Rocky Roads: Northern Italy’s Jewish Heritage

Mountain Jews in the Italian/Austrian Alps? The Tyrol region is not immediately associated with Jews or Jewish history. Yet surprisingly, the area encompassing the magnificent Dolomite Mountains has had a Jewish presence. In fact, no less breathtaking than the landscape of this UNESCO World Heritage property is the post-Emancipation history of the Jews who passed through this part of the world.

Emancipation might be defined as the key in the lock. Certainly, the 1870 emancipation of Italian Jews and the 1867 emancipation of Austro-Hungarian Jews tooled their great advancement in the professions and in public life. Surprisingly, Jews seized this opportunity to enter the military of both nations.

In his report Jews in the Army of the Kingdom of Italy, 1848-1923, Andrew J. Schoenfeld states: “The Italian Jews of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were one of the most fervent nationalist groups in the nascent Italian State. As a result, they actively enlisted in the army of the Kingdom of Italy and its predecessor, the army of the Kingdom of Sardinia-Piedmont.”

Napoleon’s presence in what is today Italy gave Jews a real taste for involvement in the military. But as everyone knows, Napoleon’s successes did not last. The collapse of the latter French monarchy in 1848 led to both incitement and revolution which culminated in Italian unification in 1860. Across the Italian peninsula, people were caught up in unharnassing themselves from Hapsburgs’ and Bourbons’ oppressive rule.

Italian Jews were part of this thrust. Amazingly, in every state (Italy was then ruled by several different powers), Jewish religious leaders actively recruited from their pulpits. The Jewish populace responded enthusiastically to the rabbis’ call. Throughout the north, Jews played an active role in the struggle for Italian independence.

While Jews were influential in the revolutionary movement all over Italy, nowhere was their military effort as concerted as it was in the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia. Jews volunteered for service in the army as war loomed with Austria. Among the enlistees were Giuseppe Finzi and Enrico Guastalla, who would go on to enjoy outstanding military careers. The Chief Rabbi of Turin, Lelio Cantoni went so far as to help organize volunteers into three battalions of sharpshooters. Jewish volunteers also formed the 7th Company of Bersalgieri. This unit performed admirably throughout the conflict with Austria, especially at the Battle of Bicocca.

Meanwhile, the proclamation of a Roman Republic under Mazzini and Garibaldi had temporarily put an end to Papal rule in Rome. Even though this was in part a sectarian issue, from across the peninsula (and even from Europe) Italian Jews flocked to the Republican flag and rushed to defend Rome.

When in 1859 war once again erupted with Austria, Italian Jewish veterans of the Crimean War re-enlisted. At the outbreak of hostilities, there were already ninety Jewish career officers in the army of Piedmont-Sardinia. During the war of liberation, this number rose to 260. Many of them would be decorated for valour.

Both Enrico Guastalla and Cesare Rovighi continued their service in the army and played important roles in the campaigns against Austria and Naples. But the war of liberation likewise initiated a new breed of ranking Italian Jewish soldiers. Indeed, in 1902, army officer Giuseppe Ottolenghi, who had been the first Jew to serve on the general staff, became the Italian minister of war. Other young Jews like Edoardo Arbib, Emilio Arbib and Roberto Segre received military distinction

As fervent nationalists and supporters of the Savoy Dynasty, the decade of the 1860s saw disproportionate numbers of Italian Jews enlist in King Victor Emmanuel’s army. The outstanding service of Italian Jews in the Kingdom’s military did not end with the conquest of Rome and Italian unification. For the remainder of the century, Jews figured prominently in the highest levels of the Italian armed forces.

With Italy’s entry into the Great War in 1915, many Jews answered the call to arms. During Italy’s three year involvement in the conflict, 8,000 Italian Jewish soldiers bravely fought, and 500 Jews died in battle with nearly twice that number wounded.

Angelo Arbib, Emilio Arbib and Armando Bachi served in command positions while Carlo Archivolti, Adolfo Olivetti, Giacomo Almagia, Umberto Pugliese, Raimondo Foa and Ettore Ascoli, among others, were prominent in the junior officer corps. Colonel Angelo Modena began the war in command of the 208th Infantry Regiment but, after his courageous stand at the Zugna-Torta heights, he was promoted to major-general, thus heading up the 32nd Infantry Division. General Roberto Segre commanded artillery formations at the start of the war. He was cited for bravery at the Battle of Gorizia. In 1917, he was promoted to chief of staff of the Fifth Army Corps and became head of the Italian-Austrian Armistice Commission. Colonel Emanuele Pugliese distinguished himself during the battle of Vittorio-Veneto. By the end of the war, he reached the rank of general.

