Houses of life

I have an appointment on the Jewish Cemetery of Trieste. Livio Vasieri, the archivist of the Jewish community wants to help me with the graves of the Hohenemser tribes who settled here in the 19th century. The cemetery on the peaceful hill of Santa Anna borders the Greek Orthodox cemetery and the Protestant one. The British have their military cemetery around the corner. And to the south, the Catholic occupies the greatest part of the hill. Naturally.

Behind the gate Livio opens for me, a jungle is waiting, with all the glory of remembrance the dearest ones of a saturated middle class and a grand bourgeois culture could expect.

On the left, the mausoleum of the Morpurgos occupies the primary position. Next to it lies the mausoleum of the Morpurgo de Nilma, who proudly exhibit their Egyptian heritage, after a few generations spending their life along the Nile. The grandeur is striking, as is the relaxed willingness to leave all this grandeur to the pace of time and the organic energy of a forest, which is slowly taking over control of the site, season by season.

Livio is still mastering the territory, finding the small markers on the ground that indicate the different compounds of the graveyard, even if he has to use his big brush in order to clean them from dust and falling leaves. I had given him the names of the families I am looking for, the Brettauers, Bernheimers, the Menz and the Brunners, when we met the day before in the breathtaking synagogue of Trieste.

Annalisa di Fant from the Jewish Museum gave me a tour through this house of prayer, which looks like a film set for a monumental tale of pharaohs and slaves. Only this time the somewhat excessive structure in the middle of everybody’s view serves the once oppressed, celebrating their liberation—and the tora, the law. Annalisa is happy to show me around and we exchange ideas for future cooperation.

I also run into Ariel Haddad, a Lubawitscher who has taken care of the Jewish museum for years. He is keeping his good humor, even if the liberal Jews of Trieste might not be exactly his cup of tea, with their synagogue with its giant organ and the women sitting downstairs along the men, separated only by a very transparent paravent.

But the master of the cemetery is Livio, the archivist. Without him I wouldn’t have a chance. The cemetery is not only infinitely beautiful, it’s also infinite. Some 12,000 gravestones are closely scattered in the growing forest. To find the single stones is a mystery, and even Livio has to consult the lists he brought from the archives. Maybe in a few years things will be slightly easier. Our colleagues from the Jewish Museum in Eisenstadt started to work this spring on a documentation of the Trieste cemetery, publishing some images on the internet. This time I have to do my own photographs—of “our crowd” —for our genealogy projects.

Sometimes a family occupied a mini-compound for its own kind, surrounded by a now rusty fence. The Brunners did this when they settled in Trieste. They would soon become successful in textile trade, banking and insurance companies, helping to turn the port of Trieste into the hub of the Hapsburg Empire’s trade in the Mediterranean in the 19th century. The same is true for the Brettauers, the Bernheimers, and the Menz. It’s the story of all their energy and commitment, and their willingness to take risks.

The Hohenemsers were forced to take such risks. When only the eldest son of a family was granted the official permission to marry and to start a new family (or better to continue the existing family and their title of residence in the town of Hohenems) the other children had no chance but to emigrate and leave for good. Their outlook for creating some business elsewhere was uncertain.

The Brunners (and the Menz) both made their imprint on the histories of the Generali and the Riunione, with much of the Banca Commerciale Triestina and other success stories that survived the end of the empire and the Italian takeover in 1918. The Brunner’s private houses still bear their traces. Walking with Giancarlo Stavro along the glorious palaces of commerce in the “Theresian” quarter of the center—with its rectangular grid of streets and its attempt to even triumph over its Viennese originals—he points here and there. And everywhere there is a Brunner story to tell. Meeting him and Helen Brunner (his cousin around a few corners) is a particular pleasure—and a school of irony. The twisted fate of Trieste—and also of Trieste’s Jewish families, thrown in between of belongings and loyalties—is indeed an experience better to take with some irony.

The story of how the Brunners survived the Holocaust has yet to be written. Some made it to Switzerland to join relatives there, only to return after the war. Some emigrated to England. Others survived in Italy. Only Egone Brunner’s name on the huge memorial of Massimiliano Brunner’s family on the Jewish cemetery does not mark the place where he rests. He was deported and killed in 1944.

