by Ernst Löschner
How did the project of a “Commemorative Crossing” come into being? This article tries to retrace the “way to the path” towards, the goal to make many (especially young) people aware of an almost totally forgotten chapter of Austrian post-war history, and to link with it a message of peace for the refugees today.
Everything started with a climb to the Dreiherrenspitze (“3 Masters Peak”, 3.500 m) in the Krimml Alps with my son Lukas and my nephew Leonhard in 2003. During the descent we were hit by a terrible thunderstorm which left us totally soaked to the skin. Our mountain guide Paul Rieder from Maria Alm remarked that we had at least good shoes: the many Jews who had to cross the Krimml Alps in 1947 did not have even that! “1947?” “Yes, there are contemporary pictures at the Krimmler Tauernhaus”.
I was born in 1943 and grew up in Zell am See, later on in Salzburg. Never before had I heard that – in my immediate vicinity – an eerie procession of between 150 – 200 people had embarked on a strenuous 15 hour trek, every other night in the summer of 1947 via countless zig-zag curves over the high Alps in order to reach their final destination of Palestine. They must have more stumbled than walked because their only light source was the stars and those were not always visible.
For over 40 years I had regularly occupied myself with the study of contemporary history, especially regarding the period from 1933 – 1945, working with original documents. When I then held in my hands the pictures of the Jewish refugees from the Krimmler Tauern, it was a clear decision for me: I wanted to find out what happened then and I wanted to walk this path with people of similar minds in order to honour the people who had to flee then and also those who are refugees today. Such refugees are usually unwanted by everyone in the same way as nobody wanted “the Jews” then!
All preparatory work started then one year later, focussed towards the year 2007, because 2007 marked the 60th anniversary of when 5,000 people decided to flee across the Krimml Tauern Mountain Range – a debilitating footmarch of up to ten hours and involving a climb to 2,634 metres (9.000 feet) – to South Tyrol and, later, onwards via Genoa to Palestine. Many had children with them, were inadequately equipped for the ordeal, extremely undernourished and in a state of desperation; despite the war having long been declared over, antisemitism was still very much alive – there was even another gruesome pogrom in 1946, this time in Kielce, Poland.
So the overriding desire was to attain a new freedom; hitherto firmly established roots and bonds of friendship were no longer perceived as strong enough to convey a sense of homeland. These so-called displaced persons had been shuttled around by truck from one “registration camp” to the next, until they reached the encampment Givat Avoda at Saalfelden, 70 km south of Salzburg. From here, and in groups of up to 280, they were trucked by night to Krimml. On finally reaching the Krimmler Tauernhaus (Tauern Lodge) they were in a state of complete exhaustion.
Once there, however, their hopes and aspirations were quickly rekindled by the affection shown to them by the innkeeper, Liesl Geisler. “Whenever there were children around, she excelled as a genuine mother figure” recalled Viktor Knopf, mountain guide from Zell am See. Without this loving care, the exertions required of these fugitives in crossing the Tauern Mountains by night would doubtless have been infinitely more unbearable. Under these circumstances it would be much nearer the truth to refer to the events of 1947 as the Flight of the Jews rather than a “Migration of the Jews”.
In June 1997, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of this “Flight”, the State of Salzburg organised in collaboration with the Israeli Community of Salzburg a scientific symposium entitled Salzburg – Focal Point of the Jewish Exodus 1945-1948.
A thorough scholarly analysis of events leading to this Exodus is of untold value, for it is essential we have a full grasp of the historical facts prior to engaging in meaningful dialogue with people of all age groups, whether on a collective or a personal level. There is, however, a further dimension – on both personal and spiritual levels – as to how we may (and perhaps should) regard these events. With this in mind, I formed the idea of retracing this “route of hardship” step by step, precisely as undertaken by those despairing souls 60 years ago, albeit under totally different circumstances.
My second idea was that this Commemorative Crossing should be open to like-minded people – including those unable to take part physically but who would nevertheless be present in spirit – with a group, accompanied by mountain guides, retracing the exact route of 60 years previously from the Tauern Lodge and over the Krimml Tauern Pass to Kasern in South Tyrol, where the ‘misericordia domini’, the so-called Man of Sorrows has stood for centuries in the Church of the Holy Spirit as a symbol of the ‘conditio humana’. It is surely no mere coincidence that a Man of Sorrows has also been housed for several hundred years in the Chapel adjacent to the Tauern Lodge!
My third thought was to utilise this Commemorative Crossing as a platform for expressing a profound gratitude to Frau Liesl Geisler and the mountain guide Viktor Knopf (he had guided personally 3,000 of the 5,000 Jews during the night, up to 3 times every week). At a time when the overwhelming majority of people would have simply “looked the other way”, they were two of the exceptional few who were indefatigable in providing those in need with assistance.
