Saturday, October 08, 2011

Friede ihrer Asche!

Earlier this year, I offered a post on Jewish Innsbruck. Today is Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, so I thought this might be an appropriate time for a post on a related subject. In early August, two days before I left Vienna, I visited the old Jewish section of the Wiener Zentralfriedhof, the largest cemetery in Austria (with over three million interments, the Zentralfriedhof is also one of the largest cemeteries in Europe). Between 1880 and 1938, nearly eighty-thousand Viennese Jews were laid to rest here. Desecrated on Kristallnacht and heavily damaged by aerial bombing during World War II, this part of the Zentralfriedhof has seen few burials since 1945 (newer Jewish graves are located in another part of the cemetery) and has decayed steadily over the succeeding decades.

Before the Second World War, Vienna was home to a large and prosperous Jewish community, whose members made a significant contribution to the cultural and political life of their country. For example, consider this memorial to Michael Kulka, who served as k.k. Gewerbeoberinspektor (Senior Trade Inspector for the Imperial and Royal Government), received the Order of the Iron Crown from the Emperor, and was declared an honorary member of the Jewish community of Leipnik (a Moravian village that now lies in the Czech Republic). Similarly impressive inscriptions are etched on nearby tombstones, but many are no longer legible due to long neglect.

The neglect of this part of the Zentralfriedhof is part of the legacy of the Shoah. Many of the children and descendants of the people laid to rest here perished in the Holocaust, while others who survived the War often chose to rebuild their lives elsewhere. As a result, the graves here have largely been orphaned: those who would otherwise care for them are gone.

Beyond the general state of decay, there is little direct evidence here of the Holocaust: some tombstones include newer inscriptions remembering victims of the Nazis (the grave of the Buch family, seen above, is one example - click on the photo to enlarge the image, and you'll learn that Hermann Buch died at Auschwitz), but these are very few. More common are inscriptions like that honoring Ignatz Nathan Blumka, "a most dearly beloved, unforgettable, faithful spouse" who died at age 61 in 1910, or the one remembering Lazar Bromberg, "snatched away by inexorable fate in the nineteenth year of his hope-filled life" in 1921 - memorials to individuals whose earthly lives were untouched by the monumental horrors of a later time.

Pictures and symbols often tell vivid stories. The tombstones in the first and third photos of this group bear the image of two hands associated with the Nesiat Kapayim, a traditional Jewish blessing reserved to the priestly caste of the Kohanim. (Star Trek fans may recognize a similarity to the "Vulcan salute," which Leonard Nimoy based on the Nesiat Kapayim that he remembered from his Orthodox Jewish upbringing.) The use of this symbol here is presumably meant to invoke a blessing upon the dead.

A symbol of a very different kind appears on the grave of Julius Löwy, seen in the second of these three photos. The Masonic Square and Compass suggests that Löwy was a Freemason; I suspect that Diese Kette reiße nie (which translates to "this chain will never be broken," or something similar) is the motto of a particular Masonic Lodge, but I haven't been able to find more information.

I've included photos of the above tombstone largely because of its unique design. The decorative motifs seen here are really striking - a golden sun with beams emanating from the top of the headstone, and what appears to be a Greek temple surrounded by flowers at the bottom - and I encourage you to click on the middle photo for a closer look. The identity of the family buried here is also a real mystery to me: the name looks like Spessl or Speßl, but I have not been able to locate either name (or several related variants) in the searchable database on the Friedhöfe Wien website. I'm sure that there is an interesting story here, but so far it remains elusive.

Of course, there are many stories in the Zentralfriedhof. I wonder, for example, why the tombstone of Friedrich Porges (seen in the first photo of the above group) identifies him as "der Brasilianer." Was Porges born in Brazil? Did he spend a significant portion of his life there? Did the "Brazilian" title have a special meaning for Porges and his friends - a meaning mysterious to others, and now lost to history? I may never know. In the absence of such knowledge, I will end this post with a wish and prayer akin to one found on many tombstones in the Zentralfriedhof: Friede ihrer Asche! - "Peace to their ashes!" In other words, may they rest in peace. AMDG.


At 10/10/2011 8:42 AM, Blogger Robin said...

Finally - I've just had time to take a look at this wonderful post. I'm forwarding the link to my department chair in my former teaching job at the Jewish school - I'm sure the kids would be interested.

At 10/10/2011 11:12 AM, Blogger Joe Koczera, S.J. said...


Thanks for that - and hello to students from said school, if they happen to be reading this!


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