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TRIESTE - GATEWAY TO ZION
Raphael Rothstein, National Director of Marketing and Communications State of Israel Bonds

In this Northern Italian Adriatic port, sometimes called "Vienna by the Sea," where Rilke heard poetry on the wind and James Joyce lived and wrote, a small but robust Jewish community carries on. And in Ljubljana, Slovenia, an hour to the North, even fewer Jews persevere.


Trieste -- Via del Monte is a narrow street that winds up a hill near the center of this city.
The street sign bears a segment of a poem by the celebrated Triestine Jewish poet Umberto Saba.


In Trieste, with its many sadnesses,
its beauties of sky and district,
there is a steep hill called Via del Monte.
It begins with a synagogue and closes with a cloister; midway
up the street is a chapel; there from a meadow
you can scope out the dark energy of life,
and the sea with its ships, the promontory,
the crowds and the awnings of the market.
By the side of the slope is a cemetery,
abandoned, where not one funeral enters,
no one has been buried, as long as I
can remember: the old burying-ground
of the Jews, dear to my thought,
if I think of my own old ones, after so much
suffering and trading, buried there
-all alike, in spirit and appearance.



It is picturesque, what an American would regard as a distinctly European byway. And, as Saba suggests, also significant to anyone contemplating the history of the Jews in this solid-looking town, once the principal seaport and sole outlet to the Mediterranean of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

The British travel writer Jan Morris describes Trieste as "standing on the place where the Germanic world, the Slav world and the Latin world meet at the top of the Adriatic."

The increase and prosperity of the Jews accompanied the rise of Trieste as a major Hapsburg metropolis in the 18th and 19th centuries, but there were also ancient Jewish communities throughout Italy. Perusing the abundant and illuminating tourist literature provided by Key Tre Viaggi, a travel agency incoming@keytreviaggi.com specializing in itineraries of Jewish interest, we learn that for many centuries the Jews of Italy served as a commercial and cultural bridge between Europe and the Mediterranean.

Although Trieste has Roman imperial roots and vestiges of an even older settlement, it only really came into its own under the Hapsburgs in the 18th century. Enterprising foreigners were encouraged to settle to develop shipping and commercial activities. The Jews enjoyed special privileges and a liberal atmosphere and flourished.

Gateway of immigration

At number 7 Via del Monte is the Jewish Museum in a building that once housed the offices of the Jewish Agency for Eretz Yisrael. There, the pre-statehood quasi governmental organization charged with encouraging and administering aliyah, processed thousands of Eastern and Central European Jews in the 1920's and 30's before they sailed onto Jaffa and Haifa to begin new lives in the yishuv. In the latter part of the 1930's, the Jews passing through here were more likely to be refugees from Nazism than ardent Zionist pioneers. The agency functioned here until 1943 when the Germans invaded. Thus, a commemorative plaque tells us, Trieste was sometimes called Shaar Zion – "Gateway to Zion."

Today, in addition to the museum, the building at #7 Via del Monte houses a Jewish community center where cultural and Hebrew language seminars and classes are regularly held.

Although there are only 500 Jews today in the city, there is a full-time rabbi and regular services and festivities at one of the largest and most impressive synagogues in Europe.

Before World War II, there were 5,000 Jews here, members of a prosperous flourishing and important commercial class; there was even a kosher restaurant across the street from the Bourse.

A correspondent for the "Palestine Post," who arrived with the
Jewish brigade in May, 1945, reported that only 200 Jews had survived the war. The Germans used Trieste as a transfer point for the hundreds of thousands of Jews deported from Greece and elsewhere in Italy, among them Primo Levi.

There was a Nazi death camp -- Risiera Di San Sabba -- near Trieste, but it was used primarily for Communists and other political dissidents; the Jews were sent to Auschwitz.

A cosmopolitan center

In his late 19th century work, "Mathias Sandorf," Jules Verne describes a bustling Trieste of 70,000 inhabitants and vast contrasts of wealth and poverty, offering a vivid array of costumes and customs and a cosmopolitan mélange of port workers, tradesmen, bankers, sailors, merchants and bureaucrats with prosperous Venetians, Greeks, Armenians, Jews and Englishmen dominating the commercial sector and a euphonious medley of languages heard, including Italian, German, Greek, French, English and Slavic tongues.

It had an easy-going, rambunctious esprit.

The strong irredentist movement among the large Italian-speaking population sought unity with Italy and celebrated Italian culture.

