Bringing Back the Names: The Restoring of the Jewish Cemetery of Mistelbach

In collaboration with Benjamin Smith-Mannschott
(Published 1998 in the magazine “David”)


At an access road to a suburban settlement many people pass the Jewish graveyard of Mistelbach every day. The settlement consists of multilevel houses from the 70s. On the road there is a wall that makes the graveyard almost invisible from the street. At another side the graveyard is only separated from the life in the settlement and a playground by a fence. Nevertheless it is a very quiet place with a peaceful atmosphere, which overwhelms me when walking down the main pathway.

Despite the location one can talk of certain solitude of the graveyard, since the house built next to it does not allow any view from the street. Only a small plate next to the door points to its existence. The door is old. One has to be careful not to push the key too far into the keyhole. The inexperienced visitor might have difficulties to unlock it. Once you entered you find yourself surrounded by walls. Only a few steps and you’ve reached the end of the house wall on the right. In front of you are some garbage containers since a woman lived there in the past years. She should have taken care of the graveyard. But she and her sister “have been bitten so badly by fruit flies when mowing the grass” --- one needs to understand the hardships! Turning to the right, make a bigger step and you reach the staircase to the graveyard. The iron door is plain and without a lock. Behind it are steps that have crumbled in the past decades. Mounting the stairs and two more steps and one reaches another door – wood in an iron frame. The resident used to put some garden chairs at the place next to the wooden door. They have vanished. The house is empty now.

Crossing the wooden door, one can see the graves of honor [1].  Somebody has planted currant bushes there. Didn’t he know that a graveyard is not an orchard? Today they are no longer there. The graveyard does not seem to be big, but there are 112 graves. The trees are old and so it is cool and shady even on the hottest summer days. There is much to sense, see and learn.

On the right the rows of graves continue. On the left there is vacant space. When one walks uphill one realizes that there is more vacant space on the left. But who could guess the tragic end of the communities when the graveyard was still in the planning stage? [As it turned out after this article was published, some headstones also vanished.] 

The graveyard has some significance that is remarkable. The stones are of different materials, size and appearance. Some are decorated. There is a weeping willow at the grave of Heinrich and Henriette Blau. Blessing hands of the Kohanim are engraved into the stones of Gottfried Kohn, Jakob Kohn and Heinrich Kohn. Some stones are decorated on the side by flower tendrils. The Star of David can be seen on the grave of Mizzi Thein, who had only lived for 2 months. It protrudes out of the stone just like the letters.

The people who were buried in Mistelbach came from a rather large area. This is remarkable considering the transport facilities at the early 20
th century. The following towns mark the places of residence of the buried: Ernstbrunn, Gnadendorf, Hautzendorf, Laa an der Thaya, Maehrisch Weisskirchen, Mistelbach, Niedersulz, Paasdorf, Schrick, Wolkersdorf.

The last grave on the right side is the only tomb at the graveyard. Actually it is a set of three tombs next to each other, but only the middle one carries the headstone. Only two of them were used. At first Albert Drill from Laa an der Thaya was given a final resting place. He died at just 28 years when trying to check the heating in the cellar of his parents’ newly built house. Gas emerged from the broken machinery and so Albert suffocated. The parents engraved on the stone what his death meant to them: “The pillar broke, the only son, all hope rests in this grave”. His mother Dorothea died in 1938 and is buried next to her son.
Joseph Kolb, the nephew of Ignaz Drill who survived in the USA, had “in Memoriam Ignaz Drill” engraved into the headstone. Ignaz Drill was brought from Austria to Terezin in the 8th transport with the inmate’s number 559. From there he was taken to another camp, most likely Maly Trostinec on September 26th 1942 (transport number 1807)[2]. We are also reminded of the Holocaust in two other places of the graveyard. Joseph Kolb also had the names of the Holocaust victims of two families engraved into their family’s headstones. At the grave of Leopold Edelhofer one can read “Gassed in Auschwitz: Franziska 62, Helene 41, Fred 11, Elfi 6”. At Philipp Länger’s headstone one finds: “Died in concentration camps: Family Ferdinand Länger, Family Josefine Max, nee Länger and Gisela Länger.”

Joseph Kolb, born and raised in Gaweinstal, has left more traces on the Jewish graveyard in Mistelbach. Every time he visited the old home after WW2 he put printed labels on the graves of his grandmother Julie Kolb, his aunt Dorothea and several families they were friends with. He left them as signs of his commemoration and to show possible visitors that he had been there – that he had survived. Last summer the descendants of Moritz Feldsberg followed his example and wrote with black paint on his headstone “your grandchildren Daniel Isabel Feldsberg great-grandchildren 30/6/98 / Columbia”. If one does not assume a shaky grasp of the German language, one can derive from the inscription that two grandchildren with their children had undertaken the long journey from Southern America to the grave of their grandfather.

Near the stone plate on Karl Eisinger’s grave (coffeehouse owner in Vienna, born in Mistelbach), there is a vast number of stones. They have been moved by wind and weather or fallen branches and are spread now all over the grave. When I visited Lilly Kolb (his only daughter) in her new home in the USA I asked her about the meaning. When Lilly Kolb visited her father’s grave many years ago (he died when she was 14 years old [3]) she laid out these stones writing “Love, Lilly” in big letters. This is just one example of the strong connection of the descendants to those who were laid to rest there. It also shows how painful the distance must be for them.

