Burgenland is a state of Austria encompassing the entire eastern border adjacent to Hungary. The Bucklige Welt, or Hunchback World, is a region of foothills situated in the southeastern corner of Lower Austria particularly suited to hiking and biking. Also called “The Land of a Thousand Hills,” Bucklige Welt shares the northern corner of Burgenland. As an American “tourist,” I’d describe the area as Austria’s best-kept secret.
The secrets to my Semitic past have been left behind in the remaining homes, synagogues, and cemeteries of the Austrian Jews from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. The unfortunate tides of history have forever altered access to those secrets. Homes and synagogues were torn down and aryanized while cemeteries were desecrated and/or destroyed. Larger cemeteries in key cities were often lost to the ravages of war. Many of those cities, such as Wiener Neustadt, have made quite successful attempts at restoring their historical town centers to their former glory, despite the loss of vibrant and thriving Jewish sectors.
In smaller towns and villages, cemeteries remained intact as their Jewish citizens were taken away to meet their fate. After the living were disposed of, their cemeteries were usually cataloged and then desecrated and destroyed by whatever means deemed appropriate. People first; then cemeteries. Cemeteries that remained intact following the armistice of 14 August 1945, were simply left to the elements and/or whims of city planners.
Jewish cemeteries in Europe fared much better than their human populations. In most cases, the few Jews who survived did not return to reclaim their old homes, preferring to relocate outside of Europe altogether. Many of the old Jewish cemeteries were kept under lock and key by the city council, local historians, or whoever cared the most to see that memories were not lost and religious customs and rites were honored wherever possible. Such caretakers are volunteer “Gentiles (non-Jews)” who have learned kosher protocol through trial and error.
With few exceptions, Gentile tourists are not generally allowed in to Jewish cemeteries anywhere. There are, though, larger cemeteries in European cities with returned Jewish populations making exceptions for the sake of Shoah remembrance. –We must learn from the mistakes of our past. Following a short education of specific respectful protocol to be observed and the provision of ritual head coverings, tourists who agree to meet expectations are allowed in.
Such was not the case with any of the Jewish cemeteries I visited. I was very fortunate to have appointments made before my arrival, and because I can identify as Jewish through my grandmother, I was allowed in. Of course, as with every town and village that I entered, my goal was the same: to find remnants of my Jewish family, and graveyards were my best hope.
A pivotal appointment to visit two cemeteries and Museum in Eisenstadt was not only informative but extremely helpful in my own genealogical research. I was scheduled to meet with Johannes Reiss, a man of many trades including museum curator, researcher, cemetery caretaker, and blogger at the Austrian Jewish museum in Eisenstadt. During my visit, Herr Reiss informed me that he had scheduled a visit to Cleveland Ohio as a speaker at the 39th International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (IAJGS) Conference in July. His topic? How to read Hebrew tombstones. I was thrilled because I have no clue how to interpret my own family’s tombstones. I had originally wanted to meet Herr Reiss in Cleveland to see his presentation and take him to dinner as thanks for opening up the museum and cemeteries to me, but I had already scheduled a family flight to Utah which coincidentally happened on the same day the conference opened. Fortunately, his presentation is available online at https://www.ojm.at/blog/2019/08/02/hilfe-ich-kann-nicht-hebraeisch/. This should prove quite helpful in the future.
For the remainder of October 2019, I will focus my blog posts solely on the Jewish cemeteries of the specific burial sites I visited in the Bucklige Welt and Burgenland. Their stories and how they relate to my family are both unique and varied. I hope you find them as compelling as I did.
With thanks to Dr. Ruth Contreras who managed my itinerary, provided ground transportation, and arranged food and lodging during my visit. For the most part, all I had to do was show up.