A few years before, Trieste seemed like a safe place still, a port on the way to freedom. In 1940, Filippo and Fanny Brunner received a visit from second cousins in Vienna. Three year-old Gertrude Rosenthal and her parents were escaping from Europe, and on their way to New York. Many years later Gertrude—now Susan Shimer and editor of the Newsletter of the American Friends of the Jewish Museum Hohenems—would tell about the very few memories of her six days in Trieste, waiting for the ship that would take them over the ocean. What mattered most to her: The smell and the taste of her first oranges she would never forget. When Jessica Piper started this blog a few months ago while staying in Hohenems, she also told me Susan’s story —Susan is her grandmother. Sometimes the things that connect people throughout generations are very simple and profound.

Meeting the eldest of the living Brunners, Elisabetta (Betty) Stavro, in her home for the elderly, with her 98 years fully present and awake, is an encounter with irony too, most profound and moving. When we enter the room, Elisabetta calls for her daughter, caring for her like any other mother, except her daughter has long since been a grandmother herself.

But Elisabetta—born in the year of the battles of the Isonzo and the Piave, the last battles of World War I —only needs a few minutes to turn her attention to her nephew Giancarlo and me. And learning the details about the reunion in Hohenems next year she takes my hand, and promises all sincere: “When I am still around next year I will come for sure.” We take that seriously, Elisabetta.

On the Banks of the Isonzo

We were on the way to Trieste, to meet the Brunners and other Hohenems descendants. But we made a stop over before we entered this promised land. We walked along the river, on the banks of the Isonzo, close before it ends in the Adriatic Sea. You couldn’t imagine a more peaceful site in bustling Italy. Today, a nature reserve on the Isola di Cano provides a retreat for thousands of birds, and horses from the Camargue. 100 years ago, between 1915 and 1917, the valley along the river was the scene of 12 bloody battles between Italy and the Austro-Hungarian empire. From the mountains down to the sea hundreds of thousands of soldiers—Italians, Austrians, Hungarians, French, British, Americans—fell victim to a war in which the front moved back and forth with no victors. Only in October 1918, when the Hapsburg empire fell apart, were the Italian troops able to overrun the collapsing Austrian Force—and Trieste became part of Italy after all.

Looking over the bay: Somewhere over there is Trieste.
Looking over the bay: Somewhere over there is Trieste.

Up the Isonzo a ways, Harry Weil, later the last cantor of the Hohenems community, fought his last battle in the war in 1917. As a “Tiroler Kaiserjäger” he had already participated in the battles of the Pasubio and the Cosmagon, Barolo Pass, Monte Majo and even the Three Peaks (Drei Zinnen) in the lovely Dolomites. He was fighting for his fatherland, the multiethnic empire, that appreciated and protected its Jewish subjects. At least emperor Franz Josef had said so. But in 1917 Franz Joseph was already dead. And in the upper Isonzo valley, near Flitsch (today Bovec in Slovenia), Harry Weil caught a bullet and had to leave the battlefield for good, severely injured.

A year earlier, another “Hohenemser” fell in the same war, but he was fighting on the other side. The fallen soldier’s father—Rudolf Brunner—had been loyal to the Hapsburgs, as were most Triestine elites, Jewish or not. The Brunners made their imprint on everything that was successful in Trieste, both culturally and economically. But the Brunner hero the city of Trieste is publicly celebrates—there is a street, a school and the barracks of a regiment named after him—is the fallen soldier who crossed the lines: Guido Brunner. As he was enlisting in university to study law in Bologna in 1915, he was called to arms to fight for Austria in the Carpathian Mountains, but decided to follow the Italian patriotism of his mothers side (the Jewish Segrè family). When he was caught by the Austrians and sentenced to death as a deserter, his Hapsburg loyal father Rudolf was able to convince the emperor to pardon and release him. The effort turned out to be in vain.

Commemorating the Hero: Via Guido Brunner in Trieste.
Commemorating the Hero: Via Guido Brunner in Trieste.

A few days after my own arrival in Trieste, Giancarlo Stavro told me the story of Guido with bitter humor. Taken back to the family’s Tuscan estate in Forcoli, the young man couldn’t wait to take away the car of his father and made it again to the Italian army. His time in the army would end in the battle of Monte Fior in the Veneto, north of Bassano del Grappa, in June 1916. His body was never found, only the one of his horse, Giancarlo reported with a smile.

Sitting with Giancarlo in the Café San Marco, working on the Hohenems genealogy.
Sitting with Giancarlo in the Café San Marco, working on the Hohenems genealogy.

The horse was buried in Forcoli. But the story wasn’t buried. Giancarlo recounted to me his own childhood memories of the visits in his great-grandfather’s villa in Forcoli in the 1950s, where the unmarked grave of the horse was the site of a daily routine of commemoration of the lost son of the family.