Der Transkribierer

Lessons Learned…

…from the Austrian Jewish Museum and Cemetery Project in Eisenstadt, Burgenland

Deutsche Version

This article was given as a lecture at the 39th International Conference of Jewish Genealogy in Cleveland, Ohio on July 31, 2019. It is replicated here but for the introductory remarks of the lecturer.

See also my second presentation on August 2, 2019 “Help! I do not speak Hebrew…“.

Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Johannes Reiss and I am ‒ I hardly dare to say this aloud in this company ‒ not a genealogist. I’m Director of the Austrian Jewish Museum in the town of Eisenstadt in Austria and I specialize in Hebrew gravestone inscriptions. In other words, I photograph, transcribe, translate and interpret them.

I thank you warmly for this invitation to speak today. It is an opportunity which honors and pleases me enormously.

Right off the bat: you do not need to take notes or be afraid that you might not catch every word I say. At the end of the presentation, I will give you a link with which you can download the entire presentation, including all the examples cited and necessary tools.

The significance of biographical information in Hebrew tombstone epitaphs.

Let me start with my opening hypothesis:

Hebrew gravestone inscriptions occupy at best a minor niche in genealogical research, generally merely a side show. They seldom enjoy the status which they ought to have.

When I study the relevant internet portals, above all others of course the Jewish Genealogy Portal on Facebook, it is striking that translations of Hebrew gravestone inscriptions are often requested, but that their major objective is usually limited to the name and date of death. In other words, frequently the major part of a Hebrew gravestone inscription, the so-called eulogy, receives no attention at all, or at most, a passing glance.

That’s a shame. Because thereby, genealogy in all likelihood ignores and omits a great deal of highly relevant biographical data for purposes of research. Data and concrete information which in nearly all cases are not obtainable from any other source.

The title of my presentation is:
Lessons Learned from the Austrian Jewish Museum and Cemetery Project in Eisenstadt, Burgenland

What are these projects all about?

Eisenstadt was the center of the so-called “Seven Communities”, ‒ in Hebrew “Sheva Kehillot” ‒ in other words, seven holy Jewish communities in what at the time was western Hungary, today it is part of Burgenland in Austria. Burgenland has been a federal state of Austria since 1921. The communities were settled at the end of the 17th century. The year 1938 forced the irrevocable end of every Jewish settlement. Today in Burgenland there are no more Jewish communities and only a dozen Jews. In the 14 Jewish cemeteries in Burgenland there are about 8,000 gravestones, all of which (practically without exception) have Hebrew gravestone inscriptions. No plans or maps of cemeteries exist in Burgenland. It is necessary to examine each and every individual gravestone on-site.

Eisenstadt is the one and only town in which there are today two large Jewish cemeteries. The most significant Jewish cemetery by far in the former “Seven Communities” is the older Jewish cemetery in Eisenstadt (1679-1875). The younger Jewish cemetery was established in fall of 1875 as the “successor cemetery” to the older one and was used until 1938. In just a few unusual cases, there were burials after 1945.

At the end of October 1992, this younger Jewish cemetery in Eisenstadt was violated and defiled, 88 gravestones ‒ or, to be more precise, the Hebrew gravestone inscriptions ‒ were smeared with Nazi slogans and symbols:

This desecration led me to transcribe all the inscriptions of the younger Jewish cemetery; to translate them completely and in the correct line-for-line registers; and to comprehensively interpret the inscriptions.

This project was published in book form in 1995. The Internet was still in its infancy at the time, so it was done in MS-DOS 6 and even that was a challenge. It was the first book of its kind published in Austria after 1945.

What mattered most to me was to determine exactly what graves existed in this younger Jewish cemetery. In other words, who was buried here? As mentioned, there existed no maps or diagrams whatsoever. No one knew the names of the dead who were buried here. No one was able to seek or find a certain grave.

The work had genealogical ambitions only in a secondary way. Genealogical websites as we know them today simply did not exist. Death registers had to be painstakingly photographed and read. We limited ourselves to the publication of biographical notes.

The older Jewish cemetery in Eisenstadt has 1085 gravestones with exclusively Hebrew inscriptions. There is not one single non-Hebrew letter to be found in the entire cemetery.

As far back as 1922, the longtime director of the Israeli Cultural Community in Vienna, Dr. Bernhard Wachstein, published all the gravestone inscriptions of the older Jewish cemetery. That means we know who in 1922 was buried in the cemetery, what gravestones existed at that time; but between then and 2015 we did not know how many additional graves and which graves were to be found in the cemetery. And most of all, we had no idea where each grave was to be found in the cemetery. Thousands of people from all over the world visit the older Jewish cemetery of Eisenstadt each year, but in particular, relatives and descendants for many decades did not have any possibility of finding the grave of their family members in the cemetery.

This extremely sad situation ultimately led, in 2015, to the huge project “The Older Jewish Cemetery of Eisenstadt.” Its focus was a long-overdue historical and cultural imperative, on the one hand; and on the other, more urgent still, a religious necessity. I would even go so far as to say: a religious duty. After all, according to Pikuach Nefesh, the rescue from mortal danger, this is the most important Mitzwa, Kavod Hamet, respect for the status and merit of the dead. An indispensable part of that is: to know the graves of the dead!

The comprehensive documentation of both the older and the younger of the Jewish cemeteries which followed in 2017 (amplified by biographical data) can be consulted on the Internet, in the blog of the Austrian Jewish Museum, where each and every gravestone and every gravestone inscription can be accessed. For all interested parties, especially those searching for their relatives or antecedents, there is a QR-Code on every grave in both cemeteries which leads to the URL of the gravestone, including photo, inscription, links to relatives and a map of the cemetery. I believe I can say that this is a service not before seen in the world. The genealogical claims of our work have expanded over the years. Whereas the main question for the older Jewish cemetery was “Where did the people come from?“, at the younger cemetery that question transformed to “What happened to these people?” Namely, to spouse, children, marriage-related children, who were not buried in the cemetery…

When we speak about gravestones and the Hebrew inscriptions of both Jewish cemeteries of Eisenstadt, we are talking about gravestones whose Hebrew inscriptions frequently comprise 40 lines of text and more (!) (Guetel/Meir Austerlitz, Malka Austerlitz, Fradl/Loeb Schacherls):

In other words, Hebrew inscriptions which contain ‒ apart from name and date of death ‒ a wealth of other information which in many cases is of immense genealogical significance.

Permit me to make a plea of how highly pertinent Hebrew gravestone inscriptions are to genealogical research:

Right at the outset of this presentation, I tried to make clear that name and date of death are quite often not the only biographical information; and that the often far more dominant part of a Hebrew inscription, the so-called eulogy is given little or no attention.

What we call the eulogy is, roughly speaking, the middle part of a Hebrew inscription which in terms of length of text is the largest part. It describes the life of the individual, using Biblical, post-Biblical and rabbinic quotations and sayings. It often results in accumulating a great many details about the deceased person.

As far as style goes, rhymes are frequently used, or else the akrostychon, in other words, that each line starts with a reiteration of the deceased person, read from the top down, frequently underscored by upper case letters or with marks above the letters (Adele Wolf, 14. Jänner 1894):

Grabstein / gravestone Adele Wolf, 14/01/1894
Grabstein / gravestone Adele Wolf, 14/01/1894, älterer jüdischer Friedhof / older Jewish cemetery in Eisenstadt

Here, the akrostychon helps us to read the Hebrew name correctly, since the line is divided where the name occurs.

Although the eulogy is not an attempt to be a 1-on-1 illustration of the real life, and even less so of the bourgeois life of the individual, the challenge here lies in weeding out the biographically relevant information in a text which is enriched by quotations; separating it from the depicted stereotype; and understanding it, in other words, grasping its meaning.

In the younger Jewish cemetery of Eisenstadt, the gravestones of brothers Bernhard Austerlitz and Heinrich Austerlitz are located right next to each other.

Grabstein / gravestone Bernhard Austerlitz, 17/06/1918
Grabstein / gravestone Bernhard Austerlitz, 17/06/1918, älterer jüdischer Friedhof / older Jewish cemetery in Eisenstadt

Bernhard Baruch Austerlitz died in 1918 at the age of 82. He and his wife Rosa had 11 children who are documented (4 daughters, 7 sons). We were able to find the birth records of all the children.

It was important to expend effort seeking records of the children in the registers because of the Hebrew gravestone inscription, which (in lines 11 and 12) reads:

He also instructed his children (literally “sons”) and descendants (meaning grandchildren and great-grandchildren) on the path to perfection.

The Hebrew word בנים “banim”, “sons” is ordinarily used for “children in general,” particularly when the daughters are not specifically or expressly referred to (as we will see in a moment).

Bernhard’s brother Heinrich (Benedikt Mose Chajim) Austerlitz, who is buried right next to him, died nine years earlier, on December 28th, 1909. He was older than Bernhard when he died, namely, 85. His wife Katharina, who is also buried in the younger Jewish cemetery of Eisenstadt, died in 1921, also at the age of 85.

Grabstein / gravestone Heinrich (Benedikt Mose Chajim) Austerlitz, 28/12/1909, jüngerer jüdischer Friedhof / younger Jewish cemetery in Eisenstadt
Grabstein / gravestone Heinrich (Benedikt Mose Chajim) Austerlitz, 28/12/1909, jüngerer jüdischer Friedhof / younger Jewish cemetery in Eisenstadt

And so of course we set out, as a matter of routine, to ransack the birth registers for the children of this married couple, too, since we expected to find several children, as was the case with Heinrich and Katharina Austerlitz.

It is precisely this search in birth registers and other source material that genealogists can spare themselves if they are acquainted with line 10 of the long Hebrew gravestone inscription. Because that makes quite clear that the couple remained without children for the 50 years of their marriage. And that this was apparently quite intentional. In lines 9 and 10 we read:

Chajim savored life with his wife, whom he loved for nearly 50 years.
He had no children; worth more than any sons and daughters was the good name he achieved for himself.

