The Tale of the Incredible Renewal of an Ancient Beis Hachaim
While Europe’s soil was drenched with Jewish blood, a group of courageous Jewish men turned their forced labor into a heroic effort and shoveled mounds of earth to hide what they had been instructed to destroy — the gravestones of one of Europe’s oldest existing Jewish cemeteries.
It is difficult to encapsulate within a few pages this incredible story — a story perhaps like no other, of a cemetery like no other.
This is a story of survival and revival.
And it is our story: We too have been knocked down and shattered, but we continue to stand strong.
Follow me as I lead you through the lobby of an old age home to the rear exit, where one is greeted by the tranquility of a beis hachaim. The Jewish cemetery Seegasse, “in der Rossau,” known to many as “the cemetery of the fish” was the final resting place for many of Vienna’s Gedolim of the 17th and 18th centuries; the oldest gravestone dates back to 1540.
After the destruction of its first Jewish community in 1421, Jews were banned from settling in Vienna. By the mid-16th century, several families resided there again, though not as an established community.
This changed in 1624 under Emperor Ferdinand III, who allocated a ghetto for Jews to live in (the center of the Jewish community to this day). The Tosafos Yom Tov, who served as Rav in the capital, writes in his Megillas Eivah: “… I was chosen as Av Beis Din of the capital city Vienna … a city filled with Torah and wisdom, wealth and honor … they were united into a single community, for until then, they lived spread out [across the city]. Due to my intervention, the emperor granted a permanent Jewish quarter, built a shul and other communal needs … ”
The Jewish community grew under the leadership of famous poskim and Gedolei Hador until Emperor Leopold I, influenced by his Spanish wife Margarita Theresa, expelled the Jews in 1670.
Frantic efforts to reverse this decree proved unsuccessful, but the community was still determined to save the beis hachaim. Thanks to a sizable contribution by the affluent Koppel-Fränkel brothers Isaac, Israel, and Enoch, they hsecured a pledge from the mayor of Vienna:
“We mayors and councilors of the imperial royal seat of Vienna hereby declare for us and our descendants … that we desired to preserve the burial and graves … all here unscathed, in the Rossau … and we pledge that said graves and [grave]stones above them … should remain as they were at the time of departure and not be changed ….”
It didn’t take long for Leopold to regret his decision. Desperate to replenish the monarchy’s empty coffers, he invited some wealthy Jews to Vienna. The great Jewish benefactor, Samuel Oppenheimer of Mannheim, Germany, moved to Vienna as an army supplier, court factor, and financier to the emperor. Several years later, Oppenheimer obtained permission for his younger friend, the Gaon Harav Shimshon Wertheimer, to join him in these demanding roles. They bankrolled significant projects, funded wars, and saved the empire from Ottoman invasion and financial ruin.
Upon settling in Vienna, Oppenheimer regained ownership of the cemetery for the Jewish community. It continued to be their burial ground until 1783, with over 1,100 people interred there. It is known to this day as a place where one can effect yeshuos.
Recorded for Eternity
Jewish historian Dr. Bernhard Wachstein wrote the next chapter of this story. Commissioned by the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde (IKG, Vienna’s Jewish community) to document old Jewish cemeteries, he dedicated three years to Seegasse and in 1912 published his compelling and meticulous research in a masterpiece of two volumes: Die Inschriften des alten Judenfriehofes in Wien [The Inscriptions of the Old Jewish Cemetery in Vienna].
Each matzeivah was photographed, measured, and transcribed, with genealogy information and often a full biography. A 1923 article praising Wachstein said: “We hope that the ingenuity… of this tireless researcher… will still do plenty of services to Jewish scholarship.” How true these words would ring a century later!
If these stones could talk …
… They would share the sad tale of how the Nazis seized ownership of the cemetery and forced a group of Jews to destroy it.
“The Nazis wanted them to remove any vestige of a graveyard,” current on-site manager of the cemetery’s restoration and a sculptor by trade, Heinz Stöffler, explains. “They put the Jews to work and didn’t even bother to keep an eye on them.”
It was probably this lack of supervision and the goodwill of a local district commissioner that allowed for one of the most extraordinary rescue efforts of a cemetery during the Holocaust. These heroic men, determined to thwart the Nazis’ plans, proceeded to preserve as many stones as possible by hiding them right there in the cemetery.
“They dug where there were no kevarim,” explains Reb Shmuel Yechiel Schapira, local mashgiach of the Asra Kaddisha. “Following Wachstein’s plan, they knew where no one was buried. Up to five matzeivos were piled on top of each other and covered with earth.”
It was impossible to bury all the headstones. According to Stöffler, the local councilman convinced the Nazis to have many matzeivos transported to the large Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of Vienna. “I have seen letters where he urges them to preserve ‘for future tourist purposes,’” he recalls.
