Saturday, July 20, 2013

Hidden gravestones unearthed at Vienna's oldest preserved Jewish cemetery

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

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Three years ago, I posted about Vienna's oldest preserved Jewish cemetery, the graveyard on Seegasse that dates from the 16th century, now hidden amid new buildings and entered through an old-age home on the site of what was a Jewish hospital. Many 17th and 18th century luminaries are 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.

News has now come that during the ongoing restoration of the cemetery, an important trove of buried matzevot has been discovered.  According to Jewish community officials in Vienna, the stones appear to have been among those that were buried there in 1943 to protect them from the Nazis. A score of stones have been recovered in recent weeks, but hundreds more may be buried, according to Vienna Jewish officials.

It has long been known that gravestones from Seegasse were buried for protection during World War II – as I noted in my post in 2010, the guidebook “Jewish Vienna” published in 2004 by Mandelbaum Verlag, wrote that some were buried them on the spot and others were transported to the Central Cemetery and buried 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.

The Associated Press published pictures of the new find and reported:

Vienna’s Jewish leaders say it is not clear exactly how many were buried by the small group of Viennese Jews determined to save their heritage from the Nazi bulldozers. They also say they have few further details of the act, with none of the participants surviving the Holocaust and their location unclear — until now. 
After workers scored the ground with radar as part of restoration work, they say they are sure there are hundreds beneath the grass. The 20 unearthed in the past few weeks have convinced officials they have a historically significant find, they said. 
Raimund Fastenbauer, a senior official with Vienna’s Jewish community, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that he believes many of the up to 600 missing stones are still below ground and partially or fully recoverable.

Seegasse cemetery, surrounded by buildings. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber