BY JEFFREY GLASSMAN
Unknowing, Vienna Tri-Missions employees drove by it every day on the Wahringer Gurtel, high up behind a 40-foot stone wall. It was on the regular route between the embassy and the Mission to the OSCE, where I worked. When I first arrived in Vienna in August 2004, I struggled to make sense of the maze of streets. My initial goal was simple: to drive from the mission to the embassy without becoming one with the ubiquitous Vienna streetcars.
To that end, I intensely studied the Freytag & Berndt Buchplan Wien, an excellent map of the city known in our family as “the orange map.” On the lower third of page 20, in painfully tiny print, it showed the location of Israelit Friedhof (Jewish cemetery).
As an American Jew working in Vienna, I was intrigued. I was aware of the schizophrenic attitude the Viennese have toward their Jews. Some of the highest points of Jewish life and accomplishment occurred in Vienna. The names are familiar: Theodor Herzl, Sigmund Freud, Felix Mendelssohn, Gustav Mahler, Arthur Schnitzler, Arnold Schoenberg. The low points are also well known.
After the Anschluss, when Hitler appeared on the balcony of the Hofburg Palace on March 15, 1938, thousands of Viennese cheered the Fuhrer. Before the war, Vienna had been home to almost 200,000 Jews. Many of them fled; 65,000 lost their lives as part of Hitler’s Final Solution. The current Jewish population of Vienna is under 10,000.
The Israelit Friedhof, also known as the Wahringer Cemetery, was the chief place of Jewish burial from 1784 to 1879. After 1880, Jews were buried in a section of Vienna’s Central Cemetery, where Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms are also buried.
As I became aware of the cemetery, I wanted to see it. My family attended the Stadttempel, the only synagogue in the city that survived the Nazis (only because they feared burning it to the ground would endanger other parts of central Vienna). When I asked at the Stadttempel if I could go to the cemetery, I was told that nobody goes there. It’s been closed since the war. Naturally, that made me even more eager to go.
In the winter of 2007, the Stadttempel announced that there would be a one-time tour of Wahringer Cemetery. The tour would be led by historian Tina Walzer, who has made its study her life’s passion. “Great,” I thought. But almost immediately, I was told I couldn’t go: The cemetery was so overgrown that my wheelchair would not be able to traverse its narrow, rutted paths. I was undeterred.
On the day of the tour, my wife and I showed up at the cemetery at the appointed time. It was a typical winter day in Vienna: raw cold and overcast, with the clouds seemingly inches above our heads. I had been warned about the condition of the cemetery, but after all that time, I was determined to try. If it was impossible, at least I had made the effort.
When I passed through the ancient wooden gates, I sensed I had entered a place sacred yet wild. The silence was unexpected. The great city of Vienna was only meters away, but one heard neither the squeal of trams nor the convivial gemütlichkeit sounds of the cafes. Trees were bent at crazy angles and underbrush was everywhere. It looked as if no humans had been there for many, many years. And, in fact, no one had. Other than Tina Walzer, almost nobody had set foot there for a long time.
When I passed through the ancient wooden gates, I sensed I had entered a place sacred yet wild. The silence was unexpected.
Eventually, among the vegetation and the gray murk of the day, gravestones became visible. Many of the memorials were overturned and overgrown, covered with weeds and vines. I found that most dirt paths were passable—but barely. They were narrow and rutted. But for the most part, the wheelchair was able to move forward. I thought that maybe a higher power wanted me to be there.
Buried there were some of the great Jewish families of Vienna: financiers, industrialists, railroad magnates and cultural figures. Families that had literally built the modern city of Vienna, and made it the center of art, science and music in the world. To us, the names are unfamiliar, but at the time they were the elite: Konigswarter, Wertheimer, Epstein, Arnstein-Eskeles, Ephrussi. In the city, they built palaces for life; in the friedhof, they built grand monuments to their passing.
In Jewish tradition, cemeteries are meant to stand forever, where the soul revisits the body from time to time. But during World War II and since, those memorials have been looted and defaced, their coffins and bodies long gone. At its height, Wahringer had more than 9,000 graves. It housed in death not only the Viennese elite but regular people with modest gravestones of sandstone (soft as they are, those gravestones suffer the most from the elements).
Starting in 1939, the Vienna Natural History Museum had a contract to study the “degeneration” of the Jews in both the moral and spiritual realms, as well as physically. So they needed bodies—and found them in Wahringer. They took the bodies to the museum (a tourist mustsee) and subjected them to untold indignities. Some of these bones have never been recovered.
During the war, the cemetery was significantly damaged and was reduced in size. In 1941, fear of bombing led the Nazis to take over a portion of the cemetery to create water ponds as a defense against fire. Fifteen hundred graves were lost, the bodies reburied in a mass grave at the Central Cemetery.
Under the Washington Agreement of 2001, the government of Austria pledged to make a significant contribution to the “restoration and preservation” of Jewish cemeteries in the country. Germany signed a similar agreement in the 1950s. Germany does an excellent job; but Austria remains—as with many aspects of the Nazi-era experience—conflicted.
Meanwhile, the Israelit Friedhof is much as I left it. The Jewish community is supposed to look after it. But in its much reduced state, the community does not have the resources to do so. The cemetery, a ghostly reminder of a long-ago war and the pathology of the Nazis, remains a window into the past.