With obvious hashgachah, this scheme remained undetected, and within a few weeks, the Rossau cemetery no longer existed, its underground secret buried for the next 70 years.
After the horrors of the Holocaust, it took several decades for a Jewish community to be re-established in Vienna. Many restituted communal properties were sold in those early years, including the cemetery and adjacent buildings. In the late 1970s, the Viennese municipality drew up plans for an old age home and garden on the cemetery grounds.
The bulldozers shook members of the community awake — the cemetery had to be saved! It was local askan Mr. Moshe Shalom Grussgott, z”l, who alerted Harav Shmuel Halevi Wosner, zt”l, himself a child of Vienna, the Manchester Rosh Yeshivah Harav Yehuda Zev Segal, zt”l, and other Gedolim. Delegations flew in from America and Israel and met with Vienna’s mayor in a desperate rescue attempt.
Three hundred years after the Koppel-Fränkel family obtained a pledge from the Viennese municipality, this promise was kept — the sanctity of the grounds would be maintained. The city returned most of it to the Jewish community, though sadly, parts had already been incorporated into the old age home complex.
In 1983, the IKG tasked Mr. Isidor Sandorffy, z”l, of the chevrah kaddisha, with returning some 200 headstones found in the large cemetery. Aware of the severity of digging in the beis hachaim, Sandorffy consulted with Vienna’s Rav Harav Avraham Y. Schwartz, who in turn conferred with his Rebbi, the Londoner Rav, Harav Henoch Padwa, zt”l, who had been Rav in Vienna before the war (Shu”t Avnei Barzel 3, Siman 13).
Back then it was paskened that no digging was permitted. Matzeivos could only be put back leaning on poles. The only new matzeivah was a replica of Harav Shimshon Wertheimer’s, unveiled in 1995.
Over time they realized that many stones had been replaced in the wrong spot or direction. Under the supervision of the Asra Kaddisha, they commissioned Mr. Stöffler to direct the work.
That is when they made the astounding discovery. “As we set a tombstone into place, we hit on a slab of marble” Mr. Stöffler remembers. “It was getting dark … we ended up working with flashlights late into the night. And there it was — the bottom part of the Oppenheimer tomb.”
This begged the question: Were there more matzeivos hidden?
It was now determined that it was halachically permissible to dig in the cemetery, because it had been discovered that a considerable amount of earth had been added in the 1980s during construction of the old age home, significantly raising its level. With funding from the government, organized by the IKG, the restoration of the beis hachaim was within reach.
“I want to make very clear that digging in a beis hachaim … cannot be taken lightly and [must be] under rigorous supervision,” asserts Mr. Schapira. “Every move is discussed with Gedolei Yisrael. I discussed it with Harav Schwartz who told me to confer with Harav Duvid Schmidl of the Asra Kaddisha, since he was familiar with the grounds since the 1980s.” Harav Schmidl, a Gaon in his own right and leading member of the Asra Kaddisha, had earned the approval and trust of the Brisker Rav, zt”l, in these matters.
Mr. Stöffler reports that he has learned to value preserving the dignity of the dead. “In such cases, one usually employs archaeologists,” he explains, “but [Asra Kaddisha] insisted they have no place in this cemetery. I understand that this work must be done with sensitivity and respect for the deceased.”
For the past 12 years, the cemetery has been sifted for tombstones. “It is a very slow process,” describes Mr. Schapira. “Painstaking work done by experts, who remove small amounts of earth with a small spade.”
“Usually, the stones are discovered close to their grave,” says Stöffler, “but they are sometimes found in other parts of the cemetery or brought back from the large cemetery.”
As the work progressed, many discoveries were made. One such amazing find was parts of Harav Shimshon Wertheimer’s original matzeivah.
The work on the matzeivos has to follow the regulations of the heritage preservation office, Mr. Stöffler explains. “Their aim is not to restore but to preserve the stones. No designs, no engraving of missing letters; we are only allowed to clean it.”
Some matzeivos are found broken into so many pieces that they have to be put back like a mosaic. Stöffler describes, “We create the frame of the matzeivah according to Wachstein’s measurements. With the help of Wachstein’s book and pre-war pictures, Mr. Schapira proceeds to arrange the broken shards, and the gaps are filled with a similar color cement.”
Priority is given to positioning the matzeivos in their original place. Where bases are still intact, it is easy; otherwise, the earth is inspected for “shadows” — signs of where the tombstones were removed. Then a new foundation is poured and the restored headstone is secured into place. Pre-war photos help confirm location and direction. “The greatest simchah is when we are able to place a matzeivah in its correct place,” says Mr. Schapira.
“There is exceptional siyatta diShmaya beyond derech hateva in this cemetery,” he adds. “I could write a book on all the amazing experiences. These are surely in the zechus of those buried there.”
