Vienna finds lost Jewish tombstones

Jewish gravestones uncovered in Vienna
Image caption Some of the gravestones may be 500 years old

Jewish leaders in the Austrian capital have announced the recovery of old Jewish tombstones that were hidden underground from the Nazis.

Officials from Vienna City Council and Vienna's Jewish community say this is a culturally significant find.

They say the sites are potentially comparable to the historic Jewish graveyards in Prague, which survived demolition in the Nazi era.

Twenty headstones have been found in Vienna's Seegasse cemetery.

The stones, from the early Baroque period, were carefully buried close to the surface, with layers of earth separating them. Officials believe many more could still be concealed, including some much older.

The Seegasse cemetery, which is the oldest Jewish burial ground in Vienna and dates back to the late 15th Century, is not easy to find.

A little grassy oasis in the middle of residential Vienna, it has no street entrance, and can only be accessed through the lobby of a city-run old people's home - once the site of an ancient Jewish hospital.

After Germany annexed Austria in 1938, the 185,000 Jews who lived in Vienna quickly became the victims of persecution, and their graveyards were targeted in order to erase all signs of Jewish history.

More than 65,000 Jews were deported to Nazi death camps, while most of the rest fled the country.

Memory lost

During the Nazi-era, the Vienna city government gave orders for the Seegasse graveyard to be destroyed to make a children's playground.

But one official from the Jewish community, Ernst Feldsberg, was determined to preserve the gravestones, as a physical record of Jewish presence in Vienna. As many as possible were removed.

The historian Tina Walzer says it must have been a very difficult undertaking, during the period of intense persecution in 1942-43.

"Ernst Feldsberg did everything he could to find men and transportation to bring as many valuable tombstones as possible from one end of town to another and hide them in Vienna's main central cemetery.

"Whatever they couldn't carry away from the Seegasse graveyard, they buried underground."

After the war, there were few survivors who remembered the fate of the gravestones, and their existence was largely forgotten.

Tina Walzer says that until recently there was reluctance to allow archaeological work at the site.

"The Jewish community, which considers itself to be Orthodox, was always against digging at the cemetery and refused to allow research at the site for decades."

But now the head of Vienna's Jewish Community, Oskar Deutsch, has welcomed the discovery. He says the plans to restore the graveyard are a sign that Vienna is confronting its Nazi past.

"It is extremely positive that the city of Vienna is now facing up to the unhappy past and has undertaken to restore the cemetery," he says.

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