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Jewish gravestones dating to 17th century discovered in Austrian castle walls

A Jewish gravestone fragment dating back to the 1600s, with the name Moshe Mordechai HaLevi inscribed on it. (Austrian Jewish Musuem)
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The wall was built to fortify the Ebenfurth castle against the Ottoman invasion in 1683; Oldest gravestone found dates back to 1622

By ILANIT CHERNICK

In March this year, Johannes Reiss received a call that would lead him to discover what he describes as a “spectacular” and unknown piece of Austrian Jewish history.

Speaking to IsraelNewsStand, Reiss who is the director of the Austrian Jewish Museum said he was contacted by a caretaker at Schloss Ebenfurth, a castle located in northeastern Austria about 28 Jewish gravestones that were found during restoration work at the castle. 

“They were found at the foundations of a wall in the courtyard of the castle, which was built to fortify the castle against the Ottoman invasion in 1683,” he explained. “This means that the gravestones must be older than 1683.”

The castle itself was built in the 16th Century and is located some 50 km. south of Vienna on the border between Lower Austria and Burgenland.

Asked about the history of Ebenfurth’s Jewry, Reiss said the Jews were expelled in 1670 “and we don’t know exactly where the Jewish cemetery was located. 

“So when I received the telephone call from Ebenfurth Castle that they had found the gravestones, and that they believed it could be Jewish gravestones, I immediately went there to have a look at the stones,” Reiss pointed out.

Once at the site, he was immediately able to tell that they were Jewish gravestones and could identify some of the death dates very quickly because they were still so clear.

One of the oldest gravestones that were photographed is from 1622 and it has an inscription listing the name “Elieser, son of Abraham Moses,” who died on the Jewish date of the “8th of Tevet 383” – which is December 11, 1622.

The oldest of all the Jewish gravestones found in the Ebenfurth castle wall dates back to 1622 and has the name
Elieser, son of Abraham Moses inscribed on it. (Austrian Jewish Museum)

Reiss took photos of all the gravestones and began to work on deciphering them. 

“All the death dates which I could identify date before 1670 and after 1622,” he said. “As far as we know the Jews are first mentioned in Ebenfurth in 1614, so I had a time window of between 1622 to 1669.”

According to Reiss, during that time Ebenfurth had the biggest Jewish community in Lower Austria, adding that there were some 48 Jewish communities in the Lower Austria region at that time. By the 1660s, there were some 45 Jewish families listed as living in Ebenfurth, which made up about 20-30% of the town’s population.

“Between about 1620 and 1670 there was the absolute bloom of Jewish life in Ebenfurth,” he told IsraelNewsStand. “After 1670, we didn’t hear anything about Jews in Ebenfurth until the 20th century. And yes, the important dates are before 1670, when the Jews were expelled from Vienna and Austria, because for instance in Burgenland we have the oldest gravestones from 1679 in the old Jewish Cemetery of Eisenstadt [in northeastern Austria], but nothing before 1670.”

He made it clear that we cannot prove that the fragments without dates are from the same time, but it seems definitely so because of the type material they were made from and the inscriptions.

Asked if it was common for Jewish gravestones to be used to fortify castle walls during that time, Reiss said no, “but often they were used to fortify buildings like private houses and streets, and it was not only in Austria, but in Germany too.”

Discussing some of the most interesting finds on the gravestones, Reiss explained that “it is very clear that in the Jewish community in those times there must have been several scholars because the texts of the inscriptions are very scholarly and elaborative,” noting that there weren’t any types of decorations on the stones.

Reiss also pointed out that although the town of Ebenfurth is not mentioned in any of the gravestones inscriptions, their timeframe, dating between 1622 and 1669, clearly suggests that they are from the town.

Addressing what will become of the stones now that they’ve been discovered, Reiss said that they “will be conserved and displayed in a special space at the castle, and a commemorative plaque will be erected.”

He added that he was grateful that the caretaker of the castle “called us when finding the gravestones. 

“Nobody would ever have known or heard about these gravestones if they would have been destroyed or covered with concrete,” Reiss emphasized. “I’m very glad that they called me, because I was interested above all to analyse the inscriptions and to write about it as soon as possible.

“It is undoubtedly a sensational find,” Reiss concluded.

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