Thus, we learn: If we read quite specifically בנות “banot”, “daughters“, we can be sure that there were daughters, at least one. It is more problematic if we read בנים “banim”, “sons”, since both “children in general” and also, explicitly, “sons” can be meant. In this case, a sensitive touch in the translation is important. If it is written that “he brought many “banim into the Covenant of Abraham,” it of course means “sons.” Just as when we read a number before the word, for example, “A father of seven banim,” this of course means he was father of seven sons and not father of seven children. When we find generalized formulations, such as in the above example, “He had no banim,” it means “he had no children.”

Place names

Also in the eulogy, but in short inscriptions without a eulogy as well, we frequently find Place names: the town of birth or of residence or of death. The place of death is of note particularly when death occurred in a different place from where the gravestone is located:
Gravestone of Monisch ben Mordechai from Eibenschitz (Ivančice), who died January 27th, 1737 (מאייבשיץ “from Eib(en)shitz”):

Grabstein / gravestone Monisch ben Mordechai aus Eibenschitz, 27/01/1737
Grabstein / gravestone Monisch ben Mordechai aus Eibenschitz, 27/01/1737, älterer jüdischer Friedhof / older Jewish cemetery in Eisenstadt

Or the gravestone of Adolf Wolf, who died in במרחץ אישל “Merchatz Ischl” = Bad Ischl in 1929, line 15:

Grabstein / gravestone Adolf Wolf, 07/07/1929
Grabstein / gravestone Adolf Wolf, 07/07/1929, jüngerer jüdischer Friedhof / younger Jewish cemetery in Eisenstadt

Also here, of course, it would have been simple to just name the town in German but with Hebrew letters. However, one preferred to translate “Bad” (“spa”) to “merchatz”. Bad Ischl was a popular spa town among Jews as well, located in the heart of the Lake District in the southern region of Upper Austria.

For genealogists, citing the town where the death occurred is of course very helpful, since in that town additional source materials, such as daily newspapers, etc. can also be consulted. All the more important in this case, since the death of Adolf Wolf was not reported in Eisenstadt, in other words, cannot be found in the death register of Eisenstadt.

In other words: by only searching through the death registers of Eisenstadt, which is the basic work of genealogists, you would not find Adolf Wolf. And on the other hand, without the complete documentation of the Jewish cemetery of Eisenstadt, without reading and translating the entire Hebrew inscription, we would also not know where Adolf Wolf died and was buried.

The fact that the place of birth, that is, where he originally came from, is of immense importance from a genealogical point of view does not need to be emphasized here:

Jütl Holzer, nee Schneider, died in 1845 and is buried in the older Jewish cemetery in Eisenstadt. She is the first wife of the great-grandfather of Mr. Samuel Holzer, Natan Holzer. Jütl Holzer was born in Eisenstadt, belonged to Kobersdorf מק”ק ק”ד (“from the holy Jewish community Kobesdorf”, line 3) and died only 25 days after the birth of her first child, Anton (Todros). By naming the place she came from in the Hebrew gravestone inscription ‒ in abbreviated form, as frequently is the case ‒ we at least have the chance of finding genealogical material.

Grabstein / gravestone Juliana (Jütl) Holzer, 14/03/1845
Grabstein / gravestone Juliana (Jütl) Holzer, 14/03/1845, älterer jüdischer Friedhof / older Jewish cemetery in Eisenstadt

Grabstein / gravestone Juetl Cohen, 06/10/1765
Grabstein / gravestone Juetl Cohen, 06/10/1765, älterer jüdischer Friedhof / older Jewish cemetery in Eisenstadt

A very precise naming of the place someone came from can be found in the inscription on the gravestone of Jütel Cohen, who died in 1765. She hails from Tenovice (line 4) in Bohemia (Hebrew פיהם “peham” (line 5)! (One needs to know that “peham” is one of several Hebrew names for Bohemia). And just as a little side remark: particularly Hebrew place names are a special challenge, as in the example of Hebrew כנען “Kna’an” which has nothing to do with the historical town in Galilea, nor anything to do with the region of Canaan, but is pure and simple another Hebrew name for Bohemia.

Hebrew name (synagogal name) vs. civic name

As a matter of course in Hebrew inscriptions, the Hebrew (synagogal) name is always given and given exclusively, both for men and for women. The civic or common bourgeois name is never given. In more recent inscriptions, the civic name is occasionally added in the German or Hungarian language, but never in the Hebrew inscription. (Examples: Antonia (Taube) Hirsch, October 4th, 1936, Jewish cemetery in Mattersburg, and Charlotte (Shwarzl) Spitzer, June 5th, 1914, younger Jewish cemetery in Eisenstadt):

So we never find in the Hebrew inscription “Charlotte,” but rather, “Shwarzl.” We never find “Antonia,” but rather “Taube.” And we never find “Armin,” but rather, for example, “Mordechai Zvi.”

In the older Jewish cemetery, as already mentioned, we find not one single civic name among 1,085 gravestones.

And even in the younger Jewish cemetery, in what today is the second row (originally it was the first row, the so-called Rabbi row) in which 22 gravestones from the period 1878 to 1937 are found, we find not one single non-Hebrew letter, and consequently, not one single German name.

