It’s the small things that tend to trigger periods of reflection for me. Walking among the marble crosses of the American cemetery above Omaha beach in Normandy remains high on my list of introspective moments. It is impossible to walk through that hallowed ground, the final resting place of over 9,000 American servicemen, without being in awe of the tremendous sacrifice of men unknown to me.
That was a long time ago, but a recent story about a lost cemetery in Vienna brings forth the same emotions. A seemingly small Jewish cemetery appears to be the site where the few Jews left in Vienna in 1943 buried up to 900 of the oldest Jewish tombstones in the city to save them from destruction at the hands of the Nazis. As brave as were the American and Allied soldiers who landed on the beaches of France in 1944, I can only imagine the bravery and desperation of the Jews of Europe. No retreat available. No evacuation to the rear for rest and recuperation. Just the knowledge of being hunted without mercy or remorse, living a life where one more day is a miracle and violent death is a random guest.
The Jewish history in Vienna dates back about a thousand years. Pogroms date back almost as long. One well documented attempt to eradicate Viennese Jews occurred in 1420 and 1421. Of course, the long Anti-Semitic history in Europe came to an apocalyptic crescendo during World War II. This history is the basis of the modern Jewish state – the raison d’etre of Israel.
The uncovering of these tombstones brings this long tragic history back to me. The work of unknown Jews in Vienna, most of whom probably did not survive the following two years, to salvage a small but tangible piece of their history from the Nazi scythe, just like those crosses in Normandy, makes me realize the blessings of my life.
But I have the advantage of possessing some knowledge of history, however incomplete. Unfortunately, history – even the history of the twentieth century – seems to be known by a frightening low percentage of Americans. As Edmund Burke famously noted, those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.
© 2013 Ben Brunson