By Maia Ferdman
Rarely does a cemetery, a traditional symbol of the past, conjure up hopes and thoughts for the future of a community.
Yet the future is at the forefront of Ido Wilhelm Perry Alter’s mind as he embarks on a project he calls “Re:member,” which seeks to bring young people together to refurbish and catalogue the old Jewish cemetery in Vienna.
Ido first brought the concept for this project to Rescape, Junction’s four-day event in Sofia that was modeled as a start-up accelerator for Jewish ideas. It was here that Ido described his vision for his project: a group of inspired individuals committed to the preservation of their community’s history.
This idea came to Ido long before he put it into practice at Rescape. Originally from Israel, Ido has ancestral roots in Vienna and was the first member of his family to return there after World War II when he moved there about four years ago. He knew of at least two family members buried in the Jewish cemetery, and decided to visit soon after moving. When he arrived, he was upset and shocked to find the cemetery overgrown with neglect.
“I fought with the plants for about an hour,” he said. Some of the stones were broken or missing, and the signs throughout the cemetery were faded and hard to read. “But it was very moving…I was happy to rediscover these family members and give them the respect they deserve.”
This experience stuck with Ido for a long time, and his frustration with the state of the cemetery remained – however, he did not act on his idea to renovate it until he came to Rescape.
“Rescape gave me the courage and motivation to go through with this project,” Ido said. “I learned to let go of the fear of such a huge amount of work, and that it’s possible to break (the work) down into little steps.”
So far, Ido and a small group of volunteers have spent two visits to the cemetery cleaning out the gnarled bushes and overgrowth, and both gathering and replacing broken pieces of headstones. They have garnered increasing interest in the project, with a growing group of volunteers.
Eventually, Ido hopes to create an easily accessible online database of the cemetery, complete with photos and transcribed and translated documentation of all its graves. Some people from abroad have even contacted him to ask about their own relatives buried there.
Through this project, Ido sees an opportunity to engage young Jewish adults with their own shared history, and to cultivate in them a sense of volunteerism and responsibility. Although many of the Jewish young adults in Vienna are not Austrian natives, he believes the project has a universal value.
“As Jews, we give extreme importance to those who are gone,” he said. He “It’s about bringing life back to this place, making it memorable and personal again.” While, many of those people buried in the cemetery no longer have living relatives, and while there may not be a direct connection between them and many of the people currently living in Vienna, they are a reminder of our extended Jewish family.
“It’s not just about getting the job done, it’s also about who is doing it, about getting young people involved,” he said.
Indeed, the project name “Re:member,” inspired by Rescape, highlights the project’s community focus. Through the act of “remembering,” the project both brings the deceased members back to the forefront of our memory, and provides a connection to the Jewish community for new, younger members.