Italian Jews also served in the Italian navy, although in significantly fewer numbers than their co-religionists in the army. Paolo Marani was prominent as a vice-admiral. Augusto Capon, Franco Nunes, Guido Segre and Aldo Ascoli all commanded ships. Capon, Nunes and Segre would all go on to achieve the rank of full admiral. In 1931, Capon would be named chief of naval intelligence.

In the Tyrol region, the relative quiet between the two world wars quickly passed. While two-thirds of the post-World War I Austrian-Jewish community lived around Vienna (200,000 in 1919, according to the Encyclopedia Judaica), a small cluster of Jews maintained itself in the Austrian or northern part of the Tyrol. In 1918, it numbered 469. Four years before the beginning of the liquidation of the Austrian Jewish community by the Nazis (1938), there were 365 Jews in this mountainous province. The Jewish community of Merano, Italy, grew during this period to more than 600. The area became known for its tuberculosis treatment. According to the website of the Merano Tourist Board: “Jewish physicians in particular were responsible for discovering the healing power of the waters of Merano and popularizing both the grape cure and winter tourism.” Jews opened a number of kosher hotels, attracting Jews from all over the world. This is evident by the more than 100 places of origin referenced in the cemetery.

Less than thirty years later, however, the Nazis were at work brutalizing the Tyrol region. They wanted to keep this area as a northern access to Austria and Germany. The area became the scene of vicious attempts to both quash partisan and Allied fighting and to eliminate the local Jewish population. On September 16, 1943, the Nazis sent the first group of Merano Jews to Auschwitz.

In addition, from this mountain area, the Nazis attempted to wreck the British economy. Castello Schloss Labers (located above Merano) was used by an SS Task Force to launder counterfeit British pounds. Called “Operation Bernhard,” the plan was to enrich the Third Reich and to undermine the British economy by a massive counterfeiting of the pound sterling. Mostly Jewish prisoners of Sachsenhausen concentration camp meticulously produced this fake currency. Then, these phony banknotes were sold in various European locations.

As suddenly as it arrived, the SS Task Force disappeared in 1945. Quite unbelievable, but the operation’s Hungarian salesman, Jaac van Harten ended up in pre-state Israel. Moreover, according to Anthony Pirie (author of the book Operation Bernhard – 1961), when it came to getting the Jewish remnant out of Europe, the Jewish Agency did not ask too many questions about funding sources. Thus, the Nazi-produced counterfeit money was used to bring refugees to Palestine.

Toward the end of the war, the Nazis operated a concentration camp in the northern Italian area of Bolzano. What is today an enchanted town was once the scene of Nazi horror. Little physically remains of the camp (which was torn down in the 1960s) and the number of camp survivors are dwindling. Instead of the concentration camp’s prison blocks and cells there is now a large apartment complex. The only remnants of the camp once located in Gries (on the outskirts of Bolzano along the Via Resia) are the camp’s outer walls. Admirably, the Bolzano provincial government protects these outer walls. About eight years ago, Bolzano’s town authority erected bi-lingual (Italian and German) panels detailing the brief (July 1944-April 1945), yet heartbreaking history of the place.

According to historian Patrick K. O’Donnell, author of The Brenner Assignment (2008), apparently eleven blocks (A-K) housed political prisoners, partisans, prostitutes and other people that the Reich deemed “undesirable.” As time passed, the Nazis added more blocks, so that the sequencing reached Block M. Two specially fortified blocks (D and F) were specifically for prisoners who would be tortured, or as the Nazis euphemistically called it, were subjected to “rigorous treatment.” While awaiting transport to their deaths at Auschwitz, Mauthausen, Ravensbrück, Flossenbürg and Dachau, Jewish prisoners were grouped in Block L. Historian Dario Venegoni reports that 2,052 men, women and children were grouped into Block L and never returned from their transit.

The concentration camp contained people of all ages, from babies to senior citizens. The prisoners included rounded-up Jews, Sinti and Roma (commonly known as Gypsies) tribes, political prisoners and Allied sympathizers. Commonly, when the Nazis could not find a partisan in occupied northern Italy, they took his or her parents or siblings. From this action, hundreds were held hostage at the Bolzano camp. Historian Venegoni relates that priests, too, were not immune from being captured and terrorized.

Due to incorrect name spelling and listing, many people who passed through Bolzano were not registered or their registration was misleading. The most comprehensive estimate reveals that in the Gries camp’s nine month existence, 9500 people passed through.

