Tales of Two Wars. Part 2


You read about the night on the WWI front line? The Dolomites offer more comfortable places to stay too. And stories of another war. Two days after the Biwak of Peace we found ourselves just at the other end of the same “national park”.

The “Hotel Pragser Wildsee”, a Grand Hotel at the shore of a mountain lake that couldn’t be more scenic and impressive, made history only in the last minute of the second war that turned the 20th century into a mess even more profoundly than the first one. Now even some of the brave Austrian  and German soldiers of the first war were only considered as the “other” as such, Jews… Like Robert Rosenthal from the Hohenems family who fought for Austria in the Alps not far from here in 1917 and was taken to Auschwitz to be killed in reward.

Robert Rosenthal, 1917
Robert Rosenthal, 1917

But while the fronts along the peaks of the Dolomites experienced all brutal aspects WWI had to offer, the episode at Pragser Wildsee and the neighboring village Niederdorf that took place in the last days of April 1945 bordered on satire – or melodrama. Subject matter for a film that would provoke criticism about offering an “unbelievable plot” and “trivial kitsch”. The story in short – and with some distortion – one can read on a placque at the little chapel on the shore of the lake: here the Wehrmacht liberated 133 Nazi prisoners from the cruelty of the SS. Okay that’s not the whole story. We come to that.

That’s not the chapel but the boat house.

In the staircase of the Hotel you can sit at a desk with a history. It belonged to Henning von Tresckow, a high ranking German officer who initially supported the Nazis, later joined the resistance – while he still was involved in war crimes of the Wehrmacht in Belorus. Tresckow tried to kill Hitler in 1943 and took part in the plot of 1944, making an end to his life when the coup failed. By that he became one of the heroes of the myth of a “Wehrmacht” that remained “honorable” during the war while only the SS was taken responsible for the Nazi crimes. Its just a few years ago that Rüdiger von Tresckow, his son, handed the desk down to the Hotel. Obviously a good place for myths.

Writing about the Wehrmacht on Henning von Tresckow’s desk

When in the last days of the war high ranks of the SS and the Party were dreaming of the “Alpenfestung”, more then 130 prominent prisoners of the Nazis were still waiting for their “fate” to be determined in Dachau. The Nazis were preparing to retreat into their “alpine fortress” as a last chance to either fight a glorious never ending battle – or to negotiate some better outcome for themselves with the US-Army. For instance offering them to join forces against “the Russians”. The prominent hostages in Dachau seemed to be a valuable stake in this last gambling. So 133 of them were put on busses and taken south, into the Dolomites. In Niederdorf, in the Pustertal, the caravan came to an end. The “Hotel Pragser Wildsee”, the intended final stop, was occupied by a Wehrmacht unit. And the SS run out of petrol, a new destination was not in sight. So the SS troupe and their hostages got stuck. Confusion among the guards increased the tension but also enabled one of the prisoners to sneak out and get to a phone. It was Bogeslaw Adolf Fürchtegott von Bonin, a Wehrmacht officer who fell in disgrace in January 1945.

A great place for myths: the “Pragser Wildsee”

The hostages were a colorful mixture of prominence, politicians like the French president Leon Blum or the last Austrian chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg, activists of German resistance like Martin Niemöller and family members of von Stauffenberg and Goerdeler, foreign notables and German aristocrats, British intelligence agents but also former Nazis whose careers came to a dead end, like Hjalmar Schacht, the former minister of finance, or members of the Wehrmacht who at some point disagreed with Hitler or with other leading Nazis. Among them Franz Halder was probably the highest ranking officer, “Generalstabsschef des deutschen Heeres” (chief general of the German army), the mastermind behind the war against Soviet Russia and some of the criminal orders, paving the way to the war of racist and anti-Semitic destruction. A few weeks later Franz Halder would boast with reminding everybody that he belonged to a group of resistance in the Wehrmacht, that back in 1938 was opposing Hitler’s hurry to go to war, even being ready for a coup, now presentable as anti-Nazi “resistance”.