Trieste was ceded to Italy at the end of World War I and no time was lost in establishing Italian cultural hegemony and suppressing Slovenian influence.

At the end of World War II, Italy once again lost Trieste and after a brief but unsuccessful attempt to incorporate it into Yugoslavia, the city was administered by the allies until 1954 when it was finally restored to Italy.

Today, in the politically correct atmosphere of the European Union the street signs and other public markers offer the original Austro-Hungarian nomenclature, as well as the current Italian names.

One of the most famous Jewish residents of this city was the writer Italo Svevo whose divided identity is revealed in his choice of a pen name. Ettore Schmitz loved the Italian language and culture and was an ardent proponent of irredentism. "Italo" is his homage to this aspect. His family background was Austrian – German and his grandfather came from Schwabia, Svevo in Italian.

Educated in an Austrian business school, he worked for many years in a bank while writing fiction in his spare time. His best-known works in English translation are "The Confessions of Zeno" and "Senility." He was a progressive thinker and his books are heavily influenced by Freudian ideas.

After converting to Catholicism to marry into a wealthy family, he tended to the interests of their successful, rust-proof nautical paint manufacturing company and had to travel to England frequently to deal with lucrative British naval contracts and oversee manufacturing operations. He attended the Trieste Berlitz School to improve his English and there he met one of the teachers --James Joyce. The two became friends.

Svevo and Joyce

Erik Schneider, a senior scholar and curator at the Joyce Museum, knows a great deal about the Irish writer's years in Trieste and his relationship with Svevo which, as with almost all of Joyce's relationships, was mutually beneficial, complicated and fraught with resentments.

Svevo was generous and loaned the always impecunious Irishman money and often entertained him at cafés and restaurants, including Trieste's venerable Café San Marco, which displays a plaque attesting to their patronage.

Schneider points out that Joyce felt patronized by Svevo because he was not treated as a social equal and in his diaries noted that he and his lifelong companion, Nora, were never invited to Svevo's home. Joyce helped Svevo publish his novels in France and was an important advocate in promoting the latter’s reputation.

In addition to visiting the Joyce Museum and its collection of letters, documents and memorabilia, one can see several of the sites that figured in Joyce and Svevo's daily existence, including the library they frequented, the apartment building where Joyce, Nora and their children lived and the site of the large brothel that Joyce called, "The House of Public Insecurity."

Joyce wrote his earliest masterpieces in Trieste and was imbued with the musicality and charm of the Italian language and patrimony. He sang Italian opera and art songs in a pleasing Irish tenor voice, took to calling himself Giacomo and freely spoke Triestine dialect and wrote correct Italian.

Acquaintance with even such an assimilated Jew as Svevo, furnished Joyce with many details that were later used in the description of Leopold Bloom, the Dublin Jew who is the main protagonist in Joyce's eternal novel, "Ulysses."

In an Irish television documentary some years ago, Svevo's daughter, also a former Berlitz student of Joyce, recalled that her father would sometimes be exasperated by the Irish author’s relentless probing into Svevo's "Jewish" mind and affections.

A mighty wind

At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Joyce left Trieste to avoid incarceration as a British subject. (This was the fate of his brother Stanislaus). Joyce returned briefly after the war and, according to Erik Schneider, was distressed over the political and nationalistic passions and conflict that had arisen between the Italian and the considerable Slovene population. The writer lamented the loss of the polyglot, tolerant and multi-ethnic mosaic of the city.

It was an atmosphere conducive to creativity. A port is invariably a trading center of goods and ideas and this was especially so in Trieste.

A notable feature of the city is the famous fierce north wind, the "Bora," which is known to be so strong that it sometimes blew carriages, the horses and passengers into the sea.

But it has its inspiring aspects as well.

In the early 20th century, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke was a guest at the Duino Castle a few miles outside Trieste and was in a creative funk. Depressed and bereft of inspiration, the great poet was on the terrace one morning gazing at the Adriatic when the bora was blowing. Suddenly Rilke heard, as if sung by angels, the opening lines of what eventually would be the first of his "Duino Elegies" - "Wer, wenn ich schriee" ("Who, if I shouted, among the angels would hear me?").

As for Svevo, he died well before the Holocaust and today the Jewish community is embarrassed about claiming him as a member of the tribe because of his Catholic conversion.

The whole question of Jewish identity is complicated here as elsewhere in many parts of Europe where staying alive during the Nazi era was the paramount consideration. To be listed as a Jew in Italy during the Fascist time meant eventual deportation and extermination.

