Merano’s European Jewish dreams – and a utopian glass of beer at 3000 meters

Traveling south from Hohenems you run into into the Italian city of Merano—the place where North meets the South. Palms everywhere along the promenade, and the surviving glory of another epoch: this spa town was once the hotspot of Hapsburg and German elites and intellectuals looking for a decent retreat with Italian flavor—without leaving the German speaking world. It also became a meeting place for Jews from all over, who spent their month-long vacations here (as it was the habit of urban middle and upper classes of the time).

But a growing number settled and lived here on a permanent basis, being part of a more or less informal Jewish community, formally represented by the “Landesrabbiner for Tyrol and Vorarlberg,” who until 1915 was also the Rabbi of Hohenems. But when Italy changed sides during World War I and annexed Southern Tyrol, Merano was cut from its former ties and the Jewish community also became Italian.

Today the town is occupied by German tourists who are enjoying “Südtirol” – with not a particular interest in the idea of “European culture,” The region is officially named “Alto-Adige / Südtirol,” and is subject to autonomy agreement that allows the existing German speaking majority in some of the valleys to enjoy there cultural ego, and whatever is needed for that. History is a minefield in this atmosphere of “compromise.” In the 1960s, Tyrolian separatists still threatened the Italian “rulers” with explosives. And in Bolzano, the accord between Italian Fascists and communist partisans (or better: their offspring) sometimes seem still more profound than between the “Germans” and the “Italians.”

Strolling around the town, we still see many of the belle epoch Hotels and sanatoriums that made the fortune of Merano. While the memory of two world wars still inhabits some of the population, the wars have not left any visible impact. There are only traces of 1920s and 1930s modernism—which in Italy means the better part of Italian Fascist architecture. When Merano became well-known between the 1860s and 1914 among the medical doctors and tourism developers, the founders of Hotels, brewers and railroad pioneers in Southern Tyrol and Bozen Jews from Hohenems and elsewhere played a decisive role. The Biedermans from Hohenems opened the first bank in Merano, and the Schwarz from Hohenems did the same in Bozen, in addition to starting a modern brewery and developing a railroads and funiculars which enabled the growing tourism to explore the smoother hilltops and sunny plateaus between the valley and the high mountains. Others like Dr. Rafael Hausmann invented the “grape cure” and turned the town into a European center of spa and “wellness” before the term was coined.

With the beginning of the new century, right in 1900, a synagogue was built in Merano. It was inaugurated by Rabbi Aron Tänzer from Hohenems in 1901. A sanatorium for poor Jews had already opened, the “Asyl für mittellose kranke Israeliten.”All this without a formal Jewish community but due to a foundation, the “Königswarter Stiftung,” started by the parents of a young Jewish student from Frankfurt who had died in Merano. They also installed a Jewish cemetery, so the basic institutions were able to accommodate the almost 1000 Jews living here around 1900 (many more than the members of the shrinking Hohenems community). And for the growing number of observant or even orthodox Jews (living in Merano or coming for vacation and cure) the Berman family offered a luxurious hotel, the Bellaria, with kosher food, a Mikvah and a second—orthodox—synagogue. For a short time, Merano was a kind of Jewish paradise.

Back in the present day, the small contemporary Jewish community has run a Jewish museum in the basement of the synagogue for almost twenty years. We enjoyed meeting longtime friends Joachim Innerhofer and Sabine Mayr, who today take care of this place. The permanent exhibition they “inherited” from community president Steinhaus, they know, is rather poor and outdated and there are some ideas in the air to start a new project. They already published a great new book about the history of the Jews in Merano. A new museum could turn the contested history of Merano (and the unique role of Jews in that history) into a starting point for new discourse about Europe—something desperately needed in times where the economic foundations of Europe seem to be only a matter of business, the essential and hard fought for European values of peace, solidarity and human rights seem to be worn out, and some pray for right wing populists to rebuild walls inside and outside of the European community once more. Whether there will be political support for bringing this little utopia of Jewish history in Merano to new life (even in a museum) is far from settled. But at least there is a new generation of politicians on both sides who do not completely follow the old ideologies.

