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MAY 2016


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 under-

brush 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.

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 liter-

ally 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


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 must-

see) and subjected them to untold indig-

nities. 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 cem-

etery 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 Aus-

tria 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 ceme-

tery, a ghostly reminder of a long-ago war

and the pathology of the Nazis, remains a

window into the past.


The Israelit Friedhof, also known as the Wahringer Cemetery, was the chief place of Jewish burial in Vienna from 1784 to 1879.