Mr. Schapira illustrates with the story of the matzeivah of Harav Sheftel Horowitz: “The matzeivah was found and put back years ago, with a large piece missing. Several years ago, the Pshevorsker Rebbe, Harav Leibish Leizer, shlita, of Antwerp, told us to repair it, even if only with an empty slab [according to Austrian preservation law]. We removed the stone for repairs on a Friday and, two days later, during a random visit to the large beis hachaim, we discovered the missing piece!”
Mr. Stöffler adds, “We had five different versions of the cemetery map and didn’t know which plan to rely on. Then we made a remarkable discovery — the only grave that corresponds in all the maps is Rabbi Horowitz’s. It’s as though he’s the point of origin, the source for all others.”
Indeed, Harav Sheftel’s tziyun is the source of many brachos. “I heard from one of the Skolya einiklach,” Mr. Schapira relates, “‘Men flegt zugn, in Seegasse ken men poilin, as afile a holtz soll hobn kinder. It has been said that in the seegasse (cemetery) one can accomplish that even a piece of wood should be able to have children.’” To this day, it is the most visited kever in the beis hachaim, especially on Erev Rosh Chodesh Sivan when many come to recite Tefillas HaShelah.
“This work is more a zechus than a job; it is avodas hakodesh,” concludes Mr. Schapira. “Can we fathom the greatness of the people buried here? Fixing Rav Sheftel’s kever, or that of other tzaddikim, can we grasp how lofty a task that is? The same goes for the other ‘ordinary’ people — every guf clothing a Yiddishe neshamah is holy. I thank Hashem for the zechus and ability to be metapel with them. All I want is to be marbeh kvod Shamayim.”
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“The Cemetery of the Fish”
Amongst the more than 1,100 buried here are members of notable families — Auerbach, Bachrach, Chalfan, Heller-Wallerstein (including the son of the Tosafos Yom Tov), Horowitz, Lucerna, Meschulmim (del-Banco), Oppenheimer, Rappa from Porto (Rappaport, including Rav Gershon and his son Rav Simchah, the baal Kol Simchah), Schick, Theomim (Leml), and Wertheim.
The Gaon Harav Manoach Hendl (Chochmas Manoach), quoted by the Bach on several occasions, served as Rav in Vienna in his final years and passed away on 22 Tammuz, 5371/1611.
Harav Shabtai Sheftel Horowitz (Vavei HaAmudim), son of the Shelah Hakadosh, presided as Rav of the community until his passing on 28 Nisan, 5420/1660.
Harav Shimshon Wertheimer, Chief Rabbi of Hungary, posek, teacher of many Gedolim, including the Noda BiYehudah, a great baal tzedakah and the emperor’s financier, passed away on 17 Av, 5484/1744.
Harav Yechiel Michel of Glogau (Nezer Hakodesh) was invited by Rav Shimshon to Vienna and is also buried in the beis hachaim.
Numerous notable mekubalim are found there, including Harav Yaakov Temerls (Sifra d’Tzniyusa d’Yaakov) and Rav Elchanan, about whom the Shach stated, “There was no greater mekubal in his day.”
There is also the kever of 10-year-old Avraham ben Hirtz Kamen Dayan, on whose gravestone it is written, “a treasure trove of knowledge, filled with Torah [wisdom] on par with the Gedolim,” famous as a place to daven for yeshuos. “He had a lofty soul…” writes Harav Shimon Fürst in his sefer Ir Hagolah.” “With my own eyes I saw how most visitors to the cemetery would visit this lad’s grave.”
Amongst the illustrious and pious women is Eleonora Lea Wertheimer, nee Oppenheimer, a unique figure in her day. Granddaughter of Rav Shmuel, she married Rav Shimshon’s son Wolf and dedicated her life to chessed, using her vast riches to support talmidei chachamim. Another is Sarah Preyera, of the converso family Y Aguilar, who moved with her son Diego from Spain in the early 18th century to live openly as a Jew.
Perhaps the most intriguing headstone found in the cemetery is that of “The Fish.” An old legend tells of a fish shouting Shema Yisrael before dying. Because, according to Kabbalah, the neshamos of tzaddikim are reincarnated in fish, this particular fish was buried. Opinions vary on the source and legitimacy of this legend. Mr. Schapira insists he heard from an old Viennese Jew that before the war, a small stone attached had the inscription, “Here is buried [a] fish.” Others, including Harav Henoch Padwa, maintained that it was a water fountain outside the beis hachaim that at some point was moved inside.
In the 19th century, gravestones discovered in various parts of Vienna, some dating back to the times of the Rishonim, were set into the cemetery wall. Their places of burial are lost but at least the names of the deceased are remembered.