A visit to Vienna

Opa’s headstone

Peter Kohn relates a remarkable discovery he made about his grandfather on a visit to Vienna.

On an oppressively warm summer’s day, I stand in a cemetery in Vienna before the grave of my maternal grandfather. I’m in awe, not just because this is only my second visit to his resting place, but because of something extraordinary I’ve just discovered there.

Chaim David Syrop died 90 years ago, on June 11, 1934.

My late mother was a teenager at the time of Opa’s death from a heart attack. She occasionally spoke about her beloved father – his love of coffee, cake and cigarettes in the cafes dotting the streets of Favoriten, Vienna’s 10th District, which was the Caulfield or Bondi Junction of Vienna – with a Jewish ambience of coffee shops, delicatessens and habadasheries. One of the latter stores had been Opa’s.

There he toiled for many years, introducing his son Joschi, my mother’s older brother, to what would become my uncle’s lifelong occupation in the ‘shmatta’ trade.

And my mother spoke about the large clock on the spire of the Keplerkirche (church) looming down on her as she hurried home from school on news of her father’s death. That clock would haunt her for life.

Friends I’ve talked to about Chaim Syrop philosophise that in dying suddenly in 1934, at 55, he was spared all that was lying in wait for Europe’s Jews.

Unlike my uncle Joschi, he would not spend weeks in Dachau in 1938 and 1939. Unlike my mother Edith – and my father Ernst, whom Opa never knew – unlike his grieving wife, my grandmother Sarolta, and  unlike my father’s parents, Ferdi and Jolande, he would not have to scramble for ship’s tickets and sail to the Far East in 1939 as a refugee with only the shirt he was wearing, hoping for admission to the Jewish ghetto in Shanghai.

Opa would not have to witness my parents in mourning when their baby daughter Esther died in infancy in a mabarah while they were waiting to make a new life in Israel in 1949, or, like my grandmother, be lonely for his daughter when she and my father emigrated to the ends of the earth, Melbourne, Australia, in 1951.

Yes, he was spared all that. But I don’t share the philosophy that you’re better off dead. Life’s too precious, and death is a tragedy, especially when it strikes in the prime of life.

In 1995, on my first visit to Europe, I excitedly kept my rendezvous with my parents after I attended a work-related trade fair in Germany.

We met in Vienna, the city of their youth, and we explored its streets, its palaces, its cafes. We visited the old Jewish area, once home to its decimated pre-WWII community.

In 1938, around 170,000 Jews lived in Vienna, as well as some 80,000 of mixed Jewish background. By October 1942 only about 8000 Jews remained in Austria. The Nazis deported approximately 1900 of these in 1943-44. Altogether, some 47,600 Austrian Jews were deported to the east.

The overwhelming majority of these, along with approximately 18,000 refugees to Austria, were murdered in the Shoah.

Today there are some 12,000 Jews living in Vienna, of whom around 8000 are members of the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde (the Jewish Community Centre).

One of the visits my parents and I made was to the Jewish section of the Zentralfriedhof (Central Cemetery). The location of Chaim David’s grave – section, row and grave number – were burnished in my brain.

I’d seen them inscribed on a document that the Kultusgemeinde had presented to my grandmother in 1934, complete with the dates of his yahrzeit on the Hebrew calendar for the following 50 years. The familiar parchment always nestled in a cupboard in my parents’ home.

At the cemetery, a very observant looking Jewish official had assisted us to find Opa’s gravesite, because even with the precise directions, navigating old sections of European cemeteries can be difficult.

But when he stopped and advised that we’d located Opa’s grave, we were puzzled and downcast. There was no gravestone to be seen.

I still recall my mother’s words to the official. “Do you think we’re at the right location?”

The official had replied,. “Madam, I don’t think, I’m sure.”

I’d felt a sadness for the Jews left behind in this cemetery, many, like Opa, without any local family to manage the upkeep of their graves. We were in an area where the grass was long and unkempt, and everything seemed neglected.

My mother hadn’t been back to Europe since she’d left for Australia in 1951. Deeply immersed in this moment, she insisted there had been a stone.

