The Saviors of Tombs at the Jewish Cemetery Währing

Der Standard, November 1, 2019

German original:

The association Jewish Heritage Austria ensures that dead Jews have their dignity returned to them. They investigate descendants and organize the restoration of defiled graves.

Once there existed four gravesites in this spot at the Jewish Cemetery Währing. Three could be restored, but all the way to the right is an empty spot. Nathan Adam Arnstein was buried here. Only an emergency rescue could prevent his body falling victim to NS racial theory research.

Eight-hundred names of dead Jews were on a list back then, in the early 1940s, their bones were supposed to be brought to the Museum of Natural History, says historian Tina Walzer from the association Jewish Heritage Austria (Jüdischeds Erbe Austria – JEA). She stands between toppled gravestones, broken stones and barrier tape fluttering in the wind – she has been researching here in the cemetery for 25 years.

Two-hundred corpses were later found in cardboard boxes in the basement of the museum, 200 disappeared, and in another 200 cases the diggers were unsure which grave to unearth. The remains of 200 humans were brought to safety, they were exhumed in time and buried in Zentralfriedhof (Vienna’s Central Cemetery) at Gate No. 4.

Search for Descendants

Nathan Adam Arnstein was one of them. His funerary monument was given to the workers who rescued his corpse as payment, suspects Werner Winterstein, a JEA board member. The three monuments next to it, one of Bernhard Eskeles, the first Vice Governor of the Austrian National Bank, his wife, Cäcilie Eskeles, and the monument of Fanny von Arnstein – the woman, who brought the Christmas Tree to Vienna - were destroyed by wind, weather, and vandalism. Fanny von Arnstein’s gravestone was close to falling over.

Only a few weeks ago, the JEA completed the restoration of the three graves. The association was following a set procedure. First, living descendants are identified; they have to commission the restoration. They are also the ones who have to pay for it. Because “what we have been doing here is not eligible for state support,” explains Winterstein. The Washington Agreement only mandates that “Austria will lend additional support for the restoration and upkeep of known and unknown Jewish cemeteries in Austria;” the National Fund of the Republic of Austria for Victims of National Socialism refers to the fact that one million Euro annually are invested in the Fonds for the Restauration of Jewish Cemeteries in Austria by the federal government. According to Winterstein, only orphaned graves can be supported by the that money. This is why the JEA helps the descendants with the planning and with the negotiations with the bureaucracy.

The fact that at least three graves of the Eskeles and the Arnsteins are standing next to each other again – lopsided and with a few scuffs, but as whole monuments – is the achievement of the restorer Klaus Wedenig and the stonemason Ben Bolzmann. Single pieces were collected using cable winches and muscle power. Heavy machinery cannot be used at this cemetery, the area is too unsafe, the chance to damage something is too big. The cemetery has been closed to the public since 1999.

Soft Conservation

“The panels were broken into pieces, large parts of them were missing,” says restorer Wedenig, so he made new ones. This was possible thanks to exact records concerning the inscriptions. But all four standing in the cemetery today agree that in principle it is not about renewing graves or making them perfect. It is about returning the dignity that was taken from them. If a piece is missing, they leave it out, also glued areas are not always polished. Wedenig calls it “soft conservation.”

The sign of Nathan Adam Arnstein was still laying on his gravesite in the mid-1990s, Walzer remembers, somebody tried to steal it later. When Walzer created an inventory list, she found it a few meters away, next to the cemetery wall; apparently the panel was too heavy for the thief.

It will now be displayed with an info panel on the location of his old grave. Even though it is broken into two pieces, it is at least where it belongs. (Gabriele Scherndl, 30. 10. 2019)

The article was expanded on November 1 to include a statement of the Austrian National Fund for the Victims of National Socialism.