In 1975, I gathered a few clues from my mother and, after searching for hours among jumbled row markers and dense underbrush, found her mother’s grave, dating from 1915, in the Jewish part of the Zentralfriedhof, the main cemetery in Vienna. I took my mother there in 1983 and we made a rice-paper rubbing of the inscription.
This summer I came again to Vienna — and I could no longer find the grave. An aggressive variety of ivy had obliterated the writing on most of the headstones; others had collapsed or been uprooted by the ravages of time. I wandered among the jumbled stones and row markers for hours, searching in frustration.
The nearly 100-year narrative of my grandmother Regina’s grave has apparently reached a kind of closure: from oblivion to oblivion, from the dust of her remains to that of the gravestone itself. But its many meanings remain with her not-so-young-anymore grandson.
My grandmother’s grave in Vienna is an anomaly. Surrounded by headstones inscribed in German, Regina’s headstone is inscribed in modern Hebrew rhyme, mourning the loss of “a tender-hearted mother to her children, plucked in the spring of her days midst hardship and wandering.”
Regina and those four children, including my mother, then 10 years old, fled the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia upon the outbreak of World War I and made their way to the imperial capital, Vienna. Regina’s husband Joseph, the grandfather for whom I am named and at the time a reserve medic in the Austro-Hungarian army, went off to war and immediately disappeared at the legendary battle of Przemysl. For two years he was assumed dead, until the Russians plucked him from a Siberian prison and handed him over in a prisoner exchange.
So when Regina died of tuberculosis only a few months after the war began, her young children were declared orphans and were taken in by relatives. The Viennese Jewish community buried her in the Zentralfriedhof but observed the custom of the Brody area of Galicia, where for years headstones had been inscribed in Hebrew verse.
Staring at that grave in 1975, clearing away the underbrush of a long-neglected resting place to reveal the headstone’s moving message, I — an Israeli-by-choice from a non-Zionist American family — for the first time encountered the Hebrew roots I had never known existed.
Further persistent inquiry was to reveal that my paternal grandfather, who died in the 1920s in America, was a fluent Hebrew speaker and an active Zionist, that his brother had fought alongside Trumpeldor in the Zion Mule Corps in World War I and that, at the time, David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi were house guests of the family in Washington.
No one had ever told me, nor had I known what to ask. But there it was: the Zionist bug, two generations back, in my genes.
None of my many cousins, Regina’s other grandchildren, has ever tried to visit her grave. This seems to be my preoccupation alone. I realize that this need to make occasional contact with her memory and my own distant roots is tied to the path that I alone of the extended family have chosen to follow in life; hence my unease over the loss of my grandmother’s grave.
Regina’s fate brought home to me my own refugee origins, too. Somewhere in Galicia, today Ukraine, lie the ruins of a streamside flour mill abandoned by my mother in wartime just a generation ago. I often mention this to third-generation Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war to illustrate the absurdity of their demand for the “right of return.”
Can I demand the right of return to that mill in Ukraine? Can I argue with a straight face that “my grandmother left the key with the Polish neighbors”? Even the Israeli readiness to pay compensation goes further than anything envisioned elsewhere in 1915 or 1948 or, for that matter, today.
One of the startling aspects of my visits to the grave has been the way the recovery of the Viennese Jewish community is reflected in trips to the Zentralfriedhof. In 1975 the old Jewish section was an unkempt jungle. I obtained the plot, row and grave number at a tiny hut occupied by an old man with a yellowed card file — all, like the cemetery itself, survivors of the Nazi era.
Today, the high grass around the headstones is regularly scythed, the cemetery office is housed in a grandiose new building, the grave’s location is part of a computerized database manned by a Hebrew-speaking Haredi, and the cemetery is once again expanding. Vienna’s revitalized Jewish community is hardly reminiscent of the days of Freud and Herzl, but it is clearly back in business.
The reason for my three trips to Vienna since 1975 has always been the Arab-Israeli conflict. I came first on assignment with the government of Israel, and more recently as a private participant in informal meetings with Palestinians and other Arabs. Visits to the grave were an ancillary activity for which I would set aside half a day.
Since I first found my grandmother’s grave, we Jews and Arabs have made some peace and fought more wars. The grave is now obliterated, and we’re still at it.
Yossi Alpher, a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, is co-editor of the Bitterlemons family of online publications.