Memoir | Crossing the Krimml Pass

By | Sep 13, 2023
Jewish World, Latest, Moment Memoir

In 1947, antisemitism still ravaged Europe. The Jewish side of our family, my husband’s relatives, had come through Ellis Island decades prior and both our grandfathers had returned from fighting in World War II. Yet for Jews in Europe, the persecution they had endured was far from over. Identity papers, homes and other belongings had been stolen or destroyed. The United States had unfriendly immigration policies, making it difficult for Jews to find a safe haven on our shores. Although they had survived the war and the Holocaust, many Jewish refugees still had to smuggle themselves out of Europe. Thousands took the Krimml Pass, a high mountain path between the borders of Austria and Italy.

A lifelong hiker of Virginia’s low-lying mountains, I associated the Alps with a girlhood love of The Sound of Music, breathtaking views and new beginnings. So when I had learned about the Alpine Peace Crossing (APC), an annual hike that memorializes the journey of Jewish Holocaust survivors over the Krimml Pass, I signed up. I hoped not only for a memorable hike but also for an experience that would deepen my understanding of a largely hidden chapter of history. Now I was standing at a tiered waterfall in the small town of Krimml, Austria, water thundering from the Alps above, crashing into a pool and arcing up in a chimney of spray that cooled my face. I couldn’t believe I was here.

After the war, the Zionist Bricha movement grew out of wartime resistance movements and was funded in part by Jewish Americans. Bricha manufactured false papers and helped Jewish survivors get across borders to Italy and finally to the Mediterranean Sea, where many took boats to what would soon become Israel. Britain had restricted immigration to Palestine in 1939. By the end of 1946, succumbing to British pressure, the French closed the border for Jewish passage into Italy. Bricha identified a footpath along an old trade route dating back to Roman times that passed through the Krimml Tauern, a high mountain pass (elevation 8,641 feet), as an alternative.

Traveling in trucks from a displaced person’s camp in Saalfelden, Austria the refugees arrived in Krimml during the night and hiked up the steep trail beside the waterfall, eventually reaching the upper portion of the valley in the early morning hours. They then stopped at the Tauernhaus, a centuries-old inn where landlady Lisl Geisler provided safe haven. There they rested throughout the day, sleeping in barns or lying in the yard, roughly 250 people in total, before beginning the most strenuous portion of the journey the next evening—a 3,000-plus-foot climb over the Alps and down into Kasern, Italy. Between June and October 1947, members of Bricha guided as many as 8,000 Jewish refugees over the Krimml Tauern under cover of darkness.

Although I might have liked to retrace the entire two-day climb starting in Krimml, the APC hike included only the second part of this historic journey, shuttling hikers from Krimml to the Tauernhaus, where we spilled out of vans and busses with backpacks and hiking poles to start our journey in broad daylight. A mist lingered in the valley as we gathered beside the Tauernhaus, where remarks were given by Ernst Lӧschner, founder of the APC. Ernst’s eyes held a deep joy, and his words and gestures exuded the energy of someone much younger than his 80 years. He learned the story of the Jews that passed through Krimml Tauern accidentally, while hiking the area with a local guide 20 years ago. Originally from a nearby town, he made it his mission to learn more and invited survivors and their families back to walk the route with him in 2007. Dedicated to refugees across the world, the event has taken place every year since (except 2020).

“What’s it like to do this hike year after year?” I had asked Ernst before we began, imagining that some of the excitement might be lost in repetition. He noted that every year it is different, with many people returning and new friends joining each time. “It’s always been a spiritual experience,” he added. “People ask how that can be when you’re walking with 200 people. It’s the fact that we are united.”

Ernst with a family of hikers at the top of the pass. Photo credit: Erin Hughey-Commers.

The start of the hike was more like the opening seconds of a marathon than a walk—bodies pressing in on one another, the inability to go faster or slower than the group, a palpable excitement and focus as people pushed forward. I strained to see above the heads of the people in front of me and was met by a sea of colors – backpacks, athletic gear, hats and handkerchiefs—one man wearing a white scarf with a blue Star of David that billowed as he walked. Later we would string out according to pace, and some of us would turn back before going the full length of the trail. At this moment, however, we moved as one, a rainbow of nationalities, languages and origins unfurling along the road.

An hour later, we stopped to learn more about the guides who led the original hikes, including Marko Feingold, the Bricha organizer who identified the Krimml Tauern route across the Alps. I had learned something about Marko from Inez Reichl, a certified Austrian guide, prior to arriving in Krimml. Sitting across a table from me in a café on a rainy afternoon in Salzburg the previous week, she had told me about her own experience with Marko, a survivor of four concentration camps who settled in Salzburg and helped organize food for Jewish refugees in displaced persons camps and then trucks to take Jewish refugees from the camps to Italy.

“He was a little man, very slim, but with lots of energy,” Inez said. “He was not afraid.” His sense of humor was famous. One time, Inez ran into him and his wife in the Salzburg market, eating sausages. “How can you eat that,” she chided him, pointing to the trayf. “I was on a diet in my younger years,” he shot back.

Marko had asked the Salzburg government for assistance providing trucks. Government officials refused, telling Marko he had plenty of trucks to take food into the camps. When Marko explained that the trucks were for transporting people out of the camps, again the officials refused. Finally, Marko told them if he did not get the trucks, all the displaced Jews would stay in Salzburg. The officials replied, “How many trucks do you need?”