When we climbed the slopes of the Ortler, with its 3900 meter once the highest peak of the Hapsburg Empire (and subject of battles in World War I), we entertained some of these utopian ideas in the low pressure of the mountain. And we still had enough breath for that, as we didn’t meant it to serious with the “climbing”, ending our hike just over 3000 meter in the wonderful “Payer Cabin” with a glass of beer.

On Memory, Money and Modern Life

A week ago I visited family in Frankfurt. There is not that much left of it, but apart from family there are still a lot of friends. Some of them, a family who I’ve known for more than 30 years, took me and my wife on a stroll to the latest “must see spots” of the city.

The European Central Bank is located by the riverside at the Frankfurt East End. There are open air cafés and youth sports grounds along the river, signs of the gentrification of an area that was once the heart of Frankfurt’s industry, transportation and storage in grand scale. Skate board enthusiast find refuge there, as does but anybody who wants to chill out, stroll around, or look for expensive housing.

Coming back to my friends, I know both of them from student politics. They became a family on their own, a little before I did the same. And their professional lives went to different direction from mine. Law, public finance, and business. A bit of another world. And still we never lost sight. We’d known each other 10 years when I learned of her family’s Jewish background, more by chance than by intention. It was not a subject to carry along in front of you. But it explained the mutual understanding of one or the other sensitive subject we’d had since we knew each other.

Some 20 years ago, my friend discovered her connection to the family named “Hohenemser,” that settled in Mannheim, founded a bank and partially moved to Frankfurt later. My friend is not a “descendant” herself. In Felix Jaffé’s genealogical universe—the one he introduced me to when I moved to Hohenems 12 years ago—she is something like a “very distant cousin.” When my friend got a huge genealogical collection of family charts from her mother, the frequency of the name “Hohenemser” made an impression on her. They became regular visitors in Hohenems.

This time, though, we were in Frankfurt. They took us on the promenade along the river—that so much informed my own childhood experiences—as well as the Main and its harbor.

The European Central Bank is a masterpiece of a skyscraper, following the deconstructionist design of the Coop Himmelblau architects from Vienna. It’s located right next to the former and truly giant Market Hall. The Frankfurt Market Hall was an icon of modernity in itself, built in 1928 by Martin Elsässer and functioning til 2004, when it became part of the future European Central Bank complex, which finally opened last year.

But there was a time when the Market Hall was not only delivering food— fruits, vegetables and meat to Frankfurts grocery shops—but human cattle for transport to the East. From October 1941 until February 1945, the deportations of Jews from Frankfurt to the camps and Ghettos began here in the market hall, where the deportees had to assemble  in the basement of the building and wait of their transport. A number of “very distant cousins” of the “Hohenemser” and other Hohenems families started their last journey from here. (The Jaffés, Felix’s Frankfurt-based part of his family already had left the town in the 1920s).


Last year—the same year the European Central Bank building opened—there also opened a memorial that reaches from within. Due to ECB security, visitors can only enter with special permits and elevated security standards, but passerby are drawn to the environment of the building and the story with inevitable curiosity. “What is written there?” a little girl asks her father as we walk by. To my disappointment, I was not able to follow their family discussion. I am a curious person, that’s one of my “deformations professionelle”—or the other way round: one of my weak points that put me on the track of museums.

I took a few photos of the outside portion of the memorial and the awesome scenery around it that puts everybody in a time machine between modernity, catastrophe and post-modernity with all its playfulness and contradictions. And then we went to a little boat house in a once proletarian swim club between the bushes (literally) and forgot about modern life.


One of the few German words I knew when I arrived in Hohenems was “danke,” which means thank you. It’s an important word, and one I used frequently. But, as I reflect on my time and prepare to leave Hohenems tomorrow, I also feel like it’s a word that I haven’t used enough.