A lovely example of the regional peculiarities of last names can be found in the Jewish cemetery of Trieste, Italy, in the Hebrew gravestone inscription of Adele Aschkenasi, who died in 1873:

Grabstein / gravestone Adele Ashkenasi, 08/11/1873
Grabstein / gravestone Adele Ashkenasi, 08/11/1873, jüdischer Friedhof / Jewish cemetery in Triest

In the Hebrew inscription, she is named Adele Ashkenasi (line 2). “Ashkenas” אשכנז is Hebrew for “Deutschland, Deutsch” or “Germany / German”.

Sterbebuch / death book Triest, Adele Tedeschi
Sterbebuch / death book Triest, Adele Tedeschi

If we then seek a recorded entry in the death register of Trieste, we find nothing if we look under Ashkenasi. Because Adele is entered as “Tedeschi” which is the Italian word for “Ashkenasi” or “German.2 And if Mrs. Tedeschi ‒ in Hebrew, Ashkenasi ‒ is from Vienna or Eisenstadt, for example, and the entry of her death in the death register were to be sent to her home town, it could only be found under the name “Deutsch” or “German.”

Adele Ashkenasi’s gravestone is very small, the inscription is very short. And yet, this inscription numbers among the most charming and most fascinating inscriptions which I know. Especially because in this so-very-short inscription, so much genealogical material lies hidden:

Grabstein / gravestone Adele Ashkenasi, 08/11/1873
Grabstein / gravestone Adele Ashkenasi, 08/11/1873, jüdischer Friedhof / Jewish cemetery in Triest

Because in the Hebrew inscription (line 3) we also read that Adele died from a מגפה “magefa” (plague, epidemic). The death register confirms this and adds the more exact detail that she was the wife of merchant Moise Tedeschi and died of cholera at age 25. So far, so good.

However, what we do not read in the death register is that Adele had a son who evidently survived the epidemic. That we can only read in the Hebrew inscription. There we read

She died of cholera on the sabbath ‘Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is.’.

Now, what permits me to say that this phrase in the inscription tells us that the son survived his bout with cholera?

Because this part of the inscription is a verse from the Parasha, the section of the Torah which was read on the sabbath when Adele died. The Parasha comprises the Bible verses Genesis 18:1-22,24 ‒ that is where we find the phrase which is in the inscription (Genesis 21:14-18).

In order to truly and profoundly comprehend the genealogical relevance of this phrase, I will cite the pertinent verse from the Parasha where this phrase of the inscription is taken from:

14) So Abraham rose early in the morning and took bread and a skin of water and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed and wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba.
15) When the water in the skin was gone, she put the child under one of the bushes.
16) Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot, for she said, “Let me not look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept.
17) And God heard the voice of the boy, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is“.
18) Up! Lift up the boy, and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make him into a great nation.

Clearer than that it can’t get. The message from the cited Bible verse is plain and obvious: Adele also had a son. And the phrase from the Parasha in the gravestone inscription would not make any sense whatever if the son had not survived the cholera.

In any case, this is a marvellous example that even a tiny little Hebrew gravestone inscription can sometimes provide more biographical clues than many other genealogical sources.

Grabstein / gravestone Juliana Machlup, 15/03/1838
Grabstein / gravestone Juliana Machlup, 15/03/1838, älterer jüdischer Friedhof / older Jewish cemetery in Eisenstadt

A particularly beautiful example of what can happen when dealing with Hebrew names is seen in the Hebrew gravestone inscription of Juliana (Jentel) Machlup, who died in 1838 at the age of 27 and was buried in the older Jewish cemetery of Eisenstadt.

In the wonderful and long inscription, we read:

A lovely woman…in whom beautiful and graceful attributes were merged with a noble heart. Of melancholy spirit, hard-pressed by time…she returned to the house of her Father as a tender, young lily…became ill and bore with patience the suffering she had been accorded…and when the time for the young Taube (note: Taube is the German word for “dove”, “daughter of Jona”) approached, she winged her way high up to heaven

The Hebrew pun (in line 14) is fascinating: בת יונה “bat jona” means literally “young dove,” but can at the same time be translated as “daughter of Jona” (because Jona is the Hebrew word for dove). Of course, the entire phrase can also be interpreted as a euphemism for death itself.

It is through the phrase “bat jona” however, that we definitively know that the father of Juliana was named “Jona” (!) and that it was Jona Klaber, who was still alive at the time his daughter died. He died in 1858, twenty years later, and was also buried in the older Jewish cemetery.

Place names as last names are a well known phenomenon, about which we do not need to speak extensively here. In the later Jewish cemetery of Eisenstadt we find among the 1085 gravestones the name Austerlitz 51 times, the name Güns 50 times, the name Spitz or Spitzer 30 times, the name Nikolsburg 7 times, as well as the names Neufeld, Winden, Mühlendorf, Rust, Lackenbach, Kittsee, Koblenz, Wiesbaden, Halberstadt, Wien, Krakau, Pressburg, Stampfen, Brünn or Schaffa.

