Historiographer Tina Walzer looks at a stone 16 August 2007 at the Jewish cemetery in Wahring, Vienna.
VIENNA (AFP)---Forgotten behind its high walls, one of Europe’s most important 19th-century Jewish cemeteries, now dilapidated, desperately awaits salvation after years of indifference on the part of Viennese authorities.
Over 7,000 graves dating from 1784 to 1874 when Austria was at the height of the industrial revolution, are facing total ruin in Vienna’s Waehring cemetery, worn as they are by time, overrun with weeds and sometimes vandalised.
"It is a jewel unequalled in Central Europe. And look what has become of it," said Austrian historian Tina Walzer, who has been trying for 15 years to save the site.
Past the heavy wooden gate, usually closed to visitors, the cemetery recalls the jungle-invaded Cambodian temple of Angkor Wat.
At the foot of hundred-year-old linden trees, thousands of Biedermeier-style tombs have been overrun by weeds, giving the place an almost surreal feeling.
"If nothing is done very quickly, the damage will be irreparable," Walzer said.
A few sections cleared out by volunteers led by the historian point to the cemetery’s historic significance: here rest the Jewish masters of finance, industry and railroads who helped the Austrian economy take off in the 19th century.
Beautiful Ashkenazi graves of polished granite, adorned with epitaphs in German, or more rarely in Hebrew, compete with more Oriental-looking tombs that are unique north of the Alps, according to Walzer.
"These are the tombs of Sephardis from the Ottoman Empire, who were allowed to settle in Vienna following an agreement with the Sublime Porte (the Ottoman court)," she added.
Although some 2,000 tombs were destroyed under the Nazis and about 200 others were violated and the bodies transferred to Vienna’s Natural History museum, where they disappeared, the cemetery was spared the systematic rampage that was perpetrated elsewhere under the Third Reich.
Instead, it is now being neglected by the Austrian state, although the latter is responsible for maintaining and preserving all Jewish cemeteries under an agreement signed in Washington in 2001.
"Unlike Germany, which very early accepted its responsibilities towards the Jewish community (after the Holocaust), Austria is struggling to come to terms with its past. The current situation flows from that," said the head of Vienna’s Israeli community IKG, Raimund Fastenbauer.
The alliance of conservatives and the far right that was in power until January also explains why the state was for so long unwilling to do anything, Vienna’s Deputy Mayor Renate Brauner, a Social Democrat, added.
"The city of Vienna called on the State several times to shoulder its reponsibilities, but in vain," she told AFP.
Things could soon change. In mid-July, Parliament President Barbara Prammer, another Social Democrat, announced on a trip to Jerusalem that preliminary studies would be launched in the autumn with a view to beginning restoration work on the cemetery in "two to three years."
Clearing and restoring the site, estimated to cost some 14 million euros, could take between six and ten years, she added.
But Fastenbauer was cautious: "The gesture is encouraging, but only results matter: until now, declarations of this sort have had no follow-up," he told AFP.
"The Waehring cemetery does not need new studies, but immediate measures," Walzer added.