How could it have been otherwise? Had the grave been vandalised, the stone stolen? Such ravages are not beyond comprehension in modern Europe, particularly in parts of cemeteries that have had only scant maintenance.

The official replied that some graves were left unmarked. But my mother was certain that had not been the case with her father’s grave.

After a quarter hour of silent reflection and whispered exchanges – there is so much, and yet so little to think and do at a gravesite — my father and I could see on my mother’s face that it was time to leave. Passing away in 2011, she was not to see her father’s resting place again.

It’s Monday, August 28, 2023. I’m in Vienna, visiting friends, and today I’ll go back to reflect with Opa. I take the U3 metro line to Simmering, then the tram to Tor (Gate) 3 of the cemetery, the line’s terminus.

A local street vendor advises it’s a short walk from here to Tor 4 (the Jewish section). I have all the details with me – section, row, grave number — transcribed from my 1995 diary notes.

I enter the gate of the Jewish section – and a green, peaceful precinct unfolds before me. I follow my directions – Section 22, Row 8, Grave 50. I walk quite a while past well-kept graves.

I ask a groundskeeper who directs me forward. Now the rows of graves are becoming broken, and the surrounds look scruffy.

I find Section 22. But there is no evident Row 8, only 7 and 9. Unsure exactly in which row I’m standing, I venture forth nonetheless.

I determine that the grave lots rise in number from right to left and there are approximately 50 graves in the row. I’m searching for an unmarked grave.

The groundskeeper sees me hunting around, and offers assistance. He counts out the graves and concludes that it must be one of three seemingly unmarked lots, one on the far side of a narrow walkway.

Then at one of the three graves, one lot in from the pair on either side of the walkway, my eye catches something extraordinary. It’s much hotter here now than in the summer of 1995, and the grass is dry and short.

Peeking out from a thatch of weeds is the corner of a granite stone. I pull at the weeds and, in an extremely faint engraving, worn down by the decades, I read “Joachim”. It was Opa’s given name.

We always referred to him by his Hebrew name, “Chaim”, but I know he also went by the German “Joachim”. I’d established that from information I’d been sent in 2013 from the Kultusgemeinde Vorarlberg in Innsbruck, the city my uncle lived in after the war.

Some years later, I received further material from Dr Chiara Renzo, an Italian researcher of postwar Jewish displacement, who I’d interviewed for The AJN when she visited to speak at the Melbourne Holocaust Museum.

Aside from our interview, I’d told Renzo my family’s story. She later sent me information about a Mussolini internment camp where my uncle was imprisoned.

At the time Joschi and his wife were interned, he had given his father’s German name “Joachim” on the internment documents.

Standing by Opa’s grave, I marvel how all these pieces of information are miraculously coalescing!

I claw at the dry, stubborn thatch of grass and slowly manage to rip out more and more weeds. I notice one of my palms is bleeding from my persistent efforts.

I hold my breath as the faint engraving of the surname, “Syrop” emerges. An other-worldly hush descends over me and over the cemetery. I’ve found my grandfather’s headstone, a small horizontal rectangle. A pang of regret courses through me. Why couldn’t my mother have seen this?

Completely freeing the headstone of the weeds, I see the date of Opa’s passing. It’s difficult to read the weathered engraving, but the date is correct. I find three pebbles on the walkway and place them on the stone. I say Kaddish for my grandfather.

And I speak to him about all he had missed – about the war and the Shoah; that his son Joschi would return to Vienna after the war, then establish a textile business in Innsbruck.

And about how the life of his daughter (my mother) unfolded, the wonderful man she would meet and marry – and flee with to Shanghai, to Israel, to Australia – and his little granddaughter who died in that mabarah.

And of me, his grandson, born in Australia in more tranquil times, who would learn about the monumental events narrowly preceding him. He would somehow turn all that legacy into a career in journalism and write stories about Jews and Judaism.

My head still spinning, I need a change of mood and tempo. An hour later, I immerse myself in the bustle of Mariahilferstrasse, a central shopping street, where I buy a small gift for my hosts.

I resolve to arrange for the regular upkeep of Opa’s grave. Perhaps my Viennese friends can help me with this. Some pebbles every year, and some tender loving care is all I want for his resting place.

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