Trieste sits at the end of long sliver of Italy that curves around the northeastern corner of the Adriatic like a slim, outstretched finger.
Firmly rooted in Central Europe, the grandiose old port was ruled by the Hapsburgs for centuries before Italy gained it after World War I. Long a bustling hub of trade and commerce, it was the leading maritime gateway to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the cosmopolitan home to a lively intellectual milieu.
Today, Trieste and its hinterland form a narrow Italian outpost between the sparkling waters of the Gulf of Trieste and the rugged karst uplands of Slovenia.
The quintessential frontier town, it has a multi-layered, multi-cultural history that can be read in its broad piazzas, evocative castles, imposing commercial buildings and important houses of worship of various faiths. It can be tasted, too, in the diversity of the local cuisine and savored in more intimate fashion in the city's numerous cafes, wine bars, bookshops, and museums.
For centuries, Jews were deeply entwined in the social, cultural and commercial fabric of the city.
A small Jewish community existed here in medieval times, and after 1719, when Trieste was declared a free port, Jewish development paralleled the rapid expansion of the city as a whole. In the 19th century, after the Hapsburg rulers lifted restrictions on Jews and eventually granted them full emancipation, Jews became pioneers in the realms of banking, commerce, and insurance that drove the city's spectacular growth. They held prominent political positions, established important firms and founded or were leading figures in insurance companies such as Assicurazioni Generali, RAS and Lloyd Adriatico. Several local Jewish families were even raised to the Hapsburg nobility. Importantly, too, the Trieste Jewish community produced towering cultural figures such as the writer Italo Svevo and poet Umberto Saba -- both of whom today are commemorated with busts in the city's Public Gardens.
Svevo, the author of The Conscience of Zeno , studied English with James Joyce, the great Irish writer who made Trieste his home for a number of years. His background reflected the cosmopolitan, shifting identity so typical of Trieste. Svevo's real name was Ettore Schmitz. He was born into a Jewish family in 1861 and worked most of his life as a clerk. His mother was Italian and his father Austrian, and he himself converted to Catholicism. His works, too, reflect a deep interest in emerging fields of psychoanalysis and self-examination.
About 6,000 Jews lived in Trieste on the eve of World War II, and the community suffered bitterly at the hands of the Nazis and Italian fascists. The Germans in fact established the only Nazi extermination camp in Italy at the Risiera, an old rice warehouse in San Sabba, just outside the city, which today serves as a Holocaust museum and memorial.
Today, about 700 Jews live in Trieste, and only hints and traces of the community's former grandeur remain. Still, a walk through the city can provide tantalizing glimpses of a rich and fascinating past.
Little is left of the former ghetto area, where Jews were forced to live during most of the 18th century. Most of the downtown district, near today's piazza Riborgo, piazza della Borsa and the ancient Roman theater, was razed and rebuilt during urban renewal projects about 100 years ago. But the grand palaces housing banks and insurance companies, such as those around the vast piazza dell'Unita d'Italia, facing the waterfront, bear witness to the role played by Jewish merchants and financiers.
To my mind, the best place to begin an exploration of Jewish history in Trieste is the city block bounded by via San Francesco d' Assisi, via Donizetti, via Zanetti and via Cesare Battisti. Here, within a few meters of each other, stand what can be called the Jewish spiritual and intellectual hearts of the city: the magnificent synagogue and the historic Café San Marco.
The synagogue, the most impressive Jewish monument in the city, occupies almost the entire block. Inaugurated in 1912, it is a so-called "cathedral synagogue," an opulent monument to the pride, power and prosperity of Triestine Jews at that time. A number of leading international architects submitted designs for the building, but the Jewish community awarded the commission to a local architect, Ruggiero Berlam, and his son Arduino. Drawing heavily on ancient Babylonian and Middle Eastern motifs, the Berlams designed a massive, almost fortresslike structure that seats 1,400 people.
A huge rose window centered on a star of David dominates the stark main façade, which is flanked by a hulking, truncated tower. Decorative battlements edge the roof, and arched doors and windows are complemented by oriental domes. The massive proportions, ornamentation and ancient influences are carried through inside the sanctuary, which is surmounted by a soaring cupola.
The synagogue is still used by the Jewish community, whose offices are in the building complex. One of my most vivid experiences in Trieste was when I attended services there several years ago at Simchas Torah, a joyous festival marking the conclusion of the year-long cycle of reading the Torah. The enormous sanctuary dwarfed the congregation of 150 or 200 people. Still, half a dozen men danced in front of the Holy Ark cradling Torahs bedecked with jingling silver, and at least a score of young children paraded about, singing and waving flags.
Located just around the corner from the synagogue, at via Battisti 18, the Caffé San Marco opened its doors in January 1914, less than two years after the synagogue was completed. It soon became the haunt of the local intelligentsia, and it remains the most famous coffee house in the city.
It is easy to imagine Joyce, Svevo and their friends crowded around the tables, sipping endless coffees or maybe a liqueur or beer, and arguing for hours about literature and politics. Here, amid art nouveau décor, local patrons still come to riffle through newspapers, play chess, or even bend intently over their notebooks or laptop computers.