Any list of the things and people that I ought to give thanks to will be incomplete, and I’m skeptical of my own ability to capture my gratitude in words. Still, I’m aiming for some semblance of closure and I would rather say “thank you” than “goodbye,” so here is a partial list:

Thank you to the entire Jewish Museum staff for welcoming me into their workplace. Thank you for the morning cups of tea, for making do with my language skills, and most importantly for giving me the opportunity to work and learn in a wonderful environment. Thank you especially to Hanno and Anika, for overseeing my work and finding tasks that fit my interests and abilities.

Thank you to each of my lovely host families for not only giving me a place to live, but treating me—a complete stranger—as one of their own. And thank you to their friends and extended families for welcoming me to their birthday parties and baptisms, their backyards and homes. It means a lot to be included.

Thank you to each of my host siblings for sharing their friends with me and giving me “people my own age” to hang out with. Thank you to my (exactly one year younger) host sister for also graciously sharing her birthday. Thank you to her brother who took me hiking that day (even if we sort of went the wrong way) and their mother who convinced me to go swimming (it was worth it) and made sure I had a gluten-free birthday cake.

Thank you to my younger host brother for the games of backyard football, the spray-on tattoos, and for teaching me how to count past ten. And thank you to his father, whose constant sense of humor never failed to make me laugh internally.

Thank you to my first host sister, who was my first point of contact in Hohenems beforehand, who told me not to be too scared about coming here and helped me meet people once I did arrive. Thank you to her friends for frequently switching into English on my behalf, and her father, who helped me find places to hike despite my terrible sense of direction.

Thank you to my first host mother, who valiantly attempted to teach me German and stayed up until an ungodly hour in case I needed a ride home the first time I went out on a Saturday night. Thank you to her son, who graciously tolerated my temporary occupation of his space and picked me up at the train station at another egregious hour after I’d gotten confused and missed my earlier train to Hohenems. And thank you to the several of his friends who gave me rides home on other very late nights.

Thank you to everyone who served as a translator for me, planned or impromptu, in the museum, a backyard, a nightclub or an ice cream shop—I would have been even more confused without you. Thank you to everyone who did talk with me in English (or Spanish) at various venues—I know that I’m the foreigner who didn’t learn your language, and I’m grateful you included me anyways. And thank you to everyone who invited me places, who met me and decided to offer food and wine and conversation, rather than saying “who is this girl and why can’t she talk?”

Thank you to the people with whom I didn’t share a language, but who nonetheless smiled, welcomed me, and treated me with respect. And thank you to all the young children who accepted my wild hand gestures and silly facial expressions as valid forms of communication.

Thank you to the various fellow foreigners I met, some of whom jarred me with their American accents, others who wowed me with their language abilities, and all of whom reminded me how complex and interconnected our world is. And thank you to the fellow Hohenems descendants and friends of the museum who visited or contacted me, from near or far—it was a pleasure to meet each one of you and I hope we stay in touch.

Thank you to each of the people who let me sleep on their spare mattresses and showed me around some pretty awesome European cities. And thank you to the Hohenems pharmacist, the Turkish vendor in Vienna, and the countless other strangers who will probably not be reading this blog, but who greatly helped me in one way or another.

Thank you to the American Friends of the Jewish Museum Hohenems for sponsoring my internship.

Danke, dass Sie sich Zeit genommen haben. Danke für Ihre Hilfe. Danke für Ihr Verständnis. Bis später.

(Still) Under Construction

When I arrived in Hohenems in early June, the museum’s street was under construction. Now, the area directly in front of the museum has been paved and the construction has moved a bit further down to the area in front of the Salomon Sulzer Saal.

Like many things I’ve experienced during my two months in Hohenems, construction is a process. At times it can be noisy and difficult, but the end result is usually something better.

With my own time in Hohenems coming to an end, there are a lot of things that I’ve worked on constructing. Some of them are complete; some will probably be left unfinished; some will hopefully be finished by others in the future.

