White Hanukkah

December 8, 2010

I can’t remember when we last had a proper White Christmas around here, and I’ve got no idea what the chances are for having one this year. While there has been loads and loads of snow over this past week, it probably won’t last. Well, at least you can say that Vienna’s small Jewish community has had a White Hannukah this year …

Since writing the above, two days ago, something has occurred of a most expected nature: Temperatures have been climbing, not too much, but just enough to turn last week’s snow into nothing more but a series of murky puddles. So I’m really glad that last Friday I had the foresight to take my camera for a photo safari to the wilderness and capture the freshly fallen snow while it was still there.

When I say wilderness, what I actually mean is Vienna’s Zentralfriedhof [Central Cemetery], the city’s largest burial ground opened in 1874. Spanning about 2.4 square kilometres, it is Europe’s second largest cemetery, surpassed only by Hamburg-Ohlsdorf. A vast, park-like area with sheer endless rows of graves and trees, but also with wide, open spaces, it is home to squirrels and hamsters, badgers and martens, and even to a small population of deer.

As for its human inhabitants, the Zentralfriedhof holds the bodily remains of more than three million people of all creeds and nations: There are sections for Catholics and for Protestants, for Orthodox Christians and for Jews, for Muslims and, since 2005, even for Buddhists. You could say that the Zentralfriedhof is the one place in the city where all these religions seem to co-exist harmoniously (though probably the emphasis needs to be on seem).

It is also a place where tomb monuments of all styles and dates co-exist, sometimes harmoniously, sometimes in a rather awkward, but always in an interesting way. Late 19th century Neo-Romanesque next to 1920s art-nouveau, verging on the art deco? No problem, here you go:

Personally, I always prefer the northwestern corner of the cemetery, just inside the First Gate, because it holds a whole array of quite pretty tombs and mausoleums in the Gothic Revival style. As I figured they would look particularly nice with all the freshly fallen snow, that’s were I was headed last Friday …

What you see in the photos above and below is the mausoleum of the Bosel family, erected around 1899. The choice of style seems somewhat odd at first, because the Bosels were a family of rich Jewish bankers. Gothic Revival architecture, on the other hand, when it first became fashionable in Austria in the mid-19th century, was clearly denoted as being a decidedly Christian building style …

By the end of the century however, this particular style had mostly lost its Christian connotations and was embraced by all members of the bourgeois upper class regardless of their religious affiliation. So it can come as no surprise that, indeed, the old Jewish section of Vienna’s Zentralfriedhof is practically stacked with Neo-Gothic tomb monuments in all shapes and sizes, most of them dating to the late 19th and the early 20th centuries:

You probably won’t even be surprised to hear that many of Vienna’s synagogues, built around that same time, were actually built in the Gothic Revival style. This is mostly to the credit of Jewish architect Max Fleischer (1841-1905). Between 1883 and 1903 he designed no less than three Neo-Gothic synagogues for Vienna’s then large and prospering Jewish community, and several more for other cities of the Habsburg Empire. Most of these buildings, of course, didn’t survive the bestial vandalism of the Nazi Regime, and today we only know about their appearance from pre-war photos, architectural drawings and virtual reconstructions.

So today, if you want to get an impression of Fleischer’s work in Vienna the best address is none other than the Zentralfriedhof. For Fleischer didn’t only provide the city’s Jewish community with places of worship but also with individual burial places in a wide range of architectonical styles. The most famous and also the most beautiful among those tomb monuments is certainly the Neo-Gothic mausoleum of wealthy entrepreneur Wilhelm von Gutman, designed by Fleischer around 1892/93. It is right next to the Bosel monument, mentioned above, but unfortunately it is currently being restored and is therefore hidden behind scaffolding, so I couldn’t take a decent photo of it.* But there are other works by Fleischer “on view” at the Zentralfriedhof, like the Neo-Renaissance burial vault of the Mayr-Mandl family or this, the tomb if the Sucharipa family:

Allegedly it “quotes” the 6th century Mausoleum of Theodoric in Ravenna, Italy, but while certain similarities between the two buildings can’t be denied, Fleischer also threw in a pinch of Neo-Romanesque and a spoonful of Neo-Renaissance, creating something new and quite unique.

Like many of Fleischer’s tomb monuments, the Sucharipa mausoleum was built with the help of stonemason Eduard Hauser (1840-1915) – or rather Hauser’s employees. While a mason himself, Hauser was also the head of a prosperous business enterprise, employing not a only a large number of stone cutters but even automized machines, so he probably wouldn’t have done much of the actual manual work himself. His business was specialized in tomb monuments and, among many others, he created the shrine-like Neo-Gothic burial vault of industrialist Ignaz Eisler, Edler von Terramare, who died in 1902:

With its red marble columns and its delicate bud capitals, it refers to the architecture of the 1230s and 1240s as represented in Austria by the cloister arcades at Heiligenkreuz or Lilienfeld. So whoever designed this must have had a decent knowledge of architectural history, which leads me to suggest that – despite the lack of documentary evidence – even in this case Hauser might have collaborated with a professional architect, perhaps even Fleischer.

For today, I’ll leave you with one last monument, one that can definitely be ascribed to Fleischer – his own mausoleum dating to 1904:

Again, the style may be characterized as Gothic Revival but it’s a totally different form of Gothic architecture it refers to. With its massive brick structure and its crow-step gable it takes up elements of so called Backsteingotik [redbrick Gothic] which was widely used during the later Middle Ages in Northern Germany but also throughout Eastern Europe, especially in Poland and the Baltic. In the case of Max Fleischer’s mausoleum there is, however, a much more precise point of reference, i.e. the western facade of Prague’s late 13th century Old New Synagogue, certainly the most famous of the view surviving medieval synagogues. The choice of this particular model for his own burial place reminds us once more that Fleischer was first and foremost a prolific and successful builder of synagogues** and that, apparently, that’s how he wanted to be remembered.

P.S.: Just for the record, all of the photographs in this post were taken in the old Jewish section of Vienna’s Zentralfriedhof.

* That is, of course, “unfortunately” from a photographer’s point of view. As an art historian I’m rather happy that it’s being restored before it comes tumbling down. Anyway, there’s a great impression of all its haunting Neo-Gothic splendour here – you really shouldn’t miss out on it!

** He even wrote a treatise on the architecture of synagogues: Max Fleischer, Über Synagogenbauten, Vienna 1894.

One Response to “White Hanukkah”

  1. Diana said

    Fascinating post. Thank you for the links to Max Fleischer work. And for the lovely photos.

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