The fact that place names in earlier times (17 and 18th centuries) were of indisputable importance to genealogy and played an important role goes without saying. Particularly when the place name is used as a name in the Hebrew inscription, but a completely different name is used in the death register and by succeeding generations. For example, the place name “Mühlendorf” in the Hebrew inscription is recorded in the death register as “Pollak.”

Even more exciting are names which reflect the profession of the individual, and which we can find in the death registers only with great difficulty if we don’t know Hebrew. Or perhaps to clarify this point in reverse fashion:

Grabstein / gravestone Abraham Goldschmidt, 11/11/1735
Grabstein / gravestone Abraham Goldschmidt, 11/11/1735, älterer jüdischer Friedhof / older Jewish cemetery in Eisenstadt

If I find in the death register an Abraham Goldschmidt (he died 1735) and search for his grave in the Jewish cemetery, I need to know that in that era, namely in the 17th and 18th centuries, I have to look for an Abraham Zoref (line 7), since the Hebrew word צורף “zoref” means “Goldschmied” (or “goldsmith”).

That is also valid when I come across the name Moses Schneider, who died in 1791, in the death register:

Grabstein / gravestone Mose Chajjat, 16/10/1791
Grabstein / gravestone Mose Chajjat, 16/10/1791, älterer jüdischer Friedhof / older Jewish cemetery in Eisenstadt

Because in that case there is a great likelihood that I need to look for a gravestone from the former era with the name Moses Chajjat (line 4) on it, since the Hebrew word חייט “chajjat” means “Schneider” (or “tailor”).

Finally, it is surely of great help to genealogists to know that Hirsch, son of scholar Löb Rofe (line 6), was the son of a physician. Because the Hebrew word רופא “rofe” means “physician”.

Grabstein / gravestone Hirsch Rofe, 11/04/1723
Grabstein / gravestone Hirsch Rofe, 11/04/1723, älterer jüdischer Friedhof / older Jewish cemetery in Eisenstadt

This list could be extended endlessly. The same thing applies to the name “chasan” חזן, which means “cantor” or, to cite perhaps the most famous example: Moses Sofer or Moses Schreiber, because “sofer” סופר means “Schreiber” (or “writer”); (also known as Chatam Sofer, he was Rabbi of Pressburg for 33 years).

Among the most frequently posed questions at forums addressing these matters is: to what extent do Hebrew names (synagogal names) correspond to civic names, and whether we can derive with reliability the civic name of a person from his or her Hebrew name?

We of course are familiar with the “usual suspects:” whether the Hebrew name Mose is always Max. Whether the name Sigmund always corresponds to Bernhard…

The fact is, we can never derive the civic name of a person from the Hebrew name. The reverse is equally true: if we know the civic name of a person, we can never derive the Hebrew name. At very least, we have to assume that it could be very, very different.

It is true that certain regularities occur, such as Mordechai and Max; or Rösl and Theresia; but there are also plenty of examples which go in a completely different direction. It goes without saying ‒ and this must not be left out of the equation ‒ regional and chronological distinctions can also be found. If we wish to generate statistics which can be taken seriously and which provide true pictures of reality, we have to apply very strict criteria right from the outset, and establish well defined parameters: region, era, perhaps religious environment, that is, whether it was an Orthodox community, etc.

Thus, in no more than the two Jewish cemeteries of Eisenstadt, in other words, in about 1,400 gravestones, we find for the civic names

  • Max, the Hebrew names Meir, Mordechai, Mose and Michael Zvi.
  • For Sigmund, we find Jesaja, Samuel, Paltiel and Issachar (and as an aside, since I previously mentioned regional differences: for the Hebrew name Issachar in Germany, for example, in contradistinction to Austria, we usually find the civic name Bernhard, and also Hermann).
  • For Adolf we most frequently find Aron and Abraham.
  • Für Alexander we find Saul, Süßkind, Salomo Jehuda and Sender.
  • For Heinrich we find Mose Chajim and Kalonymus Zvi.
  • For Rosa / Rosalia we find Rachel, Rebekka, Sara, Sarl, Selda and Süssl.

The list could be extended infinitely.

Frequent statistical occurrences of Hebrew name and civic name corresponding are often rooted in Jewish, Biblical tradition:

Thus, the link of the name Jehuda and Leopold goes back to Jacob’s blessing in Genesis 49:9, where Jacob compares his son Jehuda with a lion. That’s why we frequently find a correspondence between Jehuda and the Hebrew אריה “Arje” (the word for “lion”), and the German Löb/Löw, which was modernized to “Leopold”.

To rephrase the point with every possible clarity: We mustn’t ever presume when reading entries in community registers that the civic name is merely a translation of the Hebrew name or vice versa! There are no doubt regularities and such things do occur, but we must not ever depend on them. It would be highly rewarding if there were a greater amount of statistical materials on this subject. Such statistics would be much easier to generate today than 100 years ago.

