Volunteers Tend to Neglected Vienna Jewish Cemetery - on All Souls Day

Grassroots initiative sees predominantly non-Jewish crowds descend on Waehringer Cemetery every November 2 – a day on which many Christians tend to their relatives’ graves.

Wikipedia Commons

Several dozen volunteers participated in an annual cleanup of a large and neglected Jewish cemetery in Austria.

The 60-odd volunteers arrived on Sunday morning at the Waehringer Cemetery in Vienna, one of the city’s largest ancient Jewish burial sites, as part of a grassroots initiative that began 10 years ago, bringing predominantly non-Jewish crowds to the cemetery every November 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 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 Waehringer Cemetery is closed to the public because of the thick vegetation that covers its neglected and 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 catalogued many of the gravestones.

The Jewish community of Vienna, which owns the cemetery, used to be 200,000 strong but now has only 7,500 members and “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 10 years ago when he was a city counselor for the Green Party.

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.