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Saturday, 5 September 2009

Oh I Wept

Today’s sightseeing was almost bookended by the sad and moving, demonstrating the turbulent history of Vienna and, indeed, much of middle Europe.

Early today, I walked from the Stephansdom north, through quiet and narrow streets, and ultimately to Judenplatz, where a plain, square monument commemorates the 65,000 Jews rounded up, taken away and killed by the Nazis in the latter years of World War 2. There is little decoration, with prominence given to the inscription in Hebrew. Vienna was not the only city where this happened: it was grim routine wherever the Third Reich ruled.

Anti-Semitism was part of life in the early 20th Century, yet the lengths that the Nazis went to were as perverse as they were brutal. At the very beginning of the Century, it was not possible for Jews to even occupy certain jobs, and here my second visit enters. In the quiet of the afternoon, a tram ride took me out to the cemetery of Grinzing, to pay my respects to one of the greatest of musicians, which was Gustav Mahler.

The impending upheaval in Europe was something that Mahler foretold, especially in his unfinished Tenth Symphony: the breakdown of order is spelt out in the opening slow movement. He was born a Jew, but converted to Catholicism in order to become director of the Vienna Opera. He made his career not by composing, but by conducting: Sergei Rachmaninov described him as “the only conductor worthy to be compared to Nikisch”.

When he died, Mahler’s coffin was taken to Grinzing for burial, as a storm raged: then, as the casket was lowered into the ground, the sun shone. Among all the grand looking headstones, his appears plain – you could easily miss it. Only his name is shown – no dates, or other clues as to who he was. This was as he had instructed. Asked why, he answered simply.

“Those that know me will know where to find me, and those that do not will not need to know”

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