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Touring Trieste

This is a review of our Jewish Heritage tour in Trieste by a participant on the tour. It has been translated from German and abridged.

Touring Trieste was one of our best touring experiences ever! Our guide Annalisa speaks very good English, as well as German. She is a member of the Trieste community, and has an extensive education. She did her PhD at De Magris about a German-Lithuanian-Russian Jew, and has had her work published.

I get the feeling that she works mainly with Americans who find Trieste very charming and complex. Her style is lively and exciting, nothing like a teacher recounting facts. I was very impressed by her. The standard tour includes the synagogue (which might be the largest in Europe after udapest), the Jewish Museum, the former ghetto, the antiquarian bookshop of the Umberto Saba, the Jewish cemetery, and the Risiera San Saba.

In addition, there is a very well-preserved, beautiful synagogue in Gorizia, as well as a nearby Jewish cemetery that are accessible only by car. But even without Gorizia you can easily fill a full day with Jewish Trieste.

The day before, with my language school, I had been to the Risiera di San Saba, one of the few concentration camps on Italian soil run by the Nazis in 1943. This camp was the site of “Police custody”, assassinations, a transit camp for Jews, and crematorium – mostly destroyed in 1944 by the Nazis when they fled. It held Jews as well as partisans political prisoners. The museum there is quite new, the text is in Italian, Slovenian, and English; and the multimedia exhibits include audio, films, documents such as letters, items, and more. I found it well done, and sparsely crowded. The history of collaboration with the Germans (from all sides, not just Italian fascists) gets its own section. There are many rooms preserved as a memorial including cells and a quiet courtyard. It is forbidden to use cell phones as phones, which was much appreciated and stands in stark contrast to other memorials like Auschwitz. While I was there, the visitors demonstrated attention and appropriate silence.

Our tour started in the Piazza Unità where Mussolini had proclaimed the racial laws in 1938. As Annalisa explained to me, these were much more radical than in Germany. Historical buildings, two of which, the Assicurazioni Generali and Lyold Ship Company, were founded and funded by city Jews, frame the piazza. Since Trieste was a free port city, hundreds of Jews once called this city home, primarily providing banking services.

This port played another important role in Jewish history. From here, ships departed for Palestine, Jews fleeing from all across Europe were stocked up by the community here first, equipped with papers, fed and ready to go to Palestine.

Going further back in time to the 1600’s, the proposal for the first ghetto here based on the Venetian model was rejected by the local Jews. They complained that the site would be too humid, and too far from the harbor and shops so they decided to build the ghetto just behind the Piazza Unita and the Stock Exchange, meaning it was built in the center of trade. The Ghetto was first closed in 1785 and later completely demolished by Mussolini who tore down part of the ghetto to reveal the Roman theater underneath. Now you see very little of it, but a wall with the remnants of the two stacked synagogues, one Sephardic and one Ashkenazi, and of course a few houses and the countless antique shops that are still run by people of the community. As we walked the streets, Annalisa recounted the immense literary history of the city. Though sadly much of the Jewish sites no longer exists, Annalisa was able to detail some of the more engaging stories of the Jewish community here, and we visit the spots where these sites would have stood.

The people here were friendly and welcoming to tourists. There was a fascinating history of Jews who were involved in political parties fighting for Trieste independence, and on he other side to become a part of a united Italy.

Descendants of the original community are still here. The Trieste community before the Holocaust was not particularly religious, even today it is a bit not very observant, but they are active and reside in peace and safety. Prayer is in the small Corfuan synagogue on the ground floor of the large synagogue, which is reserved for holidays.

In my opinion, Trieste is a true insiders city, it’s packed full of charm and history without the tourist traps you’d find in other major Italian cities. I could stay here for another month!