Walking Through Austrian History

“Always bring your camera!”
1st rule of photography

“Es lebe der Zenttralfriedhoft, mit allen seinen Toten”
(“Long live the central cemetery, with all its dead people”)
Wolfgang Ambros

This July I went on a Euro trip, after not having been in ze fatherland for 3 years. In Vienna my mate, the famous but enigmatic A.F. Klein, took me on a unique historical tour of the Zentralfriedhof, the central cemetery of the city. This is not just some graveyard – it’s an area the size of an average district of Vienna, all dedicated to the dead.

There is ample history in the Zentralfriedhof, most famously the graves of music greats such as Beethoven and Strauss, where during our visit, like on most days, Japanese classical music aficionados can be found. In a very Austrian trick, W.A. Mozart does not have a grave there – his place of burial is not known with certainty since he died in poverty – but a monument, with an inscription not clear about the fact that Wolferl’s bones don’t rest below it. The stone pillar surely looks like a grave, and probably many tourists think it is.

In the section with the honorary graves also rest all of the Austrian Republic’s presidents, and a number of world-famous painters, writers and scientists. Ludwig Boltzmann, whose work on thermodynamics is very (very!) central to our understanding of nature, lays there – right next to a number of former vice-majors of Vienna. And these 2nd-tier politicians have noticeably more pompous grave stones than the man who revolutionized physics, chemistry and biology with his thinking! The cemetery is such a mirror of living society: if you are poor, you get a simple grave, for merely a decade, with only a small wooden name sign. Dead people with at least a reasonably financially stable family are buried below a nice looking stone. If you had been an intellectual giant of the 19th or 20th century you are honored with a special grave in a special spot – but not as special as if you had been a B-level politician on a communal level. The bureaucrats always win, even when they are dead.

A section the size of several city blocks is dedicated to Jewish graves. Starting with deaths in the 1800s, the graves house the bones of some of the intellectual and societal elites of the late Habsburg monarchy and the first Austrian republic: doctors and lawyers, government officials and artists. Some of the gravestones from the early 1900s are true Jugendstil masterworks, and this is where I wished most that I had taken my camera: A Lion with bulging muscles supporting a plate with the deceased’s name, or vines and flowers engraved in marble, all supremely artistically worked. The inscriptions are both in Latin and Hebrew fonts. Then, in the 1940s, the death dates almost stop: a whole segment of Austrian society was either murdered in the holocaust or driven into exile. And as a consequence, none of the families of the deceased folks are there to take care of the graves. As far as I know, the city of Vienna maintains the Jewish section of the Zentralfriedhof, and while the grave stones look shiny, vines of ivy overgrow many of the graves. The place does not look desolate, but certainly not like a cemetery in use by a community; more like a historical site than an in-use part of a city.

A. F. Klein and I went on our tour of the Zentralfriedhof on a Monday afternoon, when other sections of the cemetery are relatively poorly visited.  But devoid of any remaining family members alive or left in Austria, no one was in the Jewish section when we walked through it, other than a pair of lost-looking tourists and one gardener. For most of the half hour A.F. and I strolled along the orphaned graves, no one was there. There is a special monument to the Jewish soldiers who fought for Austria in WWI and were later killed in the holocaust. It’s a circular tower with the names of the enlisted men and officers separately written on its inside walls, and we also had this memorial to ourselves. Even though this was a week day, it was a sunny summer afternoon which was otherwise very inviting for walks (maybe a bit hot). The solitude was eerie – while on the surface, it was enjoyable to walk on our own through a lovely green part of Vienna, the reason for the absence of anyone visiting those graves was infinitely sad. It’s instructive to study those dark episodes of history from books, but it’s something completely else to walk through history like we did.