The history of the Jewish Community of Merano, dates back to the first half of the eighteenth century. At that time, the whole region of Tyrol belonged to Austria, and the Jewish Community of Hohenems, in the Austrian region of Vorarlberg, close to the border with Switzerland, had jurisdiction over the Jews living in both the regions of Vorarlberg and Tyrol.
The emigration of Jews from Vorarlberg towards Tyrol began around 1840, when they were allowed to live in that region. Most families chose to live in the southern part of Tyrol, mainly Bolzano, Merano and several smaller towns.
The Jews of Merano used a donation from a German family, named Königswarter, to establish a sanatorium for poor Jews suffering from tuberculosis (1873), two cemeteries in Bolzano and Merano, and a synagogue (1901), which is still in use today. The synagogue of Innsbruck, in northern Tyrol, was built one year later.
One of the outcomes of World War I was Austria’s loss of the southern part of Tyrol, which was allotted to Italy. This included the Jewish Community of Merano, which had jurisdiction over the territory from the border to Austria down to the Lake of Garda .
In the 30 years between the end of World War I and the beginning of World War II, the Jewish community grew to more than 600. A number of kosher hotels and sanatoriums were established, which became famous throughout Europe .
Jews came to Merano from around the world. This is evident from the more than 100 places of origin referenced in the cemetery. The sanatorium treated many Jews suffering from tuberculosis, including many famous authors and scientists.
Jews also contributed to the development of Merano and the economic progress of South Tyrol, as well as the establishment of Kurstadt as a world famous resort.
The War Years
Between 1933 and 1939, hundreds of Jews escaped Nazi persecution and found shelter in Merano, with Jewish schools being established for them. When the fascist regime adopted the Anti-Semitic laws of the Nazis, and the Germans moved into South Tyrol, foreign Jews were expelled.
The first deportation of Jews from Merano occurred immediately after Italy’s surrender. The Nazis subsequently occupied the country and ruled the region as a part of Great Germany (September 1943). Meanwhile, more than 80 Jews perished in the Nazi extermination camps, mainly Auschwitz, in the concentration camp Reichenau, near Innsbruck, or in the concentration camp established in 1944 by the Nazis in Bolzano (some of the victims are buried in the cemetery of Bolzano).
In the years 1945 to 1947, more than 15,000 Jewish survivors of the Shoah found a temporary haven in Merano and with the sanatorium, which was then being run by the American Joint Distribution Committee. Many of these Jews emigrated secretly to Palestine with the help of Brichà, which had a cell in Merano. In 1947, 3,000 Jews crossed on foot, by night, the 3,000 meter (10,000 feet) – high Alps near Bruneck, coming from Austria.
During this time, Merano was also a main transit point for Odessa, the secret Nazi organization helping war criminals and political leaders to escape. Adolf Eichmann and Joseph Mengele were among those who passed through Merano.
Today, the Jewish Community of Merano is one of the smallest in Italy , and the synagogue of Merano is the only one still in use in the entire region. The Community runs a cultural center and a library, offering to Jews and non-Jews the means for improving their knowledge of Jewish religion, culture, traditions, music and literature. Year by year, many schools visit the synagogue and hold long conversations with the president of this Community, who teaches them the history of the Jewish people and warns them about the dangers of racism. The Community also established a Jewish Museum in the building of the synagogue, which is designed to help prevent prejudice and fight racism and anti-Semitism.