The oldest stone at the Jewish graveyard in Mistelbach might be the one of Mirjam Bauer (died 1889). The grave of Emanuel Hauser might even be older. It has a headstone made from sand stone and is very weather-beaten. His name can only be deciphered when the light and shade conditions are right. It is only certain that he died in the same decade as Mirjam Bauer. It is quite likely that he was a child like her, but the stone was broken horizontally in its middle. One can assume that people did that because the headstone of Paul Isak Abeles, who was only one year old and which is very close to the one of Emanuel Hauser, shows the same lines of fracturing. In between those two graves is another child’s grave (Friedrich Schmitz). We found his tomb stone on the other side of the cemetery. It is the little, thin headstone of a baby who died after a week. It is so light that I could lift it up, take it under my arm and bring it back to its original place. For hard boots it must have been an easy to task to kick it down. Several other headstones show chippings, which only can be caused by the Nazis. Even massive marble was chipped. One can see most clearly on the headstone of religion teacher Max Fleischmann and his wife Johanna how much destructive energy was released here. The small massive pedestal was pushed to the back and the little grey headstone was broken in two in its middle. Even the commemorative tablet for the fallen soldiers of the First World War was damaged. It was broken into two parts. It leans against the graveyard’s wall, but it cannot be the original spot were it once was mounted. The wall has a protruding base and the wall above the base is not as high as the commemorative tablet had been before it was damaged. We could not find any holes or hooks in the graveyard’s wall though, which would tell where the tablet was once displayed.

Two memorial plates and at least one stone are missing. Some graves do not have edging and so there might me more headstones missing. There is just one edging with a missing headstone, but there is at least one child’s grave missing. The edging is too big though that it could fit a child’s grave. A further indication is the empty space on the right side close to the children’s graves. Most devastation had been done there. Mrs. Dombey [4] told me that a Nazi had used
headstones for paving his garden path. Lilly Kolb [5] saw the graveyard desecrated and besmeared with swastikas when she visited her father’s grave before her flight. Alice Gruenwald wrote: “My grandparents Samuel and Charlotte Muenz lived in Mistelbach at Bahnhofstrasse – corner Gartengasse. [...] They had four children. Their youngest son Julius was killed by an Italian grenade in the First World War. […] Their oldest son Moritz died as a child. He, Julius and my grandmother are buried at the graveyard in Mistelbach. When I visited Mistelbach in the year 1964 the stones were no longer there.” [6] 

Remarkable is the headstone of M. Steiner. It was obviously not made by a professional, but cast in a concrete-like material. The letters were either etched not too deeply into the stone with a tool like a nail, or some surface material fell off and only the letters that were engraved more deeply remained. Only the first letter of the first name and the last name can be deciphered. All data is lost and this leaves room for speculation. Probably it was a pauper’s grave, but the base was made from the very same light grey stone as all surrounding bases. They can’t be described as looking like a pauper’s graves. It seems likely that the buried person died around the annexing of Austria by Hitler Germany, so the stonemason did not finish his job at the Jewish graveyard (there is a case in Mikulov where the writing was only partly finished). Another possibility that comes to mind is that a survivor found his relative’s headstone missing and for some reason did not have the means to let a professional make a new headstone.

The impetus to take care of the Jewish graveyard of Mistelbach happened in summer 1993.Through my research on the Jewish community of Laa I had come in contact with Karola Zucker, who had been born in Laa but lived in Israel at that time. After my visit in 1993 she also spent some days with me in Laa. During her stay she wanted to visit the graves of her grandparents Lina and Leopold Blau. Both had died before she was born, so visiting their graves was of great importance to her. (Her parents do not have a known last resting place since they were murdered in Auschwitz.) The wildly overgrowing grass and weeds shocked us. Nobody should enter the graveyard and find it in such a condition.

In the first years our work mainly focused on gardening. Stones had to be cut free from the close embrace of bushes. Smaller headstones were lifted up from the ground and leaned at their base so that the writing was visible again. This was only possible for stones of a maximum height of 1 meter. Bigger stones were simply too heavy to move manually. Trees that threatened to throw over headstones were cut down. With battery powered grass trimmers we cut the grass on the graves. The memorial of Family Drill was freed from the moss. At some spots we planted ivy and periwinkle. According to Mrs. Zucker’s wish we also planted flowers at her grandparents’ grave. The stone of Heinrich and Henriette Blau seemed about to fall over at any time. So we supported it with an iron wedge. But it was not only the gardener’s perspective that urged us to take action. Many headstones had been damaged by the weather conditions of the past decades.

