Field Trip Time!
I was recently in Vienna Austria for a conference, and I have to say what I was most excited about was visiting the Zentralfriedhof again. This is the big “central cemetery” in Vienna. When I was in Europe 2 years ago was my first time in Vienna and this was on my list due to the fact that Beethoven is buried here. But that wasn’t what stuck with me. Let’s start with a little history and then we can wander through this amazing spot.
The Zentralfriedhof is a planned interfaith cemetery outside of the city center in Vienna. It was built in the 1860s as the other smaller cemeteries started to fill up in Vienna. At first there was some controversy due to the interfaith nature of the cemetery, not only a variety of Christian paths but also Muslim, Buddhist and Jewish sections.
From the city center I took the s-bhan 7 and entered at the back of the cemetery from gate 11. I have entered through this gate every time now. The first time my husband and I were just on a little adventure and gleefully wandered in excited to explore and were immediately struck by this off site. On our left was an old overgrown cemetery, that looked abandoned. On the right where freshly decorated graves and a man with a mower trimming the grass. We got quiet and walked into the Zentralfriedhof. After a minute we began wondering to ourselves what was going on. We started to look at the names and dates on the stones to our left. All of them were around WWI, and then stopped. We said “huh” and went on our way to find who we came to see. I visited Beethoven and thanked him for his music that had been a huge help in some very dark years. It was a hot day so we didn’t last too long before we started back to the gate we had entered in. This time we wandered into the overgrown section and it became very clear where we were. This is the old Jewish section of the Zentralfriedhof. It felt heavy, and lonely, and oh so very sad. When we got back we looked up the history of this section and learned we were right. The impression we had had in that section was that we were face to face with the Holocaust. It turns out that there are two Jewish sections, and that the older was partially destroyed in Kristallnacht. The second newer Jewish section established in 1917 is still in use today.
Now, I went back this year. I was prepared. I was there for the cemetery. I went on a Sunday morning, and the air was clear and crisp. I have never been to a cemetery that has stuck with me so deeply. I entered at tor-11 and flicked my normal payment into the long grass. No one was around and as I walked straight into the old Jewish section I whispered “I came back. I’m here. I remembered you.” At first the mood was as heavy as I remembered. Such a physical reminder of history that as an American is almost abstract, stories in videos and books. Here it was in my face. Here is WWI and here is WWII. I began to think about the world today and how much hate there is against groups of people. I cried. I sat in the grass and cried. There is so much beauty in humans and so much darkness. We can be amazingly warm and welcoming and amazingly cold and hateful. The first feeling I had was one of “don’t forget the past” and I continued wandering saying to myself “I won’t forget”. I came to a mausoleum that I think is dedicated to soldiers from WWI but I don’t read Hebrew. Walked in and looked up at the sky, and began to smile. This section felt like it was obsessed with not being forgotten, and had become overgrown. But the result was beautiful! I could see the blue sky between the branches of a beautiful tree.
This was the inflection point of my first visit back. I kept wandering looping through pointing out all the beautiful to whatever and whoever would listen. “Look at that tree blooming! How beautiful is that!?” over and over. This section is beautiful. Look at your flowers, look at your trees. I saw deer grazing between the stones. Look at your wildlife! You are not forgotten, and you have the best section! By the end I was laughing and marveling at the artful way nature was slowly swallowing the stones.
When I stepped onto another road between the Jewish section and a manicured section my heart was light, the sun was out, the bells were ringing in the central church and the birds were singing. I kept exploring more of the cemetery and found myself at the main entrance. I hadn’t made it to the front last time. Facing that giant fancy gate (everything in Vienna is so over the top) I took a right. The wall separating the street outside from the world inside was set with old grave stones. I would learn some of their history later. I wandered and ended up in a sculpture garden.
First of all, I love sculpture. Second, this was a sculpture garden that incorporated the natural world around it. So I loved it right away. One was set up to have fire? Amazing. I wandered deeper again through the grass with dandelions and daisies and found standing stones. Twelve stones set in a circle with a tree in the middle. One perfect for sitting. Sitting there I remember thinking “I found it. My happy place. This is the most amazing spot in the world.” There were also three circles inside the stones set in brick and I walked these circles in a walking meditation. It was getting later in the morning at this point and more people were around and I saw a family with small kids enter the garden. I didn’t was to deprive the kids of discovering this awesome stone circle so I kept wandering. I passed an outline of a cathedral with trees inside on my way out.
As I wandered back through the cemetery more or less towards the gate I needed to exit I had this nagging feeling to explore this little path between two graves. It looked relatively well used. When I wandered back into the trees I found a little grave. But when I turned around to go back out sometime caught my eye. It was a small toy hearse attached to the tree about a foot off the ground. There was a small plastic vial in the back and as I pulled it out I smiled knowing what it was. A geocahe! I unrolled the paper and write my geocache name and replaced it. By this time I was getting a little hungry and it was time to head back to town. Walking to the train station I noticed several older ladies with little bags. These bags all had little brushes sticking out, and they had obviously been out on a Sunday morning maintaining the graves of loved ones. What a beautiful spot and a lovely tradition. I really don’t know why people don’t like cemeteries.
I met up with a friend later and when he asked what I had done that morning, and I had told him I had visited the central cemetery he expressed interest in seeing it as well. So later in the week, again in the morning back I went. This time entering by tor-11 I had a smile on my face right away. “I came back again!” I whispered to the old Jewish section. This time the section took me to a different spot with my friend. This one has visible damage from when the cemetery was bombed in WWII. But, our visit in this section was short. My friend was more interested in seeing more of the cemetery. We had a lovely morning exploring more, and I gave a quick wave to the section as we left.
This place was built at a time of great expansion in Vienna, and the thought of that empire collapsing must have not even crossed the minds of the Viennese. But the cemetery slowly fills, and there is still life there. Deer, rabbits, and birds, along with visitors. It is still a beautiful spot and full of history. Well worth a visit. Or two. Or three…. Who knows I may get called back again! I will put a gallery of photos on the facebook page