The majority of these prisoners were Italians, but not necessarily northern Italians. Camp records show that ironically Italians from already liberated southern and central Italy were rounded up and sent to this concentration camp.

One posthumously famous prisoner was Enzo Sereni. Sereni, an Italian-born Jew, was part of an elite group of (pre-State) Israeli fighters who parachuted into Europe with the purpose of aiding threatened European Jewish communities. On May 15, 1944, Sereni, in a British captain’s uniform, was dropped into northern Italy. He was to establish contact with the partisans. Unfortunately, the Nazis immediately detected him. He was held in Bolzano for some five months and then shipped to Dachau where he was murdered on November 19, 1944. Today, Israel’s Kibbutz Netzer Sereni is named in his memory.

For the first two years following the war’s end, both Bolzano and Merano saw the (legal and illegal) passage of many Jewish refugees. In Bolzano, for varying amounts of time, two camps assisted Jewish refugees. IT 23 was located on Via Merano or the Meranerstsrasse, and the IT 24 which was situated on the Piazza Domenicani or the Dominikanerplatz. These camps provided food, accommodations and clothing.

Between February 1946 and the spring of 1947, Merano became the temporary home to some 17,000 Jewish survivors, according to Thomas Aldrich and Ronald Zweig, editors of the volume Escape through Austria(2002). At the time, the American Joint Distribution Committee ran the local sanatorium. This set-up allowed Jewish refugees to find temporary shelter under the guise of being treated for tuberculosis. Then, with the help of Brichà organization (which had a cell in Merano), many of these people immigrated secretly to Palestine. With a coastline, Italy was well situated to facilitate Jewish refugees wanting to ship out to Palestine. In 1947, 3,000 Jews crossed, from Austria on foot and at night, the 3,000 meter-high Alps near Bruneck.

Given Jewish life in the Tyrol region as described above, perhaps it behoves all to heed the words of Italian writer Giambattista Basile: “Memory is the cabinet of the imagination, the treasury of reason, the registry of conscience, and, the council chamber of thought.”
Travel Pointers

The Dolomites comprise a unique mountain range in the northern Italian Alps. They total 18 peaks which rise to more than 3000 meters. At the upper levels, visitors face dramatic vertical rock walls and pale coloured peaks naturally sculpted into towers, pinnacles, spires and towers. These vertical forms contrast with horizontal surfaces that include ledges, crags and plateaus at the higher points and vast rolling meadows at the foothills or lower points.

In the winter, this area is a major ski hangout. But come spring and summer, the area is taken over by hikers and climbers. Not only is there a multi-generational culture of walking, but there is a wonderful mindset about keeping the area spotlessly clean.

Keep in mind that experienced hikers wear well-broken-in hiking shoes with excellent treads. Hiking poles keep their knees happy. Act like an experienced hiker. On the internet, numerous walking groups advertise their services to this area.

The Jewish Museum of Merano, located on Schiller Strasse 14, is supposed to be open year round. The hours are Tuesdays and Wednesday from 3 to 6 p.m., Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 12 noon, and Fridays from 3 to 5 p.m. The Jewish cemetery of Merano is located on Via S. Giuseppe (St. Josef Straße), very close to the railway station. The opening hours are from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Bolzano offers visitors the world famous Ice Man ( Housed in a carefully maintained compartment, this frozen mummy reveals a fascinating view of Stone Age man’s mountain existence. For those who want easy, relatively flat rides on well-maintained designated paths, Bolzano offers bicycle rental. Beyond Bolzano, cycling is only for the hail and hearty.

Until you start to descend from this mountain region, you will feel that the local residents are more Germanic than Italian in their behaviour. Sign posting is often not given in English. To further confuse English-speakers, place names are usually written in both Italian and German. Many of the local residents and people in the local tourist industry do not speak English.

Still, with an area so physically dazzling and a modern Jewish history so intriguing, it is a must-visit.


Recommended Reading
     Bondy, Ruth. The Emissary: A Life of Enzo Sereni.
     Innocenti, Andrea. The Dolomites: Mountains of Coral.
     Malkin, Lawrence. Krueger’s Men: The Secret Nazi Counterfeit Plot and the Prisoners of Block 19.
     Messner, Reinhold. Dolomites: World Natural Heritage.
     O’Donnell, Patrick K. The Brenner Assignment: The Untold Story of the Most Daring Spy Mission of World War II.
     Pirie, Anthony. Operation Bernhard.


Deborah Rubin Fields is a freelance writer based in Israel.

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