About half of the headstones are made of black marble or granite. These materials don’t weather badly and the writing on them is as clearly visible after 60 year as it was on the first day. But other inscriptions could hardly or not be read any longer. So we started to restore those stones. First we had to come up with ways to clean the stones. In the end the following procedure was developed for any stones but sandstones: First one had to strongly brush the stones with abrasive brushes. So the lichens are removed. The lichens splash away in little parts and sooner or later cover the person brushing. If one brushed long and thoroughly enough at least the capital letters will be visible. Those lichens which cannot be removed by the brush because they are stuck too firmly in the edges of letters can be removed by scratching with a thin twig. The headstone is not damaged by this method. With a tiny twig one can also uncover the thinly written dates of birth and death.

For the next step one needs an awl tool. The small letters can be carefully cleaned from dirt and lichens with it. Then one needs a piece of cloth to wipe the grave one more time. Through the work with brush, twig and awl tool one has made the headstone much cleaner and most importantly the writing visible. Still it would make sense to highlight the letters, so that they will not be invisible again as soon at the lichens return. So one has to highlight them with paint. The stonemason in Laa advised us to use concrete paint. Gold cannot be applied without special tools and knowledge. White and medium gray paint is best because it is not too bright but makes the letters much more visible. A very thin hair pencil is best for coloring the letters. One does not need any artistic talents or the hands of a surgeon; dedication to the work is enough to have a good result.

It takes several hours to restore one headstone. The longest time we spent on a single stone was 9 hours, a headstone with a short text might take about 3 hours. In the past summer we renovated 22 stones this way. We started with the ones that were in the worst condition in the middle section of the graveyard. Only during the renovation it turned out that these were children’s graves. In this part of the cemetery, which stretches from the left side to the right side of the main path, children from the age of 7 days (Friedrich Schmitz) to 12 years (Mirjam Bauer) are buried. From there we continued with stones at different areas of the graveyard – again starting with the ones in bad condition. None of us had done anything similar before we renovated the stones. It does not take unusual tools or abilities to do it – the willpower and the desire are the strongest ingredients.

When working on June 31
st of last year at the graveyard something special happened. It was noon when I was busy at the top end of the graveyards and felt thirsty. When I walked down the main path I was surprised by somebody coming up the staircase: two elderly ladies and a young woman. I never would have expected to meet anybody there since the graveyard is hardly visited. I walked towards them and asked them whose grave they wanted to visit. It turned out that one of the ladies originally was from Ernstbrunn. Her name was Ida Dombey and she had come all the way from London to visit her father’s grave (Adolf Pulgram). The other ladies were her former neighbor and the neighbor’s daughter. We talked for a while and she told me that her family had lived for 150 years in Ernstbrunn and that they always had been good neighbors. But when the Nazis came to power they were no longer allowed to leave the house. They even had to put a bin into a corner of one room to relieve themselves. Her sisters Gisela and Henriette and her Mother Clotilde Pulgram were killed in concentration camps. So she was the only survivor in her family.

She also told me how horrible the Nazis had treated the Jews in Mistelbach. They were locked into ice cellars until they were almost frozen and then they were driven out and beaten up. They were not allowed to look at the faces of their tormentors, but a few of the tortured were still able to look at them. We exchanged addresses and soon they were gone.

I continued my work until another break at about 4 PM. Walking up and down the graveyard we talked about which stones to clean next when suddenly a woman of approximately 70 years was standing next to me. One can image how surprised I was. It turned out that she and her husband had come from Australia to visit the graves of his grandparents, Josef and Moritz Trebitsch from Mistelbach. It was their fifth visit to Austria and they had never met anybody at the graveyard. They were as astonished to meet us there as we were. When Mr. Trebitsch said good-bye he added that meeting us here was for him “like a party with colorful paper lanterns – such a joy”.

Acquaintances keep asking us why we take care of the Jewish graveyard of Mistelbach. More often than one would expect they wonder why the survivors’ descendants would not take care “just like Christians do”. Others, who have been to a Jewish graveyard, wonder if we are even allowed to do what we are doing since all Jewish graveyards look this way. Those people only take account of what they know and think that therefore it must be right. None of them seem to have thought about who should take care of the graveyard instead – the relatives of those buried were either murdered or driven away. Usually also the grandchildren of those buried are well advanced in years. Those who think that Jewish graveyards were usually just left unattended and therefore grass and weeds should continue to overgrow it should visit the graveyard in Mistelbach in May or June. The grave of Lina and Leopold Blau is covered with white daffodils. Roses in all shades of pink and red bloom on other graves. Those flowers were planted more than 60 years ago and have remained true to those resting places, which they decorate every summer. If the buried had not been important to their families, why would they have planted those flowers? They honored their deceased dear ones and this is what we want to do through our efforts, too. And to honor those who once cried for their loved ones there and have no graves of their own since they were murdered. Those who escaped and their descendants should find a well-kept graveyard. They shall be spared the pain to find their relatives’ graves neglected and unreadable.

[1] Interview with Lilly Kolb, July 21st 1994
[2] "Totenbuch Theresienstadt", editor: Mary Steinhauser and Dokumentationsarchiv des österreichischen Widerstandes, page 21, column 2
[3] Interview with
Lilly Kolb, July 21st 1994
[4] Ida Dombey July 31st 1997
[5] Interview with
Lilly Kolb, July 21st 1994
[6] Letter by
Alice Gruenwald, October 2nd 1995