At the end of our trip through Dalmatia last year, I contracted a combo of bronchitis and pleurisy, and by the time I made my way to an E.R. and some very strong antibiotics, time had moved on. Finally editing and organizing my photos last week compelled me to write about experiences that particularly linger in my mind.
Our modus operandi in our travels, as usual, was to spend a few days in a city and try to see it through the eyes of the Jews who live or had lived there. In Trieste, that is relatively easy. The great synagogue, extremely well preserved, is outside the historic center of the city. The grand sanctuary – with an organ – suggests the size of the Ashkenazic congregation in 1912, when the building was completed: about 5,000. A small congregation of mostly North African Jews has a Sephardic Shabbat Service in a side chapel. There is separate seating, but all on one level, and all the little girls in front of me turned around with wide eyes and stared when I loudly sang Adon Olam at the end of the service.
The scale of the synagogue contrasts with that of the remaining fragment of the Jewish ghetto near the port. “Ghetto” is an Italian word that described the area, originally, where the Jews of Venice lived; Trieste’s ghetto was created in the late 17th-early 18th centuries.
Trieste has a small but interesting Museo della Comunità Ebraica di Trieste Carlo e Vera Wagner. It recounts the story of the ancient community as well as the history and fate of the community in the 19th and 20th centuries, when about 4 million Jews passed through the city on their way to the U.S., South America, and Palestine.
Trieste also was our introduction to the Morpurgo family. The name apparently is a variation on Marburg, which in turn is the German version of the city, Maribor, in Slovenia. One member of the family, Giuseppe Lazzano Morpurgo, moved from Gorizia, Italy, to Trieste. In 1831 he founded the Generali insurance company, which is now being challenged, poignantly and ironically, by Holocaust survivors to make good on their parents’ and grandparents’ policies (New York Times, June 2, 2011).
Two other Morpurgos, brothers Carlo Marco and Giacomo, left their apartment to the city of Trieste; it is now the Morpurgo Municipal Museum. We encountered the name again in Split: Lucciano Morpurgo, a poet and publisher; Vittorio Morpurgo, who headed the Jewish community; and Vid Morpurgo, who founded a bookstore that just celebrated its 150th anniversary. The many, many branches of the family include the stepfather of War Horse author Michael Morpurgo.
Two famous Italian Jewish writers are celebrated in Trieste. Italo Svevo, whose real name was Aron Ettore Schmitz, wrote novels, plays, and short stories; he was a friend of James Joyce and is widely considered to be the model for Leopold Bloom. Umberto Saba (born Umberto Poli) wrote novels and poetry. Svevo died in 1928; Saba survived World War II by moving around Italy (in one year he moved 11 times).One day we took a city bus to an industrial area on the edge of Trieste to visit La Risiera di San Sabba, a former rice-processing factory that the Nazis began to convert to a prison camp in September 1943. At first it was used for captured Italian soldiers, then as a transit camp for deportees to Germany and Poland, primarily Auschwitz-Birkenau. By early 1944, partisans, political prisoners, homosexuals and Jews – including 700 from Trieste – were being interned and executed as well as dying from the conditions. By April 1944, thanks to Erwin Lambert – whose designs for gas chambers and ovens also were realized at Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibor – bodies were being cremated on the site. On April 29, 1945, the fleeing Germans dynamited the crematorium and its chimney.
By the time the Germans occupied Italy, about 2,000 Jews lived in Trieste, the rest having either left Italy or gone into hiding; after the war, according to some sources, about 600 and now numbers less than 1,000. As in so many communities, the Jews left behind both physical and intellectual evidence of their presence but not many Jews.