The Synagogue in Trieste (Italy)

The Synagogue in Trieste (Italy)

First of all I thought of my recently deceased friend who would have been happy to see me exploring the Synagogue in Trieste. Several times per week the Jewish Community offers tours of the Synagogue that last about 45 minutes. I went on a Sunday morning and found myself in front of the side door with about 40 other visitors (all Italians except two) waiting for the door to open. Our guide asked us to go in and pay € 3,50 for the tour. I was surprised when I asked the older man who opened the door why there wasn’t any security check supported by some Israeli security guards… He answered me that I shouldn’t worry because he had all under control. It turned out that his name was Menachem and he even spoke Hebrew when I started speaking to him in Hebrew.

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I entered the synagogue – it really belongs to the top ten of the synagogues that I have visited worldwide. The synagogue was built in 1912 after years of planning and discussing the building. The Jewish community wished to have a synagogue with similarities to churches, not rectangular any longer but like a Basilica with a lot of light. That explains the big rose window with a Star of David in it. The bimah is so high up to the sky, quite impressive and the Ten Commandments made out of marble from Verona. There are about 1000 seats for men downstairs and around 400 upstairs for women.

The synagogue has an organ which is nowadays never played during the services. When I asked Menachem about it, he answered: “We don’t need it, you can take it home.”

Before World War II Trieste had about 5000 up to 6000 Jews living in town. New to me was the fact that the Trieste community did not only help other Jews to escape during Italian fascism and the German occupation but also at the beginning of the 20th century when Jews came from Poland and Russia after pogroms there to get out of Europa to Palestine and South America.

Remarkable is the story of Carlo Morpurgo who in summer 1943 put Thora scrolls, ritual silver objects and important documents in a hidden room to save them from the Germans. The door had been walled up and a heavy closet was put up in front. The Germans stored books and art in the synagogue but never found the room. Morpurgo was arrested January 19, 1944 in the synagogue and put into jail near the synagogue. After 8 months of interrogation and torture he was deported to Auschwitz where he died two months later. Shortly after the war the rooms was reopened and still today all the hidden and saved objects are in use.  Today we find a stumbling stone where we entered the synagogue that says: “Here worked Carlo Nathan Morpurgo born in 1890, arrested Jan. 20th, 1944, deported and murdered in Auschwitz Nov. 4th, 1944.”

The big synagogue is only used on special occasions like high holidays or Bar/Bat Mitzvot, men sitting on one side, women on the other. The rest of the time the community uses the oratory where they also sit men on the left and women on the right. Today the community counts about 530 members.

When I travel I always want to learn something about present life of Jews at places I visit. I know that guests are interested in that so I never forget to lecture about this important point during my guided visits of Jewish places in Europe. In Trieste I didn’t learn much about it from the people that guided my group only the fact that the Jewish community is very active and invites people to learn about Jewish life. When I asked about antisemitism in Italy or Trieste specifically I didn’t get a comprehensive answer.

February 2019