Undeniably she touched the hearts of many she was able to assist, both during and following the “Flight”. The Geisler family were subsequently presented with a letter of appreciation expressing “deepest gratitude to the Krimml Tauern Lodge for the exceptional and selfless care and assistance throughout the years 1946-1948”. This Honorary Certificate further records “In this house the refugees met with a warmhearted reception, a sympathetic attitude towards their destiny, and were given great encouragement for the thorny path which lay before them”. It would have been even more fitting if this document were to have reached Frau Liesl Geisler-Scharfetter in person. Unfortunately this was not to be: it is dated 17th June 1993, by which time Liesl had already been dead for almost six years.
Since early 2005 I have maintained close contact – both spoken and in written form – with Friedl Geisler, grandson of Liesl and present owner of the Tauern Lodge, on the subject of the proposed Commemorative Crossing 2007. It was he who provided me with the initial literary references, particularly relating to the research carried out by Udo Kühn, Thomas Albrich and Harald Waitzbauer.
Friedl Geisler, Johann Lerch (Area Manager, Hohe Tauern National Park Salzburg, Upper Pinzgau Section) and I held a meeting at the Krimml Tauern House on 21st July 2006 to discuss our project in more detail. Our very first resolution was to include in the decision-making process from the start the people of the Aurina Valley (Ahrntal), South Tyrol. As a consequence, our planning team was very soon strengthened by the services of Hans Rieder, representing the Aurina Valley (Gemeinde Ahrntal).
Subsequently a comprehensive research of the literature was started. I visited Thomas Albrich in Innsbruck and Harald Waitzbauer in Großgmain, I corresponded with Gertraud Steiner in Salzburg (she had written a touching portrait of Viktor Knopf), and also with the political scientists from Salzburg Helga Embacher and Susanne Rolinek; on several occasions I met with the psychologist Brigitte Lueger-Schuster in Vienna and also with the theologian Peter Hofer in Linz. I owe it to all of them that the historic context could be presented very succinctly. All their articles regarding our project would later on be included in our website; Janet Ware from Maria Alm provided the English translation.
Next I was pleased to present my bank, BNP Paribas (one of the world’s largest financial institutions with offices in 85 countries) as the Official Sponsor of the project. Responsibility for co-ordinating the administration of the event was taken on by the Hohe Tauern National Park Salzburg authority (Wolfgang Urban), in my eyes the ideal partner for this project as respect for the dignity of mankind and respect for the dignity of the mountains and nature are related concepts. This formed the basis of my fourth idea.
Friedl, Johann, Hans and I were also in total agreement regarding one further, fundamentally important point: the Commemorative Crossing should not be allowed to be debased for touristic or party-politics purposes, but should be the catalyst for a spiritual encounter between like-minded people. Furthermore, it should provide the forum for all people to unite under the following Peace-Appeal:
“A Commemorative Crossing of the Krimml Tauern Mountain Range (from the Tauern Lodge near Krimml in the State of Salzburg to Kasern in South Tyrol/Alto Adige) will take place on 29th June 2007. This trek is in remembrance of the “Flight of the Jews” in 1947 when 5,000 people subjected themselves to this ordeal in search of freedom; it is also dedicated to all those people who, at this very moment, find themselves on the run from political, racial or religious persecution, in whichever part of the world this is being inflicted.
Our message is one of peace. We share the fundamental principles behind this spiritual journey and send out an appeal to each and every individual to assist all those who may be categorised as “displaced persons”. Furthermore we particularly extend this appeal to every politician, indeed to all decision makers around the globe, to ensure that all persecuted persons be granted a new, dignified existence and, above all, not to tolerate the emergence of any circumstances which would force people to take flight”.
It is indeed sad testimony to contemporary society that to this very day and on every continent there are 40 (!) million people on the run from political, racial or religious persecution.
These deliberations led directly to the birth of the fifth and most important thought: to build a bridge linking the past with the present; to reach out to as many like-minded individuals and organisations as possible and, with regard to current events, to invite them to support our project.
Our sixth thought was to place this “bridge” in the most dignified setting possible. It was envisaged that in a Festive Ceremony, to be held in Krimml on 28th June 2007 – the eve of the Commemorative Crossing – not only actual participants of the 1947 “Flight of the Jews” be heard, but also that the dignity of present-day mankind be reflected. I have therefore proposed to invite selected personalities to share with us their thoughts on this project in a Peace Forum. The whole event was then to be brought to a fitting close on the evening of 29th June 2007 – that is, following completion of the Commemorative Crossing – with one further spiritual ceremony, only this time in the community of Aurina Valley (Ahrntal).
The seventh and final idea was the need for the project group to foster awareness of the ecological objectives of the Hohe Tauern National Park Salzburg.
From the very outset of the planning stages of this project we were met by a great wave of approval from many quarters, especially from the Government of Salzburg (Gabi Burgstaller, Othmar Raus, Doraja Eberle and Egon Leitner) and from the mayors of Krimml and Ahrntal, Erich Czerny and Hubert Rieder respectively. This encouragement gave us additional motivation.