-My German skills are still dismal, and as I’ve realized that most people speak English, I’m even quicker to revert to my native language than I was when I arrived here. Perhaps I’ll speak better next summer…

-I did get used to my German keyboard, however, which means my hands get a bit confused when I switch back to my English laptop and the “z” is no longer in the middle.

-Plans for the 2017 Hohenems reunion are continuing. Though I’m leaving Hohenems, I’ll continue to stay in touch with the planning process as a member of the Descendants Committee.

-This blog will also continue in some form, although updates might not be as frequent. Keep checking back (or subscribe to email notifications) to hear from me, the museum, Hohenems Desecendants, future museum interns, and other cool people.

-I’ve met some wonderful people during my stay here, and I’ve heard from many more who I hope to meet some day. I plan to return to Hohenems for the reunion next summer. If you’re attending the reunion (or coincidentally will be in Hohenems during that time), please say hi! If you can’t wait until next summer, send me an email and we’ll find a way.

Gefällt es Ihnen hier?

“Do you like it here?”¹ It’s a question I’ve been asked a lot over the last few weeks.

The short answer is yes, I like it here. I like the museum. The work I do is interesting. The staff is wonderful. I like Hohenems. It isn’t the busiest, but I’ve had no trouble finding things to do—in town, across Vorarlberg, and when I’ve been lucky enough to travel around Austria and Germany. I like the people here. I’ve felt incredibly welcome basically everywhere I’ve gone, and I’m grateful to everyone who has tolerated my lack of German language abilities.

Something else that I’ve been asked a lot is why I don’t speak German. After all, I’m here because of my Austrian heritage, which inspires more questions: “Does your mom speak German?” “Your grandmother?” “Did she ever teach you any?”² I always tell people that I wish I spoke German—there are many aspects of my stay here that would have been much easier, and knowing multiple languages is cool.

That said, my Austrian heritage isn’t exactly an inspiration for me to learn German. My relatives didn’t leave Austria because they wanted to, and I have family members who were killed during the Holocaust, when the Austrian government was largely complicit with the goals of Nazi Germany.

Growing up in America—the proverbial nation of immigrants—I know many people who are very proud of their family origins. My father’s father, for example, used to attend Scottish festivals every year. I have friends who still speak the language of their parents or grandparents, or who recognize the holidays of another culture or nation. For me, it’s hard to be proud of Austria when I’m also aware of how my family’s time here ended; I don’t think I’ll ever be able to celebrate my national heritage in the way that some people do.³

This image, as well as the one at the top of this post, are quotes written on the outside of the Jewish Museum in Munich. Both are relevant to me as I've grappled with my stay in Austria.
This image, as well as the one at the top of this post, are quotes written on the outside of the Jewish Museum in Munich. Both are relevant to me as I’ve grappled with my stay in Austria.

That said, the Austria of my heritage isn’t the Austria of today. I wrote last week that I don’t actually spend a lot of time thinking about my family’s persecution; I likewise don’t dwell on Austria as my ancestral homeland. It’s a past that I am aware of, and that I remember. But it’s not a key part of my identity.

At the same time, my adventures in Hohenems this summer have also created an Austria that is firmly part of my present. I’ve enjoyed the last eight weeks. I don’t want to forget the people I’ve met here, the places I’ve visited, or the lessons I’ve learned. And (setting aside my lack of German abilities), nationality and religion have been completely irrelevant to my experiences. Yes, I like Austria. Not because my family is from here, but because today it’s a lovely place.

It’s a long answer to a simple question. But as I prepare to leave Hohenems later this week, I’m certain about how I feel. Es gefällt mir sehr gut—I like it very much.

¹ “Gefällt es Ihnen hier?” is German  for “Do you like it here?” Thus, the title of this post.

² Please don’t read this like I’m complaining—I like it when people ask me questions! My presence here certainly invites plenty and I enjoy talking about myself, so keep asking.

³ I’m far from the only person grappling with this issue. Since 1949, Germany has offered citizenship to German Jews and their descendants. Here is a recent article on some American Jews considering German naturalization.