Umberto Saba himself and a few others with evidence of partial non-Jewish Italian lineage were able to petition the Italian Fascist authorities and were removed from the Jewish registry, thus ensuring their survival.

Even after the war there was widespread reluctance to proclaim one’s Jewishness openly and a generation has grown up without any knowledge of Judaism.

Discovering Jewishness

Mauro Tabori, a 40-year-old Triestine Jewish activist, discovered his Jewish roots late in life. "If we speak according to halacha," he told me, "I'm not sure how many authentic Jews there are here in our community."

He is an executive with the venerable Asscurazioni Generali insurance and banking company and naturally has followed closely the controversy over claims involving funds deposited by Holocaust victims, a controversy made even more bitter by the prominence of Jews in the giant firm's leadership.

A single parent, Mauro is fervent in his desire to live a Jewish life and to educate his young daughter accordingly. He sees himself as something of an outsider in the community and was surprised when he was elected to Trieste's governing Jewish council.

We talked over lunch at the Caffé Tommaseo, close to the impressively huge grand esplanade facing out to the sea and called the Piazza Unita d'Italia and to the lovely Teatro Verdi, the opera house designed in a style strikingly similar to Milan's' La Scala.
As befits its prestigious location, the Tommaseo is the oldest coffee house in Trieste and blends both Italian and Viennese styles in its decor and menu -- the quintessential Triestine traditions.

As a member of the local Jewish council, Mauro is part of the IRCE, the regional council for Jewish culture. The meetings and discussions are, he says, lively, fractious and dominated by a leftist, and at times anti-Israel, point of view.

He is currently embattled over the IRCE's reported refusal to incorporate a clause in its constitution recognizing Israel's right to exist and defend herself. Mauro says he is torn between the requirement of participation in the regional body and his disgust over what he regards as its vehement anti-Zionism.

Mauro was particularly proud of an exhibit he organized at the aforementioned small Jewish museum on Via del Monte. Devoted to the life and times of the celebrated Mayor of New York, Fiorello Laguardia, it features remarkably interesting photos and documents that explain that Laguardia's mother, Nella (née Coen) was from a distinguished Trieste Jewish family and married a non-Jewish bandmaster who for a time worked for the U.S. Army. Although neither the "Little Flower" nor his siblings were raised as Jews, one of his sisters married a Hungarian Jew and was deported to Auschwitz where she and her child managed to survive.

Mauro would like to mount additional shows about prominent Triestine Jews and he mentioned several names, but the only one I had heard of was Leo Castelli, the internationally renowned New York art collector and gallery owner.

The museum also features antique Judaica and photos of the synagogue's construction in the early part of the last century. Shabbat services are held in that building's handsome small sanctuary, featuring marble, mosaics and a beautifully carved wooden torah ark.

The Friday night service I attended was decorous and melodious, but the liturgy was peculiar to an Italian Orthodox tradition and to me not one nigun or chant was familiar.

The rabbi, David Margalit, a dapper and cordial chap, in addition to Italian and English, speaks fluent Hebrew as did several congregants and I learned that on the High Holy Days the synagogue enjoys an overflow attendance.

There is, inevitably, a Lubavitch envoy in Trieste and he lives with his wife, a native of Trieste, on Via del Monte. A warm, energetic, young man, Rabbi Aryeh Haddad organizes community activities and also travels regularly to Ljubljana, one hour to the north, where he serves as the official and only rabbi of Slovenia. There he is attempting to revive an almost moribund community.

With scant resources, Haddad has enlisted the assistance of a few local Jews and the non-Jewish owner of the Union Hotel whose family has a record of helping Jewish neighbors and also safeguarded communal treasures during the war.

As we drove to Ljubljana along a well-maintained highway through lovely, forested hills, Rabbi Haddad told me about his schlichut.

Although Jewish life in Slovenia can be traced to the 12th century, Jews were repeatedly expelled from this region until the second half of the 19th century. Thus the pre-war Jewish population was small, probably a few thousand. Almost all of the relatively few Holocaust survivors emigrated abroad after the war.

Ljubljana, know as Laibach in Austro-Hungarian Empire days, was home to Gustav Mahler in 1881-82 when he directed the Slovenian Philharmonic Orchestra. Today most of Slovenia’s two hundred or so remaining Jews live here.

There was also a substantial community of Jewish merchants, mill and vineyard owners in Maribor in medieval times and a synagogue building from that period remains.

Slovenia became independent when Yugoslavia dissolved in 1991. It’s part of the EU, and borders on Hungary, Italy, Austria and Croatia.

