacement tower positioned at the end of a long promenade.
The tower, called Flaktürme, (Flak is an acronym for Fliegerabwehrkanone, which translates to anti-aircraft gun.) looms over us ominously, a dark reminder of the un-erasable history of WWII. Its dark grey, reinforced concrete walls stand in stark contrast to the lush green grass and elaborate flower gardens of the park. It gives me chills.
In Vienna there are three pairs of towers that form a protective triangle around Stephansdom, Vienna’s prized cathedral.
The towers were built between1943 and 1944 based off of sketches by Adolph Hitler and designed by architect and city planner Friedrich Tamms. However, the Flaktürme only became operational toward the end of the war, and by this time, because aircrafts were flying much higher, they were more useful as bomb shelters for the people.
Around the towers themselves there is hardly mention of what they are. There is only a small plaque indicating who built the tower and for what purpose. You will probably not find them mentioned in any guidebooks either. People who are old enough to remember tend to want to sweep it under the rug and the younger generations seem almost oblivious to them. The towers are sort of the giant elephants in the room of Vienna.
They are incredibly well made and virtually indestructible with walls up to 11 ft thick. It is said construction of the towers used enough material to build an apartment for every citizen of Vienna. After the war, the Austrians tried to blow one of them up and it only made a small dent. They abandoned the mission and ended up having to repair it instead.
Now instead of destroying them, a few have been repurposed. One is used as storage for art, one has been turned into an aquarium or “House of the Sea” (Haus des Meeres), another is used as a telecommunications tower, and an elaborate climbing-wall has been installed on another. There are talks of them being used as other things like memorials, apartments, multi-level parking lots, cinemas, rec centers, restaurants, bars and but for now most of them sit there with no other purpose than to loom, to serve as a reminder of the violence and the dark deeds of the past.
Debris piled up over the entrance of the tower in Augarten.
The last time I was in Austria I visited Mauthausen, a forced labour camp in Linz. It is probably the deepest sadness I have ever felt in my life. To see what atrocities human have inflicted on other human beings is entirely unfathomable. All I could think, while standing inside the gas chambers with a queasy stomach, looking at the claw marks on the walls, goosebumps prickling my spine, was how could this happen? HOW!? Here is my post from that day.
After the Holocaust, the United Nations declared the term ‘genocide’ an international crime, defining it as “any of the following actions committed with intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.” And even still genocide has reared it’s ugly head in so many places like Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Tibet, Darfur, Syria,
the list goes on.
From Time: “The Yarmouk refugee camp, a Palestinian enclave in southern Damascus, has been under a grueling siege for months and its over 20,000 residents are cut off from vital supplies and endure chronic food shortages.
People must be aware of the past in order for us to prevent these kinds of atrocities from happening in the future. The young people, just entering this world, need to be taught and by remembering this tragedy and educating individuals about the ill effects of hatred and racism, we can begin to ensure that genocide is a thing of history.
I pray that people around the world can learn to recognize and respect the common humanity that we all share regardless of skin color, the country we were born and what status or creed we were born into. I pray that we can all learn to have compassion for ourselves and others.
Hearts of the World, a project I created in 2010, was started to give us a chance to look into the hearts of people around the world to see our similarities, to see where we connect at this fundamental level of humanness and also to see how our differences are also beautiful and essential to our individuality. The project asks people (with a special emphasis on children) to paint the emotions, dreams, and passions of their hearts.
Children from all over the world hold their hearts, full of stories, emotions and dreams.
We are gearing up to bring the Hearts of the World curriculum to Palestine and Israel, early next year and will be launching a crowd-funding campaign for the work this fall. If you are interested in supporting HOTW in the Middle East, please send me an email so I can let you know when we begin our fund raising. Thank you.