Geburtsbuch / birth book Deutschkreutz 1887
Geburtsbuch / birth book Deutschkreutz 1887

(The Hebrew names from top to bottom: Mose, Chana, Mose, Chayim Zvi, Bella/Bila, Sanwel, Berl, Miryam, Sanwel, Yosef)

We often find the Hebrew name entered, particularly in birth registers. Unfortunately, this is frequently ignored by genealogists. It is not so much a question of not being able to read the Hebrew name, but rather, that there is little awareness that the Hebrew name might be very important for genealogical research.

As to why that is so, permit me to give you a charming example:

In Mattersdorf (Mattersburg), one of the so-called “shewa kehillot”, the holy “Seven Communities” of today’s Burgenland (which was formerly western Hungary), there was a Regina Trebitsch Kohn; and her sister was Regina Trebitsch Kohn. Yes, you heard correctly. Both sisters were named Regina and are recorded as such in the marriage register and death register. However, the civic names ‒ in this case, Regina ‒ were merely a formality. At home, the two sisters were called by their Hebrew names, namely, Rivka and Rachel. And genealogical research of such a case can lead to a fruitful result, namely, the truth, only by way of the Hebrew names.

Let me pose a riddle from everyday practice: You find in the marriage register, three or four times in the era in question, a marriage between Ignatz Kohn and Resl Schwarz, both names occur rather frequently in that region and during that period. All the couples were between 22 and 32 years of age. Which wedding is the correct one? Which is the one you are looking for?

The answer can be found only through the Hebrew names, which under ideal circumstances are noted in the birth registers, and not infrequently, also in the Hebrew gravestone inscriptions where only the Hebrew name is cited. The fact that we need to indicate the Hebrew name when indexing birth registers, marriage registers and death registers, is one of the focal points of my second presentation on Friday.

Information about age and status

The name is ordinarily introduced through the status of the deceased person: “the child,” “the boy,” “the girl,” “the bachelor,” “the young woman,” “the widow,” “the aged person,” etc. In nearly all cases of men, this is followed by a title which describes his function in the community above all else: the highly esteemed gentleman, the Torah scholar, the illustrious, the MORENU = our teacher and master, etc.

Special caution is necessary with the words: הבחור “ha-bachur”, “the bachelor”, “the unmarried man”. Because also a 60-year old man who was unmarried can be called “Bachur”. The word “Bachur” alone is first and foremost a description of status, not of age. Whereas הבחור החשוב (literally “the important bachelor”) is always a younger unmarried man. In local dialect it is called “chashuv bachurl” which means an educated youth.

It is similar with unmarried women: הבתולה “ha-betula” is an unmarried woman, regardless how old. Whereas the Hebrew word העלמה “ha-alma” is always a truly young, and unmarried, woman.

Grabstein / gravestone Salde Klaber, 13/09/1843
Grabstein / gravestone Salde Klaber, 13/09/1843, älterer jüdischer Friedhof / older Jewish cemetery in Eisenstadt

In this particular case ‒ it is the gravestone of Salde Klaber, who died in 1843 ‒, we read in the first line: הבתולה “ha-betula”, in other words “the unmarried woman”, but in the eulogy in the very first line the word העלמה “ha-alma” is used in a quotation derived from Jeremiah 4:31 צרה כמבכירה “A cry of fear (over the death of a young woman)”. Therefore, we of course have to translate the הבתולה “ha-betula” in the first line as “girl”!

If someone dies at a relatively young age, formulations such as מת בדמי ימיו “He died in the noontide of his days”, is a quote from Isaiah 38:10. Or נקטף בעודו באבו “He was picked while still in his blossoming”, taken from Job 8:12.

In general we find in Hebrew inscriptions only very approximate designations of age, such as ישיש “jashish”, “very old”, זקן “saken”, “old” or שיבה “seva”, “of highly advanced age”

For example, מרומם “merumam” actually means “illustrious” but is generally applied only to men of very advanced age.

All of this can of course provide invaluable information to genealogical research. If, for example, we are not sure about a gravestone, whether it is the right one or not, and we are looking for someone who died young, but the word “merumam” is in the inscription, we know with 98% certainty that the deceased person is not the one we are seeking. Frequently, all expressions occur right next to each other, or in an inscription, for example: Samuel Schneider, died on May 5th, 1928, in lines 2 and 10:

Grabstein / gravestone Samuel Schneider, 05/05/1928
Grabstein / gravestone Samuel Schneider, 05/05/1928, jüngerer jüdischer Friedhof / younger Jewish cemetery in Eisenstadt

(Line 2) an old man, of advanced age
(Line 10) He died with a good reputation at age 82.

Not infrequently, there are also indications of age in the Hebrew inscriptions in both of the Jewish cemeteries in Eisenstadt. These indications are rooted in Jewish tradition, such as the inscription of Samuel (Nataniel) Schönberger, who died on May 4th, 1911, in lines 10 and 11:

Grabstein / gravestone Samuel (Nataniel) Schönberger, 04/05/1911
Grabstein / gravestone Samuel (Nataniel) Schönberger, 04/05/1911, jüngerer jüdischer Friedhof / younger Jewish cemetery in Eisenstadt

He died at a high age, after coming into his strength.