In Ljubljana I was shown a small suite in an office building that once housed a tobacco company. The modest apartment serves as the synagogue and community center where services and classes are held regularly.

"We had nothing here," Rabbi Haddad said, "and could take nothing for granted."

A rough-hewn ark, a Sefer Torah and some books and posters, simple chairs, some tables and Rabbi Haddad's irrepressible energy and sense of mission constitute the core of renewed Jewish life in Slovenia.

Rabbi Haddad was born in Rome to parents originally from Libya. He has studied at Lubavitch Yeshivot in the U.S. and Israel. One gets the impression that you could drop this resourceful fellow in the middle of the Sahara and he would manage quite well.

I strolled with Kris Killer, one of Rabbi Haddad's stalwart volunteers, through the center of the lovely city, which like Trieste, has an Austrian look and feel. He told me of his activities teaching Yiddish, which he learned himself, and his plan to re-marry his wife in a traditional Jewish ceremony with the help of Rabbi Haddad.

Now in his 30's, he only discovered he was Jewish as a teenager when his grandmother let slip something about the family's concealed past. Under Communism it was prudent to be as inconspicuous as possible.

A translator by profession, Kris learns with Rabbi Haddad and educates himself. He reads widely about Judaism and studies Hebrew. He is enthusiastic about the revival of Jewish life in Ljubljana. He confesses, however, to frustration with rivalries and disputes within the tiny community. Sound familiar?

This past Passover, Ljubljana managed two seders with a total of almost 100 participants. A gratified Kris Killer exulted that it was a real celebration and a milestone for the fledgling community’s struggle to solidify.

Here, too, the friendship and cooperation of the Union Hotel’s owner were crucial as a whole kitchen was provided and completely koshered for the event.

Kris said he hopes to achieve a higher Slovenian profile among Jewish circles in Europe and a greater degree of recognition in Israel.

The two million Jews in the 27 EU countries are now represented by the European Jewish Congress and the European Council of Jewish Communities.

But a new representative body may be emerging as a result of strains and tensions between these entities.

In the last few years, the unifying influence of the European Union has also encouraged inter-Europe Jewish activity. In September every year all the European Jewish communities sponsor a Jewish Heritage day, which features all manner of cultural and educational events.

English is the common language of European Jews today with Hebrew a close second.

Of course, Israel is a major source of inspiration, the fountainhead of Jewish creativity and both intellectual and spiritual stimulation. From Zion go forth films, books, guest lecturers, political discourse and an overall vitality that enlivens Diaspora life today.

Israeli-based organizations are at work assisting both major and small Jewish communities in developing programs and affinity groups.

Bobbie and Marty Goldstein, long-time Israel Bonds leaders and community activists, were in Budapest recently and brought back a striking poster advertising an ambitious "Golem" event devoted to a teach-in and performance dealing with the famous Jewish legend of Prague. Among those spearheading the event was the Jewish Agency for Israel.

I parted from Kris at the entrance of Ljubljana's former ghetto. Only the street sign Ulla Zidovsha -- Street of the Jews -- remains today.

In translation

I noticed on the corner a charming book store named "Behemoth" in honor of the mystical cat in the Russian classic, "The Master and Margarita."

I had never read a Slovenian writer and among the English-language selections, I found a collection of short stories by Drago Jancar, a well-known and prize-winning author according to the book jacket, the salesman and a subsequent internet search.

Ironically, the title story, "Joyce's pupil," is about a Slovenian who studied English in Trieste with the legendary writer and then paid dearly for his knowledge under a suspicious Communist regime. On the whole, I found Jancar's stories dark and full of morbid religiosity with touches of imitative magic realism and not to my taste at all. But, of course, I read these stories in translation and could not properly judge his style or use of language. It is, alas, the fate of writers in minor languages to only reach a wider audience through translation, which it has been observed, is like kissing through a veil.

Yet, sometimes a work in translation touches us so deeply we are hardly aware we are not experiencing the original. Such was my experience with a work from this part of the world: Ivo Andric's Serbo-Croatian classic "The Bridge on the Drina."

As I left Ljubljana, I crossed over the Ljubljiansha River on the exquisite "Dragon Bridge," which local legend has adorned with many romantic tales. One tradition states that the magnificent stone beasts wag their tails when a virgin passes. Considering the alleged infrequency of this phenomenon, I thought the fearsome sculpted monsters might well do the same when a Jew ascends the bridge.

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