Monday, 21 October 2013

Introduction: the Background to this Project

Jewish Trieste


This morning I met a guy from the synagogue in Trieste outside the Co-op near the ruins of the Roman theatre, but I ignored him. I met him in July in Piazza Goldoni and offered him a coffee, but he was brusquely rude. This was my riposte: I just walked way without acknowledging him. He was always rather strange, to me he appeared disturbed. Always ostentatiously observant, in a slightly dishevelled way, our paths somehow seemed to cross often: at a concert, on the bus, in the street when I was out running. Nevertheless I attempted to make contact through friendly gestures. Now I don't. I don't have time to waste.


I was keen ten years ago to participate more fully in the life of the community, and as I was at that time retired, I wanted to use my time, and my skills as a historian, to help the community, but that proved impossible. I visited the Jewish cemetery, but the custodian refused to answer the door, but did check the register for me, as we shouted to each other, she at an upstairs window, and I was lucky to discover that there was indeed a  Schiff buried there,  a daughter of Samson who had died in childhood. [Update: this may in fact have been her cousin of the same name, daughter of Leopold Schiff.] Behind the impressive mausoleum of the noble Morpurgo de Nilma family, was a large plot, overgrown with trees. Samson Schiff must have been intending at that time to stay in Trieste permanently. I wrote to the president of the Jewish community offering to transcribe the register of burials. I was cursorily rejected.


For several months I have been corresponding with the curator of the Jewish museum in Trieste, who is also a Lubavitch-ordained rabbi, and has the grandiose additional title of Chief Rabbi of Slovenia. I wanted to make use of the synagogue archives for my historical research. That was a battle I lost. Despite repeated emails I received no response. In July I turned up at the synagogue offices and after quite a battle I was admitted to the building as both the rabbi and the shammas (caretaker) knew me, and I negotiated access. in practice each day the rabbi was too busy. I knew from the rabbi that the museum was closed, Italian-style, 'for repairs' ie indefinitely. I also know that ten years ago I gave him 30,000 lire for a book I never received. I wrote to him again a week ago, but of course I have had no reply. I  had explained to the rabbi the research I was doing, the research I had also done on the Jewish Triestine artist Gioacchino Hierschel de Minerbi, and informed him that the book 'Trieste', based on my mother's wartime experiences of persecution, was being published in an Italian edition. All these were excellent opportunities for him to follow up as nominal curator of the Jewish museum, but all were rejected. I perceive him as a lazy man who collects sinecures. As a ba'al teshuvah (a Jew who becomes very observant from choice) he has replaced free will and intelligence with mindless certainty and narrow concentration on superficial observance. He's somebody else I have given up on. 


When I first came to Trieste in 2001 I stayed at the youth hostel. I came to the synagogue and attended the services in the remarkable main synagogue for Sukkot. I met and enjoyed getting to know the then rabbi, Rabbi Umberto Piperno, a short, rotund Roman, who was warm, welcoming and a good friend. He was generous, encouraging me to participate in services, giving me honours in the services, even encouraging me to take part of a service, a terrifying but gratifying experience.



When Rabbi Piperno eventually left Trieste with his family I happened by chance to attend his final service. He unexpectedly gave me the great honour after the Sabbath morning service of asking me to chant the kiddush, the prayer over the bread and wine, for the community. I wonder if that is why I am no longer welcomed or encouraged. The Lubavitch rabbi was passed over for promotion and a French rabbi was appointed. The community no longer appears to have a visible presence in the city. Rabbi Piperno was often in 'Il Piccolo', the Trieste daily newspaper, for the intercommunal events he actively participated in. I did attend a service in July of this year but I do not intend going again; it is not a community where I feel welcome.

It is by a quirk of history that records of births, marriages and deaths are the property of the religious communities: it is a legacy ofthe Austro-Hungarian empire. I first encountered this situation when I went to Gorizia a few years ago to research the family of my maternal grandmother. I spent two days in the parish office of the church of San Rocco, with the friendly support of the parish priest, Monsignor di Piazza. He was generous and helpful, and in recognition of this I donated a duplicate copy I had of a rare book about refugees from Gorizia during the first World War. The county of Gorizia and Gradisca was a possession,like Trieste, ofthe Habsburgs, and the parish priest still had all the records going back, I recall, to the seventeenth century.

But in Trieste I have a last laugh: the main quest I was pursuing in the synagogue archives was to discover details of the family of Samson Schiff, my great great great grandfather. I know his son was Friedrich, my great great grandfather, and I discovered earlier this year that he had a daughter Paolina, a leading founder of Italian feminism a hundred years ago. This week I discovered on the internet an article in a journal that gave details of Samson, his wife and his many children. It is a delight to be able to overcome the inappropriate barriers placed in my way.

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