Die Presse, July 25, 2018
The Jewish cemetery of 18th and 19th century Biedermeier times takes strolling visitors on a time journey back to the industrial revolution until modern times. Due to the lack of financial resources, however, the cemetery is inexorably falling into disrepair.
The Jewish cemetery in Währing, the 18th district of Vienna, is an enchanted place with wild flora slowly overgrowing and disintegrating old gravestones. In this natural process of reclaiming, these gravestones and last resting places have gradually become part of their surrounding nature, as did the approximately 30,000 bodies once buried in them.
The cemetery, one of the oldest and biggest of its kind in Europe, is located only minutes away from the metro station Nussdorfer Straße. Its origins date back to Biedermeier times, when it served the local Jewish community as a burial place between 1784 and 1884. Strolling around the crooked, overgrown stones might easily feel like a journey to the past 18th and 19th century or visiting an open air museum with relicts from the industrial revolution up to modern times. The stone inscriptions – if still readable – are unique witnesses of the culture, art, economy, and society in Vienna. From entrepreneurs to craftsmen to employees and others, each and every one of them hoped for freedom and equality, but was doomed to fail eventually, when facing Antisemitism under Karl Lueger, the major of Vienna from 1897 to 1910. Among the notable people buried at this cemetery are names like Epstein, Ephrussi or Todesko, who contributed greatly to the Viennese Ring Road (Wiener Ringstraße), a grand boulevard encircling the historic city center of Vienna.
The heist. The golden era of Jewish life in Austria came to an end by the National Socialists. With ten thousand lifes and personal items, such as money and whole apartments, being unlawfully confiscated, they spared no one – not even the dead.
During the Nazi era, more than 2,000 graves at the Währing cemetery were destroyed in order to build an air-raid shelter. On top of that, the remains of entire families were exhumed for “scientific” experiments devoted to the racial science of the Nazis. More than 400 bodies were transferred to the Natural History Museum (Naturhistorisches Museum) in Vienna, where they were closely examined. Among those many families whose remains were exhumed, ancestors of the Austrian composer Johann Strauß were found, too. Together with several hundred other victims, they had remained in the museum until they were buried in common graves at the Central Cemetery (Zentralfriedhof) in Vienna in 1947.
Lack of financial resources. The graves once opened by force haven’t been closed again until this day. As a whole, the old cemetery has remained untouched since the end of the war and is therefore falling into disrepair.
According to Halakhah, a set of Jewish laws, the graves are owned by the dead, and their families are responsible for their care. If no surviving descendants exist, the Jewish Community is called upon to take charge of the maintenance. However, the small community is not able to cover all expenses. Around 8,000 members – among them many elderly people and children – would have to pay for the heritage of 300,000. About 65 cemeteries spread all over Austria have to be taken care of. Besides that, the small community has to invest in schools, kindergartens, and security staff.
“An overall renovation would likely cost around $34 million,” says Elie Rosen, President of the Jewish Community (Israelitische Kultusgemeinde) in Graz and the responsible person for Jewish cemeteries in Austria. “We do not want a super tidy cemetery, but yet we would be grateful to at least be able to preserve the stones. The trees and garden need some care, too,” he explains. The cemetery is a top priority as the history of the community must not be forgotten. Public access is, however, not yet possible due to its current condition, as visitors would face dangers, such as falling gravestones or hidden holes in the ground.
So far, the public authorities haven’t covered themselves in glory. While in Germany cemeteries have been taken care of for about 60 years now, Austria didn’t show much commitment until 2001, when the Washington Agreement (Washingtoner Abkommen) was agreed upon. The agreement – being far from flawless – says that money invested into the cemeteries by the Jewish Community can be doubled up by tax payers’ money to a certain amount. However, the financial resources they dispose of are just a few. Furthermore, they need to conclude additional agreements with the local municipalities committing them to preserve the cemeteries for 20 years after a major renovation. So far only Vienna agreed on such terms, while other municipalities clearly lack willingness.
The newly established association “Save the Jewish cemetery Währing” („Rettet den jüdischen Friedhof Währing”) with well-known contributors such as former President of the Jewish Community Ariel Muzicant, is eager to collect donations for a makeover to preserve a piece of Jewish and Austrian history before becoming one with nature and forever be forgotten.
The association “Save the Jewish cemetery Währing” („Rettet den jüdischen Friedhof Währing”) seeks donations for the maintenance and restauration of the cemetery on behalf of the Jewish Community. According to the Washington Agreement, the Austrian State would double the collected funds.
Donation account: Erste Bank AG.
IBAN: AT23 2011 1837 7378 3000
To complement this article, the Embassy wishes to offer the following factual update:
The Fund for the Restoration of the Jewish Cemeteries in Austria for the first time resolved funding for urgent restoration work on two Jewish cemeteries in need of renovation on 20 June 2011. In 2011–2016, a total of around 1,338,000 Euros of Federal funds enabled measures to be taken to preserve the Jewish cemeteries in Deutschkreutz, Göttsbach/Ybbs, Graz, Hohenems, Kobersdorf, Lackenbach, Stockerau and Vienna Central Cemetery, Gate 1 and Gate 4. In addition, funding was provided for a database to record the graves in all Austrian Jewish cemeteries.
Based on a maintenance agreement between the City of Vienna and the Jewish Community signed in 2013, the single most important restoration project for the Jewish cemetery in Währing is in preparation. Besides, the City of Vienna has already awarded 500,000 Euros for the restoration of the Janitor’s house at the Jewish cemetery in Währing. It has also supported the entire restoration and reconstruction of the medieval Jewish cemetery in Rossau (Seegasse), where a number of historic tombstones and their fragments – hidden in 1943 – had been discovered.