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The Uncivil Servant: Visiting the Central Cemetery in Vienna

Mitchell Abidor
October 15, 2015

by Mitchell Abidor

CEMETERIES HAVE LONG been my favorite places to visit on my travels, not least because almost all of the people who matter to me can be found in them. No place in the world equals Paris’ Montparnasse cemetery, where within a hundred yards of each other the great writers Samuel Beckett, Julio Cortázar, and E.M. Cioran can be found, the three of them not all that far from Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Susan Sontag. No gathering of the living can equal this. Friends wonder what I gain by standing above the remains of Marcel Proust, and I can only answer that, well... I’m standing above the remains of Marcel Proust.

But cemeteries also tell stories.

Vienna’s principal cemetery, the Zentral Friedhof, is in the city’s distant southeast. Founded by Vienna’s early 20th-century anti-Semitic mayor Karl Lueger when the cemeteries in the heart of Vienna ran out of room, people were convinced to be buried there in a uniquely Viennese fashion: Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, and Hugo Wolf were reburied there, as well as the immortal Franz Von Suppé, whose music accompanies countless cartoons.

Schoenberg's grave in the Zentralfriedhof, ViennaVienna’s greatest Jewish composer, Arnold Schoenberg (I’m omitting Mahler, the greatest of all composers, because of his conversion for career reasons to Catholicism, a conversion he never reversed), driven from Europe by the Nazis and who died in Los Angeles in 1951, is buried just a slight distance from his 19th-century peers. Schoenberg, who converted to Protestantism but then in 1934, with the rise of Nazi Jew-hatred, and with Marc Chagall as his official witness, returned to his ancestral faith in Paris, perhaps more properly belongs in the cemetery’s Jewish section, for once he returned to Judaism he wrote frequently both articles and music on Jewish themes. His grave, a stark, off-kilter cube, leads one to wonder whether he should have been buried as a composer or a Jew.

The most important intellectual figure in Vienna of the first three decades of the twentieth century was Karl Kraus. He excoriated Austrian and Viennese society, cast anathemas on writers and writing that were not subject to appeal. A Jew, he converted to Protestantism, and is buried in the main cemetery. He was viewed as a Jew, and there’s no surprise in finding some stones on his headstone. I added mine.

It’s more than a little surprising to find, there in the overgrown, untended, tumble-down old Jewish section, a grave that’s amazingly well-kept in this all but abandoned cemetery (its maintenance is the responsibility not of the Central Cemetery but of the Jewish community, which clearly has other interests than maintaining the cemetery). It’s that of perhaps the most perfect representative of fin de siècle Vienna, the author and playwright Arthur Schnitzler. Schnitzler was at the heart of Viennese culture, to such an extent that the great historian Peter Gay titled one of his books Schnitzler’s Century. If it’s initially shocking to see this cosmopolite buried alongside rabbis, one then remembers how sensitive he was to the anti-Semitism rampant in that most civilized of cities. In 1908 he wrote: “If someone knocks your hat off on the Ringstrasse because you have, you’ll allow me to say, a rather Jewish nose, you will feel hit like a Jew, you can count on it.”

THE SADDEST AND MOST ELOQUENT section of this sad, sad place, in this Jewish section where the rows have vanished, where ivy covers the gravestones and the grass grows wild; where there are no benches on which to sit, no light between the trees, just the unrelieved gloom of the dead of a dead culture — is the section of World War I Jewish dead.

WP_20150519_029The stones are for the most part uniform, with their backs curved like shells, the front of the stone giving the name, rank, unit, and date of death. Ignaz Hecht died on July 27, 1916; the engineer Albert Katz and his brother Hans were killed two months apart in 1915.

The stones are uniform for a reason. Flanking the central alley are two stones with the same inscription, informing us that the gravestones of “the Jewish heroes resting here” were placed by the Association of Austrian Jewish Front-line Soldiers in 1934.

1934. A bad year. The year after the Austro-fascist Dolfuss assumed power and the year he was killed in a failed Nazi putsch; the year the workers of Red Vienna rose against fascism and when their model housing block, the Karl Marx Hof was attacked with artillery. 1934. Still four years before the Anschluss, but the end of the tale was already clear. It was doubtless an act of defiance as well as memory that led the association to establish this section of the cemetery and place these stones. A reminder of Jewish attachment to their homeland, of the Jewish contribution to the war. To Austria.

But the mute testimony to the futility of the gesture is just a few yards away. There, within a temple-like tomb, are five six foot tall slabs bearing the names of World War I officers and enlisted men killed in the Holocaust.

Once you know how to read them, cemeteries are history books in grass and stone.

Mitchell Abidor, our contributing writer, is the recipient of a Hemingway Grant from the French Ministry of Culture for his new translation of Emmanuel Bove’s A Raskolnikoff. His other new book is Voices of the Paris Commune.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.