The Jewish cemetery at Seegasse, which has been undergoing renovations by the city since 2008, is of importance not only for historical and cultural reasons. Andreas Mailath-Pokorny, executive city councillor for cultural affairs, organised a ceremony to mark the restoration of the fiftieth gravestone.
History is not only a question of the past but also of what we make of it in the present and how we learn from it for the future. This sounds highly theoretical but it applies aptly to the inner courtyard of a retirement home in the 9th district, site of the Seegasse Jewish cemetery, the oldest surviving Jewish cemetery in Vienna. On this 2,000 m² site some 500 years of Viennese history are being spruced up for the coming centuries.
Importance for ViennaNothing remains of the first Jewish cemetery in Vienna on the Ringstrasse near the Goethe monument. The successor cemetery was the one in the 9th district, which is thought to have been laid out in the early sixteenth century. It is important to remember that according to Jewish belief, gravestones are to be kept for ever. The Christian custom of digging up gravestones after a number of centuries and using the ground for new burials does not exist in the Jewish rite. For that reason cemeteries are of special significance in Judaism. Apart from these religious aspects, the Seegasse cemetery also has considerable historical and cultural importance for Vienna. Executive City Councillor for Cultural Affairs Andreas Mailath-Pokorny emphasised this on the occasion of the restoration of the fiftieth gravestone: “The importance of the Seegasse cemetery is comparable with that of the famous Jewish cemetery in Prague. Jewish culture was and is part of Vienna’s culture,” he added.
Approaches to Jewish cultureThere are two aspects of relevance to this cemetery: not only are there some historically significant Jews of Vienna buried there, including members of the family of the famous seventeenth-century banker Samuel Oppenheimer; the gravestones, some of them made of marble, are also unique cultural documents in their own right. Friedrich Dahm, curator at the Federal Office for the Protection of Monuments, explained the special efforts being made by the city of Vienna: “The way in which we manage a cemetery like this reflects our attitude to the underlying culture.” There is no need to point out that over the centuries this attitude has not always been the best and that the Nazi era in particular had particularly disastrous consequences for the cemetery.
Contract for eternityIn 1670 the Viennese merchant Koppel Fränkel concluded an agreement with the municipal authorities on the existence of the cemetery “for eternity”. For a long time the city respected the agreement, which is still basically valid today. Following a reform in 1784 the cemetery was closed, but the graves were still kept up and tended. A decision of the Nazi municipal authorities in January 1941 finally put an end to all that. Many graves were desecrated, gravestones destroyed and stolen. The members of the Jewish community nevertheless risked their lives to hide some of the monolithic stones in a place where they would be least obvious: the Central Cemetery. Today there are 356 surviving gravestones or fragments. The renovation is highly complex and because of the bad state of the stones often involves a certain amount of detective work. The validity of the “eternal contract” was confirmed in 1978 by mayor Leopold Gratz, but it was to take another thirty years before specific measures were adopted. Vienna has so far spent 315,000 euros on this important project and a further 112,000 euros were recently approved for the continuation of the work.
LifeBecause of archaeological excavations to determine the exact arrangement, the grass grew wild between the gravestones and the old Jewish cemetery looked a bit like an overgrown garden between now and eternity. “Councillor, please stand next to this gravestone,” said the press office during the photo session. “It looks more alive that way.” An important criterion for a cemetery, it might be thought. At least the famed Jewish humour doesn’t need any restoration.
The cemetery is in the inner courtyard of the Haus Rossau retirement home at Seegasse 11, 1090 Vienna (01/319 63 41)
Visitors should phone in advance or ask at the reception when it is possible to visit the cemetery.
Keys to life
Only two minutes’ walk from this cemetery is the public artwork “Keys against forgetting” by Julia Schulz, which consists of 462 keys in a glass case let into the ground. On each key is a label with the name of a Jewish inhabitant of the district who was driven out. The artwork contrasts starkly with the horror that it refers to: 462 keys that open the heart to pain – which we should never forget.
Site: Servitengasse/Grüntorgasse, 1090 Vienna