There are five Jewish cemeteries in Vienna. The oldest and best preserved is the Jüdische Friedhof Seegasse, dating to the 16th century. It was in use until 1784; afterwards, the Währing cemetery was used for another century or so, and was the final resting place for many of Vienna’s Important Someones. A year ago I walked past the high brick wall with barbed wiring that surrounds the cemetery near our home and inquired about access. At the time access was not granted because the cemetery was unsafe; rather recently, however, I learned about new opportunities to tour the grounds, and last weekend was one of those opportunities.
The tour was led by an historian and was rich in history. Tony and Jack had joined me and were largely lost after the introduction, but patiently moved along for two hours (!) until I could no longer keep pace with the German language, and we departed at what seemed like a polite moment.
Under the Nazis, approximately 1,500 graves were destroyed through excavation work for a fire protection pond (that was never constructed); many of those exhumed were transported to Vienna’s Central Cemetery where they were buried in a mass grave. Horridly, around 200 bodies were exhumed and deposited at the Natural History Museum for Nazi “research” into “racial studies.”
It would be an understatement to write that preservation and restoration, that which can be done, has been a lengthy and difficult endeavor. After WWII the cemetery was returned to the Jewish community, but the destroyed section for the failed pond was taken by the city and turned into public housing, the Arthur Schnitzler Hof, so named for a Jewish-Austrian author.
After the war, the Jewish community could not afford to preserve and restore the cemetery and it fell into massive, ruinous decay. Reparation agreements offered (as late as 2001) resources for the Jewish sections at the Central Cemetery, but not enough for Währing. In 2006 Vienna’s Mayor allowed for a “voluntary” contribution by the states for restoration, resulting in no action. Eventually agreements were reached for the worst damages to be cleared by the city. Long term preservation and restoration is dependent upon donations.
As we walked carefully around the limited paths amidst all of this sadness and despair, there were small signs of hope.