Now, how old was he…?

We read in Psalm 90:10, “The years of our life are seventy, or even, due to strength, eighty.” …ואם בגבורת שמונים שנה… and in the Babylonian Talmud, Tract Avot V, 25 “…80 years old at a high age…” …בן שמונים לגבורה…. So if we read in an inscription: “He or she died after coming into his/her strength,” we can assume that the person died at about age 80.

Samuel (Nataniel) Schönberger did in fact die, according to the death register, at age 79.

The date of birth is not customary in Hebrew gravestone inscriptions. This can be explained by the Biblical verse Kohelet 7:1:

A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death than the day of birth.

There are great many exciting things to be said about “a good name” and the phrase often occurs in gravestone symbolism. But I will save that for the presentation on Friday.


“Like amen at the end of a prayer” following the name of the deceased person comes the blessing: עליו \ עליה השלום “May peace be upon him / her”, נוחו עדן “His peace / joy is (in) Eden” or ז”ל “May his / her memory be for a blessing”, and particularly for great scholars זצ”ל “May the memory of the righteous be for a blessing”.

Grabstein / gravestone Hendl Hess, 1907
Grabstein / gravestone Hendl Hess, 1907, jüngerer jüdischer Friedhof / younger Jewish cemetery in Eisenstadt

The blessing is not found as regularly and reliably when relatives are still living: נ”י “May his light shine.” As expected in this case ‒ the gravestone of Hendl Hess, died in 1907 ‒ (line 5) the girl died at age 9, the father was still alive and, incidentally, lived to be 74. The fact that the father was of advanced age can be seen in the inscription, ‒ as we just mentioned ‒ the word מרומם “merumam” (in line 4) which means elevated or illustrious is only used for elderly men.

This blessing, which is generally abbreviated, consists of barely two or three letters, but sometimes just might be the decisive thing which tips the scales, as to whether our search is heading in the right or the wrong direction. Here is a downright dramatic example:

Grabstein / gravestone Franziska (Sprinze) Sabl-Reitlinger, 14/04/1879
Grabstein / gravestone Franziska (Sprinze) Sabl-Reitlinger, 14/04/1879, jüngerer jüdischer Friedhof / younger Jewish cemetery in Eisenstadt

When I published the book about the younger Jewish cemetery in 1995, I unfortunately overlooked the blessing עליו השלום “May peace be upon him” in line 12 in the inscription of Franziska Reitlinger

In lines 10-12 we read:

On the day of her burial, there gathered together for her the sons of her first husband, president and director of the community, Mr. Abraham Löb Reitlinger, may peace be upon him.

So we published Abraham Löb Reitlinger, who died in 1907, as her husband and Franziska as Franziska Sprinze Chaja Reitlinger.

This disastrous error was copied for 22 years, in genealogical books and online in genealogical databases. No one made an effort to cast a glance at the Hebrew inscription on the gravestone, where the error would have been obvious at once.

  • Through the blessing, “May peace be upon him,” it is unmistakably clear that the cited first husband Abraham Löb Reitlinger was no longer alive when Franziska (Sprinze Chaja) died in 1879, and consequently could not have died in 1907. In actual fact, he died on September 14th, 1826 in Vienna. The Reitlinger who died in Paris in 1907 was his son Leopold (Abraham Löb) Reitlinger. The similarity of the names of father and son was, of course, an additional factor why the error remained undiscovered for so long.
  • • By according the blessing the appropriate due consideration, in connection with line 11 (“the sons of her first husband“) the inscription makes clear that Sprinze Chaja under all circumstances must have remarried (since the term “first husband” would otherwise have made no sense). This second husband, Mr. Markus Mordechai Sabel-Wiesbaden, died in 1830 we know today. Since his first wife died in February 1827, Franziska can have married him no earlier than the end of 1827. Markus Sabel died after about 2 years of marriage. At the time Franziska died, he had been dead for 49 years!

And lo, who would have thought it: After 22 long years, the entry in the death register was suddenly correct:

Sterbebuch Franziska Sabl, 16/04/1879
Sterbebuch Franziska Sabl, 16/04/1879

Franziska (Sprinze Chaja) is recorded as Franziska Sabel, and not as Franziska Reitlinger, whom we sought for 22 years.

What can we learn from this story? Examine also the blessing with great care!

And finally, we come to the

Date of death

The date of death in Hebrew inscriptions is given only according to the Jewish calendar. The date is never given in numbers, but invariably with Hebrew letters which have a certain correspondence to numbers. The way which this date can also be understood by non-Hebrew speakers, and then easily converted, is the subject of my second presentation on Friday.

The Hebrew gravestone inscription of Samuel Breier, who died December 13th, 1904, buried in the younger Jewish cemetery of Eisenstadt:

Grabstein / gravestone Samuel Breier, 13/12/1904
Grabstein / gravestone Samuel Breier, 13/12/1904, jüngerer jüdischer Friedhof / younger Jewish cemetery in Eisenstadt

You see very nicely (in line 6) here that the date of death is depicted in Hebrew letters, never with numbers.