The Grand Hotel
The Grand Hotel

But in the last days of April 1945 it wasn’t time for that yet. The SS got uneasy and also more and more drunk as they had no idea where to take the prisoners – and the prisoners feared the worst. Von Bonin managed to get a line to the Wehrmacht in Bozen and asked for help. General Röttiger was not amused. He had other problems. Together with SS-Obergruppenführer Karl Wolff, the SS leader in occupied Italy since 1943, he was organizing a separate capitulation in Italy – and how to save their heads in the times coming. A Wehrmacht officer, Wichard von Alvensleben, was sent to Niederdorf to check the situation. And also Karl Wolff, the high ranking SS-leader, now was keen to “help” von Bonin and the SS-hostages. In the end the SS troups had to leave the prisoners to the Wehrmacht and hurried to Bozen. And the 133 prominent hostages enjoyed the end of the war on the lake and waited for the American troops.

A great place for waiting
A great place for waiting

Franz Halder made a good deal. He served the Americans as one of their major consultants when it came to the history of the war. He wasn’t put on trial in Nuremberg and the Americans took care that also his regular “Denazification”-trial ended with acquittal. When the West-Germans prepared themselves for building up a new army – now as American allies – his interpretations of the war became the canon of myths forming the basis of the “tragic” image of the Wehrmacht: being abused by the demonic Adolf Hitler, struck by fate, or fighting a preventive war against the Russians. In any case, having “no choice”.

Karl Wolff, once the SS chief of staff behind Himmler, also made a good a deal – with the US army, starting in March 1945 and finishing the war in Italy already six days before May 8, 1945. But also after the war, when the Americans spared him from prosecution in Nuremberg, because they now didn’t want to disclose the details of their secret negotiations with him. About the crimes of the SS, the murder of Jews and others, he claimed to have learned only in 1945.

A room with a view. Next door Kurt Schuschnigg was waiting for the Americans to come.
A room with a view. Next door Kurt Schuschnigg was waiting for the Americans to come.

He became active for the advertisement department of an illustrated paper and intended to spend the rest of his life next to another lake, in Starnberg in Bavaria. But the last word wasn’t spoken yet. In 1964 he was tried and sentenced in Munich for complicity in murder in more than 300.000 cases, when his active participation in the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto and the deportation and murder of its inhabitants in Treblinka was publicly disclosed.

In 1969 he was released “for health reasons” and enjoyed the last fifteen years of his life, making friends with journalists like Gerd Heidemann from the “Stern” magazine – and with a notorious forger, Konrad Kujau. So the last “project” Karl Wolff was involved in, was the publication of the fake diaries of Adolf Hitler. When he peacefully died, a few weeks after his conversion to Islam, the forged diaries already had become the subject of a major scandal in Germany. But Wolff missed the trial that followed.

A great place for a journey through time
A great place for a journey through time

One of the “special prisoners” of the SS in Dachau was not taken to Pragser Wildsee but killed already two weeks before: Georg Elser, the brave carpenter, who tried to kill Hitler and his entourage in 1939, when it was time still to stop the war. He wasn’t prominent enough to make a deal about with the Americans.

We enjoyed the three days at Pragser Wildsee. We learned a lot.

Tales of Two Wars. Part 1


We already got used to run into rather gloomy chapters of history in the middle of the mountains. And into the military career of Harry Weil from Hohenems, who did not only fight on the banks of the Isonzo, but also in the Dolomites. Hundred years ago. The glorious mountains became a “theatre of war” – language can be so misleading – when Italy entered World War 1. The Austrian Empire was prepared. The conduct with their ally, and that’s what Italy was before the war, at least on paper, had become a matter of frictions and mutual slights. Italy wanted to achieve control of those parts of Austria with Italian speaking majorities, and even had some appetite for more. And Austria was treating the new nation state and neighbor in the South, dependent on the Austrians for so long in the past, with a mixture of resentment and hybris. Even the German initiatives to encourage the Austrians to seek compromise with Italy were in vain.

