Family history often provides tangible connections to Jewish memory and heritage, with Jewish built heritage as a touchstone. The year 2017 will mark 400 years since Jews settled in Hohenems, a small town in western Austria on the border with Switzerland. Today, few Jews live in either Hohenems or the surrounding Austrian region of Voralberg, but the town has a Jewish museum, a former synagogue, and a Jewish cemetery that bear testament to its past. Next summer, a reunion of hundreds of far-flung Hohenems descendants is set to turn Hohenems into a global hub of Jewish memory. In preparation, Hanno Loewy, the director of the Hohenems Jewish Museum, is traveling around the world to connect with members of the “Hohenems Diaspora” and find traces of their history.
In this essay he describes a recent stop on this journey, in Trieste, Italy.
Houses of Life: A Letter from the Hohenems Diaspora
By Hanno Loewy
I have an appointment at the Jewish Cemetery of Trieste. Livio Vasieri, the archivist of the Jewish community, wants to help me find the graves of the Hohenemsers 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 cemetery occupies the greatest part of the hill.
Behind the gate, a jungle is waiting, but it can’t hide the glory of remembrance that the loved ones of a prosperous middle class and a grand bourgeois culture could expect. On the left, the grand mausoleum of the Morpurgos occupies the primary position. Next to it stands the mausoleum of the Morpurgo de Nilma family, which proudly exhibits their Egyptian heritage. 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 layout of the territory, finding the small markers on the ground that indicate the different sections of the graveyard, even if he has to clean them of dirt and fallen leaves in order to read them.
The families whose graves I was looking for — the Brettauers, Bernheimers, Menzes and Brunners – had emigrated from Hohenems to Trieste at a time when only the eldest son of a family was granted official permission to marry and legally reside with his own family in Hohenems. The other children had no choice but to leave for good; to emigrate. Their story is the story of energy and commitment, the story of people who succeeded when forced to take risks.
In Trieste, the Hohenems families became successful in the textile trade, banking, and insurance companies, helping to turn the port into the hub of the Hapsburg Empire’s trade in the Mediterranean. The Brunners (and the Menzes) both made their imprint on the histories of the powerful Generali and the Riunione insurance companies, as well as the Banca Commerciale Triestina. Their success stories survived the break-up of the Empire after World War I, and the incorporation of Trieste into Italy.
I walk the city streets with Giancarlo Stavro, a Brunner descendant, and later meet his distant cousin, Helen Brunner. Stavro points here and there as we pass by the glorious palaces of commerce in the city center. Everywhere there is a Brunner story to tell; the family’s private residences still bear their traces.
The story of how the Brunners survived the Holocaust has yet to be written. Some made it to Switzerland to join relatives there, and then returned after the war. Some emigrated to England. Others survived in Italy. In 1940, Trieste residents Filippo and Fanny Brunner received a visit from second cousins from Vienna, three year-old Gertrude Rosenthal and her parents. They were escaping from Europe, on their way to New York. Many years later Gertrude—now Susan Shimer and editor of the Newsletter of the American Friends of the Hohenems Jewish Museum —would tell about her 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, she has recalled, was the smell and the taste of her first oranges, something she would never forget.
Meeting the eldest of the living Brunners, Giancarlo’s 98-year-old aunt Elisabetta (Betty) Stavro, was a particularly profound and moving experience. Born in the year of the battles of the Isonzo and the Piave, the last battles of World War I, she lives in a home for the elderly. When I tell her the details about the reunion in Hohenems next year she takes my hand, and promises in all sincerity: “If I am still around next year I will come for sure.”
The Trieste Jewish cemetery is not only infinitely beautiful, it’s also infinite, and I wouldn’t have had a chance of finding the Hohenemser graves I wanted to visit and photograph without Livio. Some 12,000 gravestones are closely scattered amid the growing forest. To find individual stones is a mystery, and even Livio has to consult the lists he brought from the archives. Maybe in a few years it will be slightly easier, though. Our colleagues from the Austrian Jewish Museum in Eisenstadt began work this spring on a documentation of the Trieste cemetery, publishing some images on the internet.
In the cemetery, the Brunners, like other families, occupied their own mini-compound, surrounded by a now rusty fence. Here lie Fanny and Filippo Brunner; Oscar and Elena; Paolo, Riccardo, Frida, and Hannchen…..Some make reference to Hohenems as their place of birth. Among the names on the huge memorial to Massimiliano Brunner’s family, only one does not mark the place where he rests: that of Egone Brunner, born in 1888. Egone was deported and killed in 1944; the inscription does not say where.
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October 13, 2016
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Hanno Loewy has been the director of the Hohenems Jewish Museum since 2004. A version of this essay appears on the blog “Letters from the Hohenems Diaspora”. The genealogy of Hohenems families can be found on the genealogy database of the museum.