If the date of death in the Hebrew inscription does not agree with the date of death in the death register or in other source materials, the decisive question in everyday practice is: which date do we trust more? The one in the inscription? Or the one in the death register?

Grabstein / gravestone Mose Elias Gelles, 04/05/1865
Grabstein / gravestone Mose Elias Gelles, 04/05/1865, älterer jüdischer Friedhof / older Jewish cemetery in Eisenstadt

According to the Hebrew inscription, Moses Elias Gelles, merchant, died on Thursday May 4th, 1865 (in the conversion), or on 8th Ijjar 625 and was buried in the older Jewish cemetery in Eisenstadt. In the Hebrew inscription, the weekday is also indicated (5th day = Thursday).

Sterbebuch / death book Mose Gelles, 04/05/1865
Sterbebuch / death book Mose Gelles, 04/05/1865

In the death registers, however, the date of death is given as June 4th, 1865, in other words, with a difference of a whole month! The entry of death was apparently recorded at a later date, it is designated by a “running number” of 11a.

What makes this problem trickier at first glance is the fact that the date of death in the death registers is also recorded in Hebrew, namely, like this:

בהעלתך יום א “on the 1st day (Sunday!) of the (week of) Parasha / of Torah section ‘When you set up the lamps’ (Numbers 8:1)”, and which is in the year 625 / 1865, Sunday, the 10th Siwan = 04 June! So both the date and the weekday are completely different in the Hebrew inscription.

That means the Hebrew date draws on the civic date of death of the recorded data entry in the death register and converts this date back correctly, but ultimately supplies the wrong date. As can be expected, not the date of the Hebrew gravestone inscription is taken, since the entry in the death register was made already in June 1865, whereas the gravestone with the inscription was probably made only on the first anniversary of the death, after one year had passed, on May 4th, 1866.

Therefore, it can be assumed with near certainty that the death register mixed up May with June and thereby recorded the wrong date of death (in addition, there was no entry in May).

An interesting example, where neither the civic entry in the death register nor the Hebrew entry in the death register, but solely the Hebrew date of death in the gravestone inscription proved to be the most reliable indication of the correct date.

In particular in the case of illegible and/or later recorded entries, it is of enormous importance to have the Hebrew gravestone inscription at hand, that is, to give it ample consideration.

In my experience, the exactitude of the date of death in the Hebrew inscriptions can be relied upon to a far greater degree than the entries in the death registers. That is because the date of death (or the date of burial) necessitates a great deal more effort and precision to inscribe it:

Grabstein / gravestone Rosa Schlesinger, 15/09/1875
Grabstein / gravestone Rosa Schlesinger, 15/09/1875, jüdischer Friedhof / Jewish cemetery in Mattersburg

Rosa Schlesinger died in 1875 and is buried in the Jewish cemetery of Mattersdorf / Mattersburg. Her gravestone no longer exists. Her mother is Sara, daughter of Rabbi Akiba Eger!

Third-to-the-last and second-to-the-last lines:

“and was laid to rest on the Friday thereafter, Erev Shabbat Kodesh, Parasha, ‘Ki Tavo’ (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8, “When you come into the land…”) 635 (by the small count = Friday, September 17th, 1875).

It is clear that in order to formulate the date of death in such a way, is the case here, it is not sufficient to just cast a glance at the Jewish calendar. It necessitates far greater effort, more precision, more understanding of tradition and deeper religious knowledge.

So, my esteemed, dear ladies and gentlemen,

As much as I might regret the non-awareness or insufficient awareness of the Hebrew gravestone inscriptions in genealogical researches, alongside other Hebrew source materials such as Hebrew entries into the registers, Year Tablets, etc., it is actually the stunningly beautiful language which is so full of wisdom and love which fascinates me above all else. And I have the humble but sincere hope that I have succeeded in awaking a bit of interest, maybe even enthusiasm for the beauty of the language of these Hebrew inscriptions, completely apart from their genealogical significance.

Cause of death

The frequently noted cause of death in the death registers does not play a part in genealogical research, or at best a subordinate role (exception: personal interest). In much the same way, we find in the Hebrew inscriptions only very rarely a clue about the cause of death (exception: martyrs, victims of plague or epidemics).

But on occasion, a particularly beautiful formulation is stumbled across:

Grabstein / gravestone Elias Abraham Gabriel, 15/02/1878
Grabstein / gravestone Elias Abraham Gabriel, 15/02/1878, jüngerer jüdischer Friedhof / younger Jewish cemetery in Eisenstadt

Elias (Abraham) Gabriel died on 12th Adar I 638 (February 15th, 1878)

with a godly kiss, at age 71…

as we read in line 1.

This is a quote from the Babylonian Talmud, Tract Moed Qatan 28a and Baba Batra 17a, which runs “…and Miriam died in the same way (that is to say, like Mose) with a (godly) kiss (which means without torment or pain)….” See also Tract Berachot 8a, “…the easiest (way to die) is death by a kiss….”

Elias (Abraham) Gabriel died an easy death and is buried in the so-called Rabbi row of the younger Jewish cemetery in Eisenstadt.

Thank you!


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