Volunteers clean Vienna Jewish cemetery on Christian holiday


VIENNA (JTA) — Several dozen volunteers participated in the annual cleanup of a neglected Jewish cemetery in Austria.

Some 60 volunteers came to the Waehringer Cemetery in Vienna, one of the city’s largest ancient Jewish burial sites, on Sunday morning as part of a grassroots initiative that began 10 years ago, bringing predominantly non-Jewish crowds to the cemetery every Nov. 2, or All Souls Day – a day on which many Christians tend to their relatives’ graves.

“My parents are buried very far away, so I couldn’t go there this year,” said one volunteer who last year visited the Waehringer Cemetery for the first time on a guided tour. “So I figured that instead of watching television, I’d tend to a grave that usually does not get attention.”

Located north of the city’s center, the cemetery is closed to the public because of the thick vegetation that covers its corroded headstones, some of which have collapsed to form deep pits that make the area unsafe. Thousands of Jews were buried there between 1784 and 1880, when the cemetery became inactive.

After the rise of Nazism in Germany and Austria, hundreds of graves were opened and their contents emptied by researchers studying race theories. The excavations caused major damage, according to the historian Tina Walzer, who has cataloged many of the gravestones.

The Jewish community of Vienna, which owns the cemetery, “cannot be expected to use its limited resources for the dead at the expense of the living,” said Marco Schreuder, who began recruiting volunteers for the cleanup operations a decade ago when he was a city counselor for the Green Party. The community has only 7,500 members; it once was 200,000 strong.

Despite its condition, “this cemetery is the final resting place of some of the founders of Vienna as we know it, people this city owes a lot to,” he added.

Among the people buried there are members of the Epstein family of entrepreneurs, who helped build Vienna’s famed Ringerstrasse, and Heinrich Sichrowsky, who developed Austria’s railway system.

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