A Gate between the Worlds

Should Austria’s capital Vienna be part of a blog that deals with the Jewish heritage of Eastern Europe? Necessarily, because Vienna was not only the gateway from Central Europe to the eastern provinces of the Habsburg Empire, it was also the gateway to the West for many Jewish immigrants in search of a better future. A travel report.

A business trip a few days ago has given me the opportunity to experience a little bit of Jewish Vienna – with very limited time and very superficial, but after all more than nothing. Only two blocks away from my hotel is the oldest Jewish cemetery in the city – the Rossau cemetery that was established in the 16th century. It is hidden in the backyard of a home for the elderly. On the first evening I take a little walk there, but the doors are already locked. The next morning I try again.

The old grave stones form a strange contrast to the ugly 70’s architecture of the nursing home. At first glance, it is striking that the grave stones are a puzzle of fragments. Rossau cemetery was destroyed by the Nazis, the remains buried at the Central Cemetery. 280 of the formerly almost 1,000 stones were recovered. Since the 80s, the municipality tries to reconstruct the cemetery – a complex work that still goes on. Several green tents are on the premises, behind their tarpaulin work continues.

The famous Central Cemetery – a free afternoon on the last day of my stay gives me the opportunity to look around there. Eva, a colleague accompanies me. The cemetery is located in the outskirts near the airport. The next morning, I will shortly after takeoff fly over it and wonder again about the size of the site. A true city of the dead. Even a bus service operates there.

All religions have their place in the Central Cemetery: There are different areas for Christians, a Buddhist, a Muslim, and of course a Jewish section. The Jewish section was described to me as partly neglected. Foxes, woodpeckers and other wildlife could be seen there. Compared to the cemeteries that I know from Ukraine, the Central Cemetery of Vienna strikes me as well maintained. Yes, it is a little off, a little overgrown. But one is spared from buses and cars.

The Jewish part of the Central Cemetery is a zone of social antagonism. There are very few really big tombs and graves, but many obelisks made of expensive black granite and others with elaborate stone carvings in white marble. Looking more closely, one realizes that they are only at the roadsides. In the intervening fields are inconspicuous stones – small, made of cheap material and often labeled exclusively in Hebrew. Such miserable grave stones I have nowhere seen in Galicia and Bukovina. Eva and I leave the main path and go a little across the fields. The grave stones that we are able to read also indicate the birth places of the deceased. “They come from everywhere in the east,” says Eva. We discover birth places in Hungary and Poland and a place that is close to my heart – Czernowitz (Chernivtsi). Eva likes this diversity, it is the diversity of a vanished world. This are the people who made it during World War I and during the interwar period from the ruins of the Habsburg Monarchy to the west. Those who believed the promise of a life in freedom and prosperity.

No one has described the Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe better than Joseph Roth. Roth – an obsessive and brilliant writer, Jew, Communist and excessive drinker – came from Brody, the easternmost end of the monarchy. He was a journalist and novelist and made his career in Vienna and Berlin – until he had to flee the Nazis and died impoverished in France.

Leopoldstadt is a poor district. There are small apartments where six-member families live. There are small cottages where fifty, sixty people have to sleep on the floor. In the Prater the homeless sleep. Near the stations live the poorest of all workers. The Eastern Jews do not live better than the Christian inhabitants of this district. They have many children, they are not used to hygiene and cleanliness, and they are hated.

On Sunday evening, my friend and colleague Daniel and I have a walk through Leopoldstadt. Viennese friends have told us that this is still a Jewish neighborhood. Twice we see religious Jews in their typical clothing. We pass by a Polish-Jewish restaurant. It looks very cozy. Daniel discovers a plaque that commemorates the deportations to the extermination camps. A little further we pass a makeshift mosque, whose rooms are bathed in cold neon light. Cheap fast food restaurants line up as we go towards Danube river – pizza and falafel. Joseph Roth’s Leopoldstadt no longer exists. Only the hope for a better life remained.

Of course there is not only the Vienna of the poor. At Schottentor in the city center is an example of the rich Vienna: The Palais Ephrussi – Jews from Odessa, who became wealthy through grain trade and established banks in Paris and Vienna. The building still bears witness of this fabulous wealth – long after the bank was ruined by the Nazis. On the second day of my stay, I ‘m sneaking around it and take pictures. Edmund de Waal, a descendant of the banking dynasty, has immortalised his family in a wonderful non-fiction book. “The Hare with the Amber Eyes” tells of a long gone Europe. But it also tells of Jews as first Europeans – people who doubted borders and national states, who had contacts and relationship across all borders. In the nationalism of the 19th and 20th century they could see no achievement – at least not because Jews were victims all the time. After two world wars, countless dictatorships and several genocides Europe hopefully learned that the Ephrussi familiy and the beggars of Leopoldstadt were right.

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6 thoughts on “A Gate between the Worlds

  1. Christian, Thank you for this. It just so happens that on November 17th, I leave on a river cruise down the Danube, which includes a one day stop in Vienna. The day is crowded with a morning walking tour and an evening concert, however, I wanted to find one place that would be even remotely related to Czernowitz, I saw the picture of the tombstone with a mention of Czernowitz on the bottom. Which cememtery was it, and on what street would I find it? Thanks again,

    • Dear Bruce, the photo was taken at the Central Cemetery. S7 would bring you from the city center in about 20 minutes to that place. The old Jewish section of the cemetery is next to gate 11, which is the first gate near the train station. But have in mind that the cemetery is huge and so is the the Jewish part of it. You may not easely locate this particular grave stone, but you would have a remarkable walk through time. Good luck!

  2. Christian – Just finished reading Edmund de Waal’s book and was looking on-line at photos of the Palace Ephrussi and its namesakes a few hours ago! Thanks for providing more Jewish context to that most cosmopolitan of cities, Vienna.

  3. Please Christian, when will you come to the Northern Serbian province of Vojvodina where there once was a thriving Jewish community of perhaps 18,000? Except in the town of Topolya where there is an angel, there is little interest in documenting or preserving the final traces of a people who were sent to their deaths or fled.
    There are a couple of locations where there are preserved cemeteries which continue to be robbed of the “better ” headstones or to be vandalized, but in the smaller places like Horgos and Martonos near the Hungarian border even the memory of the people who once were neighbours continue to be hated…” we don’t like the Jews here” said the town “historian” recently

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