Anne Kuhne and Thomas Strahoda, young professionals from Vienna, remember Marko Feingold as a national figure who spoke out against antisemitism. This contrasted with the silence that had prevailed among Austrian families about Austria’s collusion with Germany. It was only in the last few decades that there has been a broader acknowledgement of Austria’s role in the atrocities of World War II, they told me as we climbed switchbacks. Anne’s grandfather was 17 when he had to fight with the Nazi German Armed Forces; he came back traumatized, which impacted her mother’s childhood. As a result, she said, “We connected more with the suffering of the soldiers than the suffering people of the Holocaust.”

My grandfather fought in the war, just as Anne’s grandfather did. Both our grandfathers, we discovered, were deeply troubled when they came home, each developing a drinking problem that impacted our mothers’ childhoods, thousands of miles apart. I was struck by the similarities of our stories, an unexpected thread in the tapestry of conversation as we climbed. 

Later I met Inbal Turkenitch from Israel, who was there with her 12-year-old daughter and 14 other family members. Although historical records show that as many as 2-3 groups of people were guided over the Alps weekly between May and October of 1947, Inbal told me that her grandparents, Eva Fink and Abraham Meskin, crossed the Alps that winter. They crossed on a Christian holiday so the border guards would be less likely to notice. They knew it was either Christmas or New Year’s because they heard church bells ringing in the valley as they walked. Inbal’s aunt, Drora Goshen, who was also participating in the hike, has photos of her mother Eva at a displaced person’s camp in Saalfelden, Austria, in December, and a photo of Eva and Abraham in Italy the following January.

Inbal’s grandmother, Eva, in Saalfelden in 1947 (center right).

Eva and Abraham had met in Poland. They got to know each other in displaced persons’ camps, where he served as a cook. When they finally crossed the Alps into Italy, Eva was only 19. An orphan, Eva had run away from the Nazis at age 14. “She walked in the snow and she cried and she felt like a hunted animal,” Drora said. Eva and Abraham married soon after arriving in Italy, where Drora was born the next year. Unlike many Jews who were intercepted on their journey, they eventually made it to Israel, where they raised their family. When she was in middle school, Drora started to ask her parents why she didn’t have cousins, aunts, and uncles. It was hard for her parents to talk about what they had survived, the family they had lost. “They did not talk about the past,” Drora said, “only about the future.”

I fell into step with Inbal. As we passed through a gate, a large cow lunged at us, her neck bell tinkling violently as she attempted escape. Cow patties merged with mud beneath our boots, making it harder to gain purchase on the slippery trail.

Inbal’s family at Saalfelden in 2023. Photo credit: Erin Hughey-Commers.

Before coming, she told me, Inbal didn’t realize how important this hike would be for her, how connected she would feel to her grandparents’ experience. As she walked, she was imagining her grandparents trekking the same path in the dark, through the snow. “The second generation grew up with parents who were orphaned, and we are third generation, and my children are fourth generation. And we are still—I don’t know how to say it—it’s still there. The Holocaust is in our blood.”

This last portion of the climb was the hardest. The trail switched back endlessly, and a series of false summits presented themselves as we crossed a snow field and climbed toward the border. Finally, I arrived at the narrow pass. A set of stone stairs descended steeply into Italy, where greens, blues and purples painted the valley beyond. Ernst was already there, sharing pieces of fruit he’d packed and joining group photos. For some minutes, I could only collapse on a rock and eat the cheese and chocolate I’d stowed in my pack.

Near the border stood a building that once housed border guards. “Of course there were little bribes,” Ernst told me. “cigarettes, sardines.” Sometimes the guards helped carry the children down the mountain. We had been told that Bricha guides didn’t allow refugees to carry lights, not only to be invisible to border guards but also so they could not see the plunging drop-offs beside the trail. 

When the route over the Krimml Tauern became the only way to get people to Italy, the original idea was to take youth, not young children or pregnant mothers. “It didn’t turn out that way,” said Hanna Weis in the documentary film, From the Alps to the Ma’apilim Ship ‘Unafraid,’a Bricha Legacy Association film by Hanna Weiss and Miri Nahari, “People believed it was the only way to survive and reach the Land of Israel.”

In video footage of the original passage over the Alps, captured by filmmaker Meyer Levin, men carry children in their arms as they wade through knee-deep snow. Guides help people over streams and up steep inclines, many people bent over with effort or to stay hidden. Women help small children as they walk, slip, and crawl through the snow, and one couple collapses at the top of the Krimml Tauern, unwilling to go on—until another man appears in the frame, pulls them up, and puts the woman’s arm over his own shoulders as they start walking again.

Meyer captured this footage of the journey across Europe, not only through the Krimml Tauern, but through Italy and across the Mediterranean, where many ships were intercepted by the British and people were held in camps on Cyprus until Israel became an independent state in 1948. For some, the journey did not end until they could finally reach Israel. Some never arrived, calling on family connections and settling in other places, including the U.S.

As I descended into Italy, I spoke with several other hikers who were not Jewish themselves but who felt their families had not done enough to stop the atrocities against Jews or who simply believed it was important to confront antisemitism by calling out a part of history that had been hidden for too long. The last section of trail was perhaps the most beautiful. The austere faces of the Alps were behind us, and the sun had come out. Wildflowers bloomed on  cliffsides, opening like jewels at our feet, the verdant valley below gradually unfolding as we descended toward Kasern, where villagers had prepared a feast of local specialties and music was playing.

Even though my own family had no direct ties to the route through Krimml Tauern, retracing the path that survivors walked and taking in the thoughts and stories of people walking with me, I had a new awareness of the ways that we all, all over the world, carry remnants of the Holocaust with us. In celebrating this exodus and the guides who helped people over the mountain, I was reminded of the power of collective action, even in the face of hopelessness.

Featured image: The start of the hike. Photo credit: Erin Hughey-Commers.

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