Schang Hutter’s sculpture outside the National Museum in Zurich.
Schang Hutter’s sculpture outside the National Museum in Zurich. Swiss National Museum

A memorial’s long journey

Schang Hutter, who died in 2021, created a memorial to the Holocaust in 1996. Two years later, his sculpture Shoah stopped many people in their tracks on its journey around Switzerland, but the piece also came in for harsh criticism.

Fabienne Meyer

Fabienne Meyer

Fabienne Meyer is a historian, and is carrying out research at the University of Fribourg as part of an SNSF project on the Swiss victims of National Socialism.

There are monuments commemorating the Holocaust at around 60 locations in Switzerland. Commemorative plaques give details of Switzerland’s restrictive refugee policy during World War II, street names remember the courageous agents who helped escapees cross the borders, and sculptures commemorate the six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust. In Jewish cemeteries and at synagogues, at border crossings and on former homes or hiding places, memorials tell stories and give substance to faces and names. They are markers that one happens across by accident. Anti-monuments, they represent no heroic glorification or symbol of triumph. They are memorials that unobtrusively and soundlessly scream, in all kinds of shapes and colours, the urgent plea “Never again!”
Deportation of Jews in Marseille, 1943.
Deportation of Jews in Marseille, 1943. Wikimedia
In the 1990s, one of these monuments created a public and media furore: the sculpture Shoah created by Schang Hutter (1934-2021). In 1998, to mark the 200th anniversary of the Helvetic Republic and the 150th anniversary of the Confederation, a sculpture trail leading from Grauholz to the Bundeshaus was created in Bern, under the slogan “Frei sein – gleich sein – offen sein” (To be free – to be equal – to be open). Renowned sculptor Schang Hutter was assigned the Bundesplatz for his sculpture Shoah. Measuring 1.56 metres on each side, the dimensions of the rusting steel cube refer to the width of railway tracks, and thus to the deportation trains that carried victims to the concentration camps and extermination camps of the Holocaust. In the top of the cube, an opening has been let into the metal; in this slot lies a thin, stylised human figure. A figure that features in many of Hutter’s sculptures: vulnerable, insubstantial, fragmented and fearful. “My block is an inhuman counterbalance to the confinement of the person”, said Hutter of his sculpture.
Schang Hutter with his Shoah sculpture in Basel in 1998.
Schang Hutter with his Shoah sculpture in Basel in 1998. Dukas / RDB
Hutter saw himself as a political artist, his art as political engagement. The time he spent studying in post-war Munich had a significant influence on him. He met war invalids, and heard about the injuries to body and mind that the war had left behind. It was the slender, minimalist figures of Alberto Giacometti that showed him, after a creative hiatus, that it was still possible to express himself through modelling and sculpture, despite the war. What he experienced in Munich, how people deal with people, became his subject matter as a sculptor: the attempt to portray what people feel when they are despised, tormented or murdered. Trying to give space to vulnerability.
Alberto Giacometti in Venice in 1962.
Alberto Giacometti in Venice in 1962. Wikimedia
Instead of installing his sculpture Shoah in the space assigned to him in front of the side entrance of the Federal Palace, the artist placed it directly in front of the main entrance of the government building. Hutter himself said that he wanted to have the piece “where the political decisions were made during World War II, where it was decided that some people would not be allowed into Switzerland at all.” Although the president of the National Council, Ernst Leuenberger, decided that the sculpture could remain where it was throughout the March session, just three days later, in the pre-dawn darkness, Shoah was loaded on to a crane truck by members of what was then the Freiheits-Partei (Freedom Party), slapped with a “Refusé” sticker and deposited outside the artist’s studio in Derendingen.
TV report about Schang Hutter’s Shoah sculpture in front of the Bundeshaus (in German). SRF
A few days later, the sculpture was sent on another journey: to Zurich, where it was placed on the Paradeplatz – with the official blessing of Zurich’s Mayor, Josef Estermann, who was hoping to start a critical discussion of Switzerland’s role during World War II. Given the discussions about dormant assets, Hutter believed the Paradeplatz, as representative of Switzerland as a business location, was also a fitting place for his sculpture. Two months later, Shoah continued its tour of Switzerland, visiting Basel, Aarau, Solothurn and Glarus.
The placement of the Shoah sculpture on the centre line of the Federal Palace, and its subsequent journey, was a political action that didn’t fail to make an impact, as shown by numerous comments and articles in the daily newspapers of the time: while some hoped for a critical debate, others were scandalised by the sight of the rusty “heap of scrap” on Zurich’s finest square. Exponents of the Freiheits-Partei sought to reframe the sculpture as a memorial against socialism, and for passersby the metal block served as a catalyst for discussion of politics in general and Zurich in particular, debates about unemployment, the “idiots in Bern” or the range of pralines on offer in Sprüngli. The sculpture sparked discussions about “the hubris and arrogance of politics and of art as a political instrument” and the presumptuousness of creating a memorial on behalf of the Jews. “The corpse of the concentration camp dead is an all too simplistic pointer in a sentimental and populist direction”, some people thought, while others covered the cube with flowers. And again and again, the opinion was expressed that the right place for the sculpture was neither in Bern nor in Zurich, “but in Bonn outside the German Bundestag” or in Berlin or Vienna, because “in Switzerland there were no crimes against humanity and no war crimes”.
Arrival of the Shoah sculpture at the National Museum in Zurich.
Arrival of the Shoah sculpture at the National Museum in Zurich. Swiss National Museum
Schang Hutter’s sculpture Shoah became a much-discussed monument and memorial. The provocative (re)positioning and the many changes of location constantly led to new controversies and friction. In 2004 the mayor of Zurich, Elmar Ledergerber, presented Schang Hutter with Zurich City Council’s medal of appreciation for outstanding achievements because, amongst other things, he had “literally taken the debate about Switzerland’s role in World War II to the streets”. Until recently nothing has been heard about the sculpture, which has stood unassumingly in front of the high school (Kantonsschule) in Solothurn. With the new Anne Frank exhibition about to be opened, however, the cube has now found its way back to Zurich and is temporarily in position outside the National Museum – having experienced an exhilarating journey through Switzerland, and through the minds and emotions of those who saw it, almost a quarter of a century ago.

Anne Frank and Switzerland

09.06.2022 06.11.2022 / National Museum Zurich
The diary of Anne Frank is world famous. It’s less well known that the journey to global publication began in Switzerland. While Anne, her sister and her mother were killed in the concentration camp, Anne’s father was the only family member to survive the Holocaust. Otto Frank moved to live with his sister in Basel in the 1950s. From there, he made it his task to share his daughter’s diary with the world whilst preserving her message on humanity and tolerance for the coming generations.

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