In 1915 the Dolomites and South Tyrol as a whole were prepared for war. And now on a sunny day in the fall we were hiking through the beauty of it, with our friends and their twins, to spend a night on the “front line”. Okay, that’s not exactly what we said to the kids. We were up for the Monte Castello and a Biwak, called “Biwak della Pace”, on 2750 meter altitude, facing the Italian lines on the other side of the valley, along the slopes of the “Tofanas”, two towering pyramides – now, in late October, already powdered white. In 1916, Harry Weil was fighting not far from here, next to the famous rocks of the “Tre Croci”. He had left his family in Hohenems to battle for emperor Franz-Joseph, who – until he died in the end of 1916, after 68 years on the throne – had somewhat convincingly played his role of a paternal protector of all of “his” peoples and minorities. Even the Jews.

We are schlepping heavy bagpacks through the national park of Fanes, the last meters are icy and slippery, but for the little girls its fun. And “adventure”. The biwak we are up to has no water, no light, no heating, no kitchen. But a view, an awesome sunset, and fragments of the old Austrian bunkers, shelters, caverns for canons and machine-guns and rifles and everything you need to prepare the hell for your enemies. The Italians on the other side had similar equipment. And both sides got stuck in their rocky, icy trenches, as in so many other places in the Alps between 1915 and 1918. Nothing really important happened here. Nothing, but the end of many lives, brought by bullets and falling rocks, shrapnels and avalanches, and the worst enemy, both sides fought against, the cold.

The only “event” though was an Italian triumph – that did not change anything with respect to the front. An Austrian outpost on a small peak between the fronts, the Italians did not want to tolerate. Instead of doing anything relevant, the Italian were digging a tunnel under the rock, half a kilometer long. The Austrians finally realized some strange noises – and that it was time to leave their outpost “for bad”, short before the Italian blew the whole peak away, with explosives deposited under the rock.

The bunker of an Austrian cannon, once confronting the Tofana mountain – and the Italians

We comfortably succeeded to warm up the biwak from 2 to 6 grades Celsius. The night was long. The other day we examined the architecture of war. And still did not understand anything more about what kind of insanity men has invented in this “theatre”.

A New Jewish Quarter?


The invitation of the City of Hohenems was spiced with some involuntary irony: the new shared space in the Jewish quarter of the town was announced under the heading “The new Hohenems” as the “completion of the new Jewish quarter”. But no, Hohenems did not become the home of Jewish refugees and a newly built residential area for them. Its indeed the old Jewish quarter in the heart of town we talk about.

After many a year of discussion about the future shape of the towns center and its two streets, the old Jew’s lane and the old Christian’s lane, after public debates about alternative traffic solutions, neighbors protesting against still existing cross town traffic and local shops protesting against too much traffic calming, after a planning process of two years – and after half year of road work, the new design of the streets in the Jewish quarter is ready. And hundreds of Hohenemsers came to celebrate the 133.000 new cobblestones (all laid by hand), two fountains, benches and bike stands. An open square to fill with life, a space to share. And given the history of the quarter this also might be a space to share memories (pleasant and less pleasant), a multitude of heritages from diverse sources and conflicting ideas about the future.

The square in front of the synagogue now is the “Salomon Sulzer Square”. Once all the houses around the Hohenems synagogue had been the Salomon Sulzer Alley. Named after the cantor who left Hohenems young to become the chief cantor of Vienna, and soon to be a star in the Viennese music scene, adored by Schubert and Liszt. Sulzer became the major force of reform of Jewish liturgical music in the 19th century – and a prototype of a pop star, for the first time attracting Non-Jews to listen to Jewish tradition, while 50 years later sons of Jewish cantors made the next step, and left synagogue for Broadway. But that’s another story.

