Historian: Vienna’s Jewish cemeteries survived Shoa “by chance”

DerStandard.at, August 21, 2015.

Special Jewish culture of the federal capital is also mirrored in its graveyards – restorations at Währinger cemetery still outstanding.

Vienna – with the Jewish cemetery at Rossau, specifically at Seegasse, Vienna is home to one of Europe’s oldest Jewish cemeteries. But the five Jewish cemeteries in the federal capital survived the Shoa only ”by chance”, historian Tim Corbett explained in an interview with the Austrian Press Agency (APA). Restoration concepts are still partially outstanding even today.

Corbett has been dealing with Vienna’s Jewish cemeteries for the past years at the Wiesenthal Institute for Holocaust Studies (VWI). To him, they represent the unique Jewish culture of Vienna, which, before the World Wars, was characterized by high secularization, modernity and a high rate of participation in Vienna’s everyday and society life. “The older Jewish part of Vienna’s Central cemetery (Zentralfriedhof), close to the first gate, is one of the few in Europe that is not separated from the Christian part by a wall. This shows the modern and progressive attitude in Vienna at that time.”

Vienna’s Jewry flourished when the city did – during the fin-de-siècle, at the end of the 19th century. The magnificent tombs at Zentralfriedhof are a reminder of that time. They also defended their belief in the Habsburg Empire during World War I, during which many Austrian Jews took up arms voluntarily and enthousiastically.  “The profound sadness over the fall of the Habsburg Monarchy can also be found on the tombstones, where titles of nobility, academia, or military ranks were proudly included until the early 1940s”, explained Corbett.

Reparation Impeded

During World War II, Jewish cemeteries survived by mere chance the historian is convinced. “There was interest by anthropologists and other Nazi scientists to preserve the human remains and the tombstones, but they didn’t care about the cemeteries per se. I am sure that the Nazis and their helpers would have removed these Jewish heritage sites from the city had they had more time.” Specifically, Währing cemetery was battered: the national socialist city government allowed the destruction of tombstones and the exhumation of many corpses. Some of those graves remain open even today.

After World War II, unlike Germany, the Austrian government did not accept responsibility for the crimes of National Socialism and did not heed the efforts of Jewish survivors for compensation - this included the reconditioning of cemeteries.” It sometimes took decades until restorations began; meanwhile there are concepts for most of the Jewish cemeteries. The cemetery at Seegasse has been on city property, which today also contains a retirement home, since 1670, when Leopld I. expulsed the Jews from Vienna. Today it has been partially restored.

The two [Jewish] sections at Central Cemetery were restituted to the Jewish Community (IKG). The Währing cemetery was also restituted to the IKG – but it is still lacking a restoration concept because of the substantial damage, says Corbett. It remains doubtful if it can be renovated at all after 70 years of neglect. “I think this cemetery will remain a cenotaph – for the achievements of the Jewish community in Vienna, the horrors of National Socialism, but also for the calculated restraint of Austria’s post-war government in dealing with Austria’s role in the Nazi crimes.”

There are a total of five Jewish cemeteries in Vienna today. The oldest is the one at Seegasse, dating back to the early 16th century; it was in use until 1784. Afterwards, the Währing cemetery took over that role, and Jews were laid to rest there until 1879. Also the Floridsdorf cemetery, dating back to 1873, is part of this list - although originally not within Vienna’s city limits. In addition, there are two Jewish sections at the central cemetery, the older one dating back to 1879, while the second one was opened close to gate four in 1916, after the end of World War I.[Nota: World War I ended in 1918],: it serves as today’s main cemetery for the Jewish community, who is managing it. According to Jewish faith, a cemetery may not be shut down - even if it has been destroyed beyond repair (as was sometimes the case in eastern Europe after World War II), it should remain locked and respected as holy ground.


To complement this article, the Embassy wishes to offer the following supplementary background facts:


  • On January 17th, 2001, the U.S. Government and the Austrian Federal Government concluded an agreement on the comprehensive settlement of outstanding compensation payments for property confiscated during the Nazi period (the so-called Washington Agreement - WA).
  • As the last step in the implementation of Austria’s international obligations arising from the Washington Agreement, a Fund for the restoration of Austria Jewish cemeteries was set up in December 2010, providing additional support for the restoration and maintenance of Jewish cemeteries and resolving one of the most sensitive issues for the victims of the Holocaust and their descendants.
  • The Fund, managed by the Austrian National Fund, is endowed with a total of €20 million by the Federal Government over the next 20 years, but is also open to external funding. With these financial means, the fund will reimburse matching contributions by the owners of Jewish cemeteries in Austria for the restoration of their cemeteries once the respective local municipalities declare to bear the maintenance costs for these cemeteries for at least 20 years after the completion of the restoration works.
  • Over a period of 20 years, more than 60 Jewish cemeteries throughout Austria will thus be safeguarded from ruin with the assistance of the Fund.
  • Among the first projects supported by the Fund were the restorations of the Jewish cemeteries in Deutschkreutz and in Stockerau. A restoration project in Hohenems started in 2013; in 2014, projects for the restoration of the Jewish cemeteries in Graz, Lackenbach, Kobersdorf and Götzbach/Ybbs were approved by the Fund.
  • Furthermore, the City of Vienna has already signed a maintenance agreement with the Jewish Community on October 1, 2013 to allow for the restoration of the single most important project, the Jewish cemetery in Währing. Besides, the City of Vienna has already awarded €500000 for the restoration of the Janitor’s house at the Jewish cemetery in Währing. It is also supporting the ongoing 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.