The contemporary Trieste scholar and writer Claudio Magris is a present-day habitue, and a portrait of him has a place of honor on one of the café's walls. Magris immortalized the San Marco in his recent book Microcosms , writing that "above the French windows the fruit bowls and the bottles of champagne gleam. A red marbled lampshade is an iridescent jellyfish. Up high the chandeliers glow and sway like moons in waters"
Magris, a prolific author whose most famous book is the cultural travelogue Danube , has an enduring interest in Jewish heritage and culture, and for 35 years his writings have been an important means through which Italians have learned about the Jewish experience. Magris, who is not Jewish, once told me that when he became interested in Jewish culture as a young man, he felt as though he had entered a landscape in which he already felt at home.
"[I]t certainly became fundamental in my work and, beyond my work, in my life," he has written. "It was almost a spontaneous necessity; I got there without being aware of it. I did not choose it as a subject of interest the way one chooses a subject of study. Somehow I ended up encountering a culture that made me understand -- or at least gave me the impression of understanding -- the world and myself a little bit better: the disasters of the world, but also the enchantments of the world. A culture that in some way helped me, despite everything, to live -- to feel myself more 'at home' in the world -- and it was precisely this culture that is so expert in tragedies, in persecutions, in exclusions."
Part of the attraction, he said, was his intimate relationship with his native city.
Several museums in Trieste shed further light on local Jewish culture and history.
The Carlo and Vera Wagner Jewish Museum, which is run by the Jewish community, was opened in 1993 in a building at via Monte 5 that used to house a small synagogue. The museum displays a precious collection of silver ritual ornaments and textiles from the 18th and 19th centuries. Many of the items came from four synagogues that were demolished during the urban renewal projects carried out before World War I.
Not far away, at via Imbriani 5, the Morpurgo Museum occupies a huge apartment in the mansion built in 1875 for the brothers Carlo Marco and Giacomo Morpurgo and their families. It presents a fascinating picture of how Trieste's upper crust of magnates and financiers lived.
The Morpurgo brothers were born in Gorizia, north of Trieste, and were the sons of a man who was the caretaker of Gorizia's synagogue and a kosher butcher. Born in 1827, Carlo Marco Morpurgo became a banker, financier and businessman who eventually was knighted by the Hapsburgs in 1869. The museum includes room after room whose opulent furnishings bear witness to the wealth, taste and luxurious lifestyle of the family -- a sort of 19th century version of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.
Both museums are located at the foot of the steep, craggy hill that towers above the harbor and bespeaks more than two millenia of history. It's worth it to climb (or ride) to the top and look out at the splendid view and get a feel for the city's ancient roots.
San Giusto hill was the site of Trieste's first urban settlement. Here Trieste's medieval castle stands on the site of prehistoric fortifications and later defenses dating from ancient Roman and Medieval times. Just outside its mighty bastions are found the ruins of the Roman Capitoline temple and a basilica dating back to the 1st or 2nd century. Nearby stands the austere San Giusto cathedral, built 1,000 years ago atop ancient Roman and early Christian structures.
Trieste's cuisine is a monument to the deliciously tangled history of the city and its region, a mixture of Austrian, Italian, Greek, Slavic, Jewish and Hungarian influences. Fresh grilled fish, seafood risotto and savory stews combine fish and shellfish straight from the Adriatic. But Hungarian-style goulash, Greek-style rice and Wienerschnitzel, given a special flavor by the addition of local herbs and spices, also find space on local menus. Coffee houses and pastry shops serve Apfelstrudel and a wide variety of other local sweets.
Whenever I'm in Trieste, I try to have at least one meal at the pleasant restaurant Al Bragozzo, at Riva Nazario Sauro 22, one of a number of popular restaurants right on the waterfront. It is known for its enormous serve-yourself fish and seafood antipasto buffet. The Antica Trattoria Suban, at via Comici 2, is a classic Triestine restaurant offering traditional local specialities such as cheese strudel and goose and horseradish soup. And on a recent visit, I enjoyed a light meal at an outdoor table of Al Tecia, at via San Nicolo 10.
There are a number of hotels of various levels in Trieste. One of my favorites, the Hotel Continentale, has recently been reopened and upgraded to four-star status after a fullscale renovation, with double rooms at €150. It is located right downtown at via San Nicolo 25, down the street from Al Tecia restaurant. Tel. 040631717, fax 040368816
Across the street from the hotel is one of Trieste's special corners. James Joyce taught English at via San Nicolo 32 -- the former site of the Berlitz school. And via San Nicolo 30 is where the poet Umberto Saba lived after World War I. He and ran a secondhand bookstore here that became a favorite haunt for poets and writers who would argue for hours about literature and psychoanalysis, the new discipline in which Saba -- like Svevo -- was deeply interested. Saba himself underwent analysis by the doctor considered to be the father of Italian psychoanalysis, Eduardo Weiss, who had been a pupil of Sigmund Freud's in Vienna.
The bookstore, still bearing Saba's name, still exists, and there is no better place to browse for books on Trieste and Triestine lore -- and at the same time soak up the city's special atmosphere.
Ruth Ellen Gruber
Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe
University of California Press