Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Austria: Government Agrees to Fund Jewish Cemetery Conservation

Austria: Government Agrees to Fund Jewish Cemetery Conservation
by Samuel D. Gruber

I was in the process of compiling a list of top ten stories for 2009 about Jewish heritage sties when news from
Deutsche Presse Agentur (DPA) and the Associated Press that the government has pledged 20 million euro over the next 20 years – at a rate of 1 million euro a year – to help restore the neglected Jewish cemeteries throughout the country.

There are about 70 known Jewish cemeteries in modern-day Austria, of which at least twenty the Jewish Community rates in poor condition. According to a report in the Associated Press, the Jewish Community will match the government grants through funds raised from private and local governmental sources. The decision to fund cemetery conservation and protection comes after nearly a decade of protracted and sometimes acrimonious negotiation about Austrian governmental responsibility for various types of compensation and support to Jewish survivors, the Jewish Community and Jewish heritage sites following the murder and destruction of the Holocaust. In 2001 Austria committed (as part of the so-called Washington agreement) to care for Jewish cemeteries as part of a compensation deal for Nazi crimes, but levels of care were not specified.

Unlike Germany, which during the post-World War II reconstruction period (and ever since) has taken a strong official stance in the need for and appropriateness of government support for Jewish cultural and religious life, Austrian governments (and public opinion) steadfastly denied responsibility, portraying Austria as the first “victim” of Nazi aggression, rather than a willing collaborator in Germany’s war and the Holocaust. Thousands of Austrian Jews fled the country before and immediately after the annexation of Austria to Germany in 1938. In all, it is thought that about 65,000 Austrian Jews met their deaths as a result of the Nazi policies.

Raimund Fastenbauer, secretary-general of the Jewish Community Vienna, told The Associated Press he hoped restoration work would begin next year.

While in other countries in Europe local and national monument authorities have sometimes assisted in the care for particularly historic Jewish cemeteries, for the most part governments have spent little - and sometimes nothing - on the care of such sites. Even worse, in many countries of Eastern Europe disputes continue on the definition of what a cemetery is. For Jews, the presence of human remains denotes a cemetery - which remains a sacred space requiring demarcation and care.

For many governments, and culture organizations, cemeteries are only recognized when gravestones are visible. In the case of at least several thousand Jewish cemeteries throughout Europe gravestones have been removed during times of persecution, expulsion, and genocide. Even in case where some gravestones remain, protected site status is often granted only to that small area of a cemetery rather than to the entire acreage where burials exist. Sometimes well-intentioned efforts to fence areas where stones remain results in the de facto sacrifice of more expansive cemetery areas.

The Austrian Jewish Community web site has an extensive page listing all the cemeteries and giving their history, size, location, condition and notes on any current or recent restoration efforts.

For a detailed listing of Jewish heritage sites in Austria, including some cemeteries see:

For lists of Jewish cemeteries, including a database of individual burials throughout the country, museums and currently-functioning synagogues, see the website of the Austrian Jewish community:

No comments: