Thursday 18 June
My tourist map shows a Jewish Museum. One of my goals for this trip is to explore my Jewishness and look our European history more squarely in the eye than I have been previously keen to. I haven’t done anything about that yet – if there were museums or old synagogues in Milan, Genoa or Florence I missed them. This one I would not.
Centrally located but tucked away on a residential side street it took a bit to find it. Just walking onto the grounds stung a little – even before getting inside. As I suspect all European Synagogues without congregations to be, this is a haunted place, even if the ghosts are just in my mind.
The door is locked but the sign says they are open and to ring the bell, so I do. A bored and suspicious looking Italian-speaking woman in her 60s lets me in but says nothing until I take this photo and she says, “No photos.”
I’ve looked around and think maybe that’s all there is and I might go – she asks if I wish to see the museum. In the basement there are display cases with mementos of Jewish life in Merano. Happy people in black and white snap shots celebrating birthdays, playing tennis, getting married, having picnics … but I already know how this story ends. But they don’t – that proud young man posed with his parents on his bar mitzvah in the 1920s, that bride in the early 30s. It’s hard. It’s a hard place to be – alone in this basement of a place that should rightly still be the centre of a community’s life.
Then the darkness begins to creep into these lives – newspaper clippings announcing racial laws and describing Kristallnacht, clothes with yellow stars of David affixed, copies of letters seeking visas, photos of people on boats.
Two artifacts: a photograph of bright-eyed, dark-featured 13-yea-old Franco Cesana who was killed fighting as an Italian partisan and an original order to the Auschwitz chemist for Phenol (carbolic acid) signed by Mengele. Signed by Mengele. I bend closer and look at his handwriting, his signature – so normal, so neat, so ordinary. I feel ill.
Emerging into a warm overcast 21st century day I still feel ill. My breath is short and shallow, I am a little nauseated. Franco’s smiling but serious face, all those happy people, that signature of one of the most evil men in the whole of human history. I sit on a stone wall and write. As I do a military patrol stops in front of the synagogue and two soldiers in camo wearing their alpine corps caps with the feathers patrol the ground – they smile, they say ciao – but they are here because people still hate us, because people want to kill Jews for the blood in their veins.
Now I really just have to go.
I walk on the suburban street passing mums with kids in prams and older couples out for a stroll. But all around are the ghosts, the people missing from this community who are, I suspect, not missed at all.
I am glad to get back onto my bicycle and just ride. To just ride away from those shadows – I know I’ve committed to seeing these places and confronting this history but as I pedal toward the Alps, toward Austria and Germany, I don’t know if I can. I don’t know how many of these experiences I’ll be able to stomach.
But the day is lovely, the scenery gorgeous, my fellow cyclists friendly enough – I am soon distracted by a switch-backing climb and stunning mountain vistas. The hard physical work is good – it clears the ugliness from my lungs and pushes little Franco to the corner of my mind.
In early evening, after another short riding day, I make camp in Naturns/Naturno – a soulless resort town surrounded by sheer beauty.