By Bruce Shanzer
We found the cemetery rather easily.
No surprise there. It goes by the name Wiener Zentralfriedhof and it is one of the largest in the world. It sits in central Vienna and houses the graves of people like Beethoven, Brahms, Salieri, Schubert and Strauss and, in one of the Jewish sections, rests Albert Rothschild.
But we weren’t visiting to say hello to them.
Last August, I found time to start to go through an old box I inherited from my mother when she passed away in 2015. I never knew it existed until we were cleaning out her place. The contents were not needed to settle her affairs, so I left it for a later look.
It took me two years until I reached into this box for the first time. As if directed by someone else, my hand immediately grasped a small, old leather pouch. I could feel several items inside, so I set it down on the breakfast room table and looked.
First was my grandfather’s (my dad’s father) honorable discharge from the Army on April 12, 1919. It was in pretty good shape as was the next item, his naturalization papers from June 30, 1919.
The last thing was a small square piece of paper written in German with numbers and a date (July 12, 1910) and a name (Abraham Schanzer). My initial reaction was: what was my father’s name, spelled incorrectly, doing on this piece of paper included with all these old papers?
Then my wife, Joanne, pointed out the date to me. I was not certain what this paper was, so we sat down and used the wonderful translation abilities of the internet. It did not take us long to realize that it was the location of my great-grandfather’s grave! Section 50, row 53, grave 97 was its location.
Considering that up to that point I had no knowledge of my father’s family other than that we were from Lodz, Poland, it was quite an emotional discovery. As to why he was in Vienna, we will never know for certain.
It’s interesting how things happen. Joanne and I already had booked a May trip starting in Prague, river boating down the Danube to Romania and finishing in Transylvania. Although we have always been reluctant to go to Austria, this was different. We added three days to the beginning of our trip to visit Vienna.
In the months until departure, I started genealogical research on many sites and found the greatest source of information through JRI – Poland. There you can look in specific city records. Knowing where my family was from helped greatly.
I was able to identify the Polish version of my last name (Szancer) and, using it, I started to dig out information with names that could be part of my family. The research resulted in a list of family possibilities.
Now the hard work started. There would be two steps to get the detailed information that I needed. The easier part was to go to New York City and go through microfiche for some of the items. Harder was to apply to Poland for the information which must be processed through Polish authorities. Fortunately, you can apply in English, but the results you receive are in Polish.
Now came the really fortunate part. To show my appreciation to the JRI – Poland organization and its charitable work, I made a donation. Not a huge donation but enough to say thank you. Next thing I knew, I received an email from the president of the organization. He offered to help. Due to his efforts, I received all that I was looking for translated from the Polish. I made a more significant thank you donation as a result.
I was able to build a family tree for my father filled with names that were new to me. I really wish my Dad was still alive to see it. There is still much work to do but I am hoping that I find living relatives that I never knew.
The Jewish sections of the Vienna cemetery survived the First World War and bombings during the Second World War. They survived the Holocaust though they were attacked quite extensively on Kristallnacht when many graves were destroyed. I did not know what to expect, as most of the cemeteries I knew here were in good shape and well maintained. I also had no guarantee that Abraham Schanzer’s grave would still be there or in what condition it would be if it was.
We had no idea that the section where his grave was supposed to be housed more than 7,000 graves all very close together or that there were more than 70,000 Jewish burials in the entire cemetery. Most of the burials in his section were prior to 1917 when the new Jewish section opened.
Let’s say it was not what I expected. The weeds were waist high and many headstones were lying on the ground face down. Vines were growing around many stones, making them unreadable. Some that were upright were worn away with time. The ground was uneven, as many grave contents had disintegrated over the years. Except for a few here and there, there were virtually no row markings, and I saw no grave identification numbers.
We started to look in an arbitrary manner trying to find the graves on the proper row. After maybe an hour and a half of frustrated looking, disturbing rabbits and avoiding poison ivy, we took a break and decided to see if the cemetery office could help.
It is a long walk to the office in a cemetery of that size. During this trek, Joanne tried her best to keep me thinking positively. But I envisioned coming all this way only to be disappointed. I held onto the hope that the office could help.
We were there on a Sunday. The office was closed.
We sat down to talk before we returned to try one more time. Then the accountant in me came up with a plan. Since his grave number was 97, I figured that if we knew the number of graves across the front of the section, we could approximate the correct location thereby narrowing our focus. We returned and counted 112. Even with the inconsistencies of the graves, it meant that he should be within the first 20 from the end. Unfortunately, with no grave numbers, we did not know on which side of the section to start.
We were able to approximate where row 53 was. The side we tried first was a mess and gave us nothing. Then we went to the other side. I started at the end while Joanne walked around and started at the next walkway working toward me.
I walked in slowly looking at each grave that could be identified without success, and then I stopped. I don’t know why. Maybe it was help from above. Maybe it was just blind luck. But I looked up and on the next row, there it was!
I let out a yell and Joanne came running and we started jumping up and down and crying. It could be that no family member had visited that grave in 100 years. It was in surprisingly good shape (see picture). We said kaddish, put stones on the grave and took about 1,000 pictures it seemed. Joanne texted a picture to my sister and cousins. We later found out that he was a well-respected and learned man. He reminds me of my father. How apropos since my father was named after him. We are grateful to Rabbi Wohlberg for translating all the Hebrew on the stone.
I still get chills thinking about this adventure. My plans are to contact the cemetery to find out how the stone can be protected. In the meantime, I feel lucky to have made the discovery. I already miss not being able to put my hands on it again. I guess this means another trip to Vienna someday.
My cousin in New York, who is in my father’s generation, recently sent me two pictures. One was an old picture of his father in front of a gravestone (see picture). All these years, he never knew whose stone it was, until we sent him the picture from Vienna. He told me that he started crying when he saw it. The other picture is of my great grandmother, Chaia. I researched and found that she is buried in the Jewish cemetery in Lodz. A trip to Poland is in my future.
When I think about the last year, I cannot help but feel there was a guiding hand in our efforts:
- The fact that I decided to investigate the contents of Mom’s box when I did
- The fact that from all the items inside, I happened to pull out the leather pouch
- Finding the cemetery information and being able to translate on the internet
- The fact we were scheduled for a European trip already
- The incredibly efficient and timely work of the JRI – Poland people
- Stopping at just the right moment to look up to see the stone
I believe it was meant to be and I feel fortunate to have been able to take advantage of it. I realize now that I have just scratched the surface of my family history and I look forward to continuing on this path of discovery.