Mayor Egger headed the opening of the square and unveiled the plaque. But it was in fact his predecessor Richard Amann, who fought for a decent redesign of the public space in the center of Hohenems for years and finally succeeded to get the project on track.

A beginning of a new consciousness of space an time
A beginning of a new consciousness of space an time?

This celebration of the “Sulzer Square” though was also the moment to remember the history of street names. The old Jew’s lane of Hohenems in 1909 war renamed too: one part of the street memorialized the Hohenems’ Brunner family, who funded banks and insurance companies in Trieste, and played a role in liberal politics in Vienna, the other part remembered the Steinach family, three generations of medical doctors and scientists, with Eugen Steinach, the pioneer of hormone research being the last one of the family, dying in Exile. In 1938 the “Jewish names” were erased, the streets in the old Jewish quarter were now marked as “Friedrich-Wurnigk-Straße”, the name of the infamous Nazi-terrorist, who had murdered the head of the Innsbruck police in 1934, and now was a hero. In 1945, times obviously not ripe for a truthful exploration of the past, the street became the “Schweizer Straße”. One might guess how long it still will take to give the streets their name back. Let’s watch out for the future.

Michael Köhlmeier once dreamed of the “Hohenems Ring Parabel”, reminding Lessing’s plea for respect between the religions, as something coming to his mind, when standing once infront of the former Hohenems synagogue, when its still was the home of the fire brigade (between 1955 and 2000). And he did not forget to mention: its not just unsure who has the “right” ring, but Lessing was more radical. Probably the “original ring” is lost for long anyhow and we all play around with a substitute. When it came to blessings: the local Parish priest Thomas Heilbrun and Imam Seyran Ates gave them together with Rabbi Tovia Ben-Chorin from St. Gall (a rather uncommon pluralism still in Austria). And the agnostics would have their moment as well.


Three citizens were interviewed about their connection to this place. Pierre Burgauer though, is a citizen of St. Gall rather than Hohenems, today. He spoke how he found new connections to his roots in Hohenems through the activities of the Jewish museum in the last twenty-five years. His great-grandfather left his Hohenems mansion in the 1860s, offering the building to the Jewish community that turned it into the Jewish poorhouse. Today its one of the modest landmark buildings in the old Jewish quarter. Tudgce Celik spent part of her childhood in this house, not a poorhouse anymore but in poor condition, in the 1990s, as a child of Turkish immigrants, experiencing another form of otherness and cohabitation. The old Jewish quarter, bad in shape, was a territory of adventures for her – while today she is happy to work in the Jewish museum, when she is not studying in Innsbruck. Franz Sauer, active in the neighborhood today, politically and socially, told about his experiences with the new immigrants, and about his appreciation of their commitment to revive the old houses and to create something out of nothing.

School kids from the local primary school performed shadow plays – following stories by Monika Helfer – In front of the old Jewish school and the Villa Heimann-Rosenthal. It was a particular moving moment, when the little kids engaged in the Jewish history of the place with all their enthusiasm encouraged by the magic of light – and shadows. And this story has its shadows, they confronted as well. The city had invited cantor Shlomo Barzilai from Vienna, the late “follower” of Salomon Sulzer to accompany the ceremony. And the “Bauernfänger”, performing old songs with an ironic twist, and the “Bürgermusik” proudly presenting their folklore dress, they all led over into the party that followed, with a band named “roadwork”. In the end the Hohenemsers where dancing in the street. A day offering an outlook into another reality beyond the xenophobia and tension of today’s politics and resentments? A day of illusions?

Writing this the day America is going to vote and four weeks before Austria has to decide whether to elect a right wing populist who has no shame to support fascist views, is a challenge in itself.


In the middle of the Sulzer Square the art installation of Mariella Scherling is still present, though somewhat obscured, reminding everybody to the biblical quote that is more relevant than anything today: “Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.

Everybody is enjoying the new square
Harder to find now is Mariella Scherlings installation. But the city promised to work on that.