Saturday, May 1, 2010

Vienna -- Secret Garden-like Hidden Jewish Cemetery

 Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

It's always a pleasure to come across new sights and experiences in places you think you know pretty well.... A case in point is the Jewish cemetery on Seegasse, in Vienna, which I visited for the first time on Friday. (Shame on me, I know, for never having gone there before...)

If you didn't know about it, you would walk right by.... the cemetery, the oldest preserved Jewish cemetery in Vienna, is entered by walking through the lobby of a modern municipal old age home at Seegasse 9, in Vienna's 9th district, a five minute walk from the Rossauerlaende U-Bahn stop. (This may seem a cruel juxtaposition, but from 1698 to 1934 this was the site of a Jewish hospital -- and also in Prague the Jewish community's state-of-the-art seniors' home looks out over the New Jewish Cemetery...)

Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

The Seegasse cemetery is believed to have been founded in 1540 -- the oldest legible stone dates from 1582 -- and it operated until 1783, when the Emperor Joseph II banned issued a decree banning burials inside what today is the "Gurtel" ring around inner Vienna. Many 17th and 18th century luminaries were buried here, including the financier and Court Jew Samuel Oppenheimer (who founded the Jewish hospital and restored the cemetery at the end of the 17th century) and Samson Wertheimer, who succeeded him as Court Jew.

Samson Wertheimer's tomb -- it's actually a mausoleum, and this is one end. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

 Tourists near Wertheimer's tomb. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

According to the guidebook "Jewish Vienna" published in 2004 by Mandelbaum Verlag, some of the few local Jews still living in Vienna in 1943 managed to rescue some of the tombstones, either burying them on the spot or transporting them to the Central Cemetery and burying them there.

In  the mid-1980s, after the discovery of these stones, the cemetery underwent a full restoration -- and the surviving stones were set up in their original places thanks to a map of the cemetery that had been made in 1912. Many of the stones are massive and feature elegant calligraphy, lengthy epitaphs and some vivid carving of Jewish symbols and floral and other decoration, similar to that on tombs in the Jewish cemetery in Mikulov, Czech Republic, and elsewhere in Moravia. Fragments that could not be put together were used to construct a memorial wall, similar to those that exist in other countries at restored cemeteries.

Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

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