University of Alberta institute a global community builder

The Wirth Institute for Austrian and Central European Studies celebrates two decades of cultural and academic outreach

Donna McKinnon - 28 August 2018

It was a confluence of factors that led to the establishment of the Wirth Institute for Austrian and Central European Studies, or as it was known in 1998, the Canadian Centre for Austrian and Central European Studies, saysJoseph Patrouch, who has served as Director of the Wirth Institute since 2011.

In the mid-90s, the Austrian ambassador to Canada, Walther G. Lichem, with assistance from Manfred Prokop, UAlberta German language professor [emeritus], were looking to create a centre to house and build on a collection of Austrian and Austro-Canadian materials, including hundreds of recently conducted interviews with immigrants, and descendants of immigrants from Central Europe. Lichem invited competitive bids from 12 leading institutions across Canada. The University of Alberta made a compelling case, with its strength in central European studies, its ethnicity (at the time, approximately 25% of Albertans claimed some Central European heritage), and in particular, its library and map collections, considered to be one of the finest in North America.

The depth of the Central European library collection can be attributed to UAlberta historian Helen Liebel-Weckowicz, who helped to arrange the purchase of several large collections of books from the University of Vienna. A subset of those books are from the Archbishop of Salzburg's seminary library, some 3,500 volumes in total. There is also the entire legal reading club library of Vienna, which dates back to the 19th century. Franz Szabo, professor emeritus in the Department of History and Classics and founding Director of the Institute, studied under Liebel-Weckowicz, and helped to mastermind the acquisition of these collections.

"Given these conditions, and that the University of Alberta was willing to put some money and positions on the table, we piled up a lot of points in the competition," says Patrouch.

On March 3, 1998, a Memorandum of Understanding between the Government of Austria and the University of Alberta was signed by then Dean of Arts, Patricia Clements, and Ambassador Lichem. As Lichem noted, however, an Austrian centre by itself-as it functions in other countries-did not make sense in multicultural Canada, so with the support of the Governments of Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia, the more broadly focused Canadian Centre for Austrian and Central European Studies was formally opened in September of that year. In October 2003, the Centre was renamed the Wirth Institute for Austrian and Central European Studies in recognition of Manfred Wirth and his son, Alfred Wirth's generous donation. This donation secured the future of the institute with an endowment of 10 million dollars-at the time the single largest donation to an Arts Faculty in Western Canada.

While much of the programming is made possible by Wirth's endowment, individual contributions by the local immigrant community are equally significant, funding 50% of the scholarships, and roughly four out of five fellowships. Patrouch emphasizes that many of the names associated with the founding of the Wirth Institute are "immigrant kids".

The 2018 Wirth Institute Strauss Ball

"We're talking about people who got their hands dirty in Canada," says Sylwia Chrobak, Executive Manager. "Manfred Wirth made his money in steel, and later that money was donated to the University of Alberta. We see a lot of what we would traditionally call blue-collar made money come into post secondary institutions to support research, to support higher learning, and I think that's very unique to this part of the world, to Central Europe. The appreciation-they've made their money and want to contribute to society."

A collaborative enterprise

Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, the Wirth Institute is an advocate for, and an example of, multicultural and interdisciplinary collaboration. Over two decades, the Institute, including its partners within the Faculty of Arts, the broader University of Alberta community, and its network of international scholars have collaborated on numerous academic papers, publications, musical performances, CDs, and many other creative ventures. The recent Salt, Sword and Crozier: Books and Coins from the Prince-Bishopric of Salzburg exhibit at UAlberta's Bruce Peel Special Collection Library is among them.

Their bi-annual conferences, held across Canada and Central Europe, draw presenters and participants from around the world, and each month, the Wirth Institute reaches out to the local community via the popular Central European Cafes. The pride of the institution, however, is the network of young scholars who have benefitted from Wirth Institute scholarships. This includes the Johann Strauss Foundation Music Awards for Advanced Study of Music in Austria, which sends five students to Vienna to study music each year, and in particular, the Doctoral Research Fellowships, which sees students from Central Europe come to the University of Alberta to complete their dissertations.

"When our doctoral fellows come here, they are astounded by the fact that they have access to more resources here to do their work, often times, than they would be able to have in Europe," says Chrobak. "We are a perfect blend of cultural outreach and academic research."

Upon graduation, these doctoral fellows, some 65 in total, become part of the Wirth Alumni Network. They act as cultural ambassadors, bringing Canadian and Central European knowledges to the global community. According to Patrouch, these young scholars are having a major impact on the academic landscape of Europe. "They are an investment in the future."

Anniversary celebrations

The Wirth Institute's upcoming conference, The Imaginary Indian: The Images, Stereotypes and Perceptions of North American Indigenous Populations in Central Europe, will run alongside the annual Austrian Centres meeting and the fifth international meeting of the Wirth Alumni Network. Typically, these activities are held in a Central European location (in one of the member countries), but for the 20th anniversary, Patrouch wanted to bring everyone to the University of Alberta, to "get people to come here and see what we have." Invited guests include Austrian Ambassador Stefan Pehringer, [former] Ambassador Walther Lichem; post-secondary officials from the Czech Republic, Hungary, Croatia and Austria, and Alfred Wirth.

The theme of the conference, the Imaginary Indian, invites critical discourse on Central European attitudes towards Indigenous (often stereotypical) images and interactions, in relation to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action.

"For North American audiences, people are not aware of how much these images function in popular Central European popular culture," says Chrobak. "We will have discussions about reconciliation, and what it means for Canadians here, but also how it reverberates across the globe."

Other anniversary activities include a free public concert on September 1 featuring performances from musicians who have recorded CD's with the Wirth Institute over the years, such as Magdalena Adamek, Jacques Després, Zuzana Simurdova, Guillaume Tardif and Mikolaj Warszynski, as well as several exhibitions, most notably a display of photographs from Eugen Kedl, an Austrian immigrant to Canada who travelled to the north and took photos of Inuit and other Northern peoples.

"We always try to pick themes, much like this one, that resonate across all of the different countries that our scholars can speak to, but then one that can also engage speakers from outside to expand that network's reach," says Patrouch.

With the resurgence of nationalist narratives and phobias around the globe, the Wirth Institute's unique form of cultural diplomacy "walks a weird line between remembering the continuities and recognizing the differences" of Central European history, says Patrouch.

Chrobak agrees. "We've had many discussions ahead of the 2018 conference, because for some of our member countries, it marks one hundred years of nationhood. There is nationalism that is about pride and heritage, but then there is the nationalism that is militant and divisive and xenophobic. So we're going to celebrate in a way that is honest and nuanced, that doesn't play into the nationalist narratives, but at the same time honours a moment in history that is significant for a nation."

Through 20 years of creative and scholarly activities, the Wirth Institute continues to act as a kind of bulwark to divisiveness-a seeker of connection, fellowship, celebration, and new ways of bringing people and ideas together. But even in its role as a global community builder, the Wirth Institute is, at its heart, a very Canadian enterprise, built by immigrants to this country, in service those who visit, and those who came to stay.

Related: The Wirth Institute opens theRudolf Vrba Holocaust Reading Room