In this connection I would like to highlight the outstanding support which our programme has received from the Austrian embassy in Tel Aviv, in particular from its cultural attaché Arad Benkoe and his associate Magdalena Pfaffl. Due to their commitment, it was also possible to organize later on (in December 2007) a “reunion” in Tel Aviv with a large number of contemporary witnesses. Ambassador Michael Rendi hosted this reunion in the “Club of the Austrians in Israel”.
At the end of January 2007 we were delighted to learn that the elders of the Town of Saalfelden intended to unveil a memorial stone in the Wallner Barracks in memory of the Givat Avoda camp. It was subsequently agreed with Günter Schied, Mayor of Saalfelden, and Sabine Aschauer-Smolik of Saalfelden’s Centre of Education that this unveiling ceremony would take place on the morning of 28th June 2007, thereby giving contemporary witnesses the opportunity to attend, and also adding a further highlight to our project.
Meanwhile it was decided to ask the State Presidents of Austria (Heinz Fischer) and Italy (Giorgio Napolitano) to assume the official Honorary Patronage of our project. Furthermore, we could form a Honorary Committee of well over 100 distinguished international personalities, in support of the peace message associated with the project. These personalities are a mirror of that part of our society which seeks out with empathy other people whose own strength is not sufficient to escape their destiny. They constitute a broad spectrum: they are poets and artists, scientists and bankers, contemporary witnesses and human rights activists, religious leaders and managers of cultural events, politicians and journalists, entrepreneurs and diplomats; their common denominator is that they choose to reach out towards their fellow men. With each one of them I have established a personal contact and many of them have put their thoughts on paper after the commemorative crossing (cf the chapter “Reflexionen” in the “APC-Book”).
A commemorative medal by the Krimml-born artist Helmut Zobl and a special commemorative postage stamp designed by Gustav Gschossmann were also initiated and eventually executed in honour of those who fled across the Alps in 1947. Outstanding musicians including the violinist Ernst Kovacic, the filmmaker Andreas Gruber and the journalist and historian Peter Huemer had already signed up as participants for the spiritual ceremony in Krimml.
A video presentation of the 1947 historical events was to be screened as part of the Festive Ceremony; furthermore the theologian Peter Hofer would present a biographical portrait of Liesl Geisler. A presentation by Reinhard Dörflinger (“Doctors Without Borders”) regarding the current refugee situation in 2007 was to be followed by a further highlight, the Peace Forum, a discussion chaired by Peter Huemer with the following prominent participants: Dan Ashbel, Michael Landau, Mouhanad Khorchide and Margit Maximilian, whose report about the refugees in Darfur had already been included in our website..
It was important to me to link this Peace Forum with my personal memories of Robert and Frances Boehm, co-founders of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York. Ever since the days of my youth I have admired them as shining examples of proactive peace politics. They encouraged me to go ahead with this project; unfortunately neither of them was able to participate as they both died last year.
Our project has received considerable attention on the part of the media, both from the ORF (Judith Brandner and Hans Kutil), and also from the printed media in Austria (especially Heinz Bayer and Thomas Neuhold, and in Israel (Aryeh Dayan). Their contribution towards the success of our project merits special recognition, equally also the contribution of Andreas Gruber and Matthias Tschannett in producing the APC-documentary film “Der Krimmler Exodus”, with 2 trips to Israel. The discussions with them all, and their sensitivity in meeting the contemporary witnesses were for me special highlights of our project.
It had been our plan from the beginning to try everything to locate contemporary witnesses and to invite them to Austria. We were not optimistic that this would be possible after 60 years but we had hoped nevertheless to find perhaps 2 or 3 people and to honour them with our project, in representation of all others.
In this context an outstanding cooperation emerged with the Israeli Ambassador in Austria, Dan Ashbel. He presented our project on several occasions in a live-radio programme in Israel. Immediately after the first broadcast 21 (!) survivors stepped forward. In the end – there were intensive weeks of preparation in May/June – there were 10 contemporary witnesses (altogether 15 guests from Israel), who had accepted our invitation, sponsored by BNP Paribas, to come to Austria. From the older generation (80+ years) these were Avraham and Sylvia Weiss and Moshe and Bilha Talit. The other 6 persons are today 60+ and they were then either carried by their parents (Yaakov Shwartz, Jaffa Levi, Margarita Weinberg, Moshe Frumin) or they escaped over the Alps in the womb of their mothers (Lili Segal, Ahuva Shamir). At this occasion I would like to recognize with appreciation the tremendous support which we have received from the Austrian Embassy in Tel Aviv, especially through its Cultural Attaché Arad Benkoe and his associate Magdalena Pfaffl. Thanks to their commitment, it was possible later on (in December 2007) to organize a reunion in Israel with a large number of contemporary witnesses; this reunion took place in the “Club of the Austrians in Israel” in Tel Aviv upon the invitation of the new Austrian ambassador Michael Rendi.
I had reserved for the visit to Austria an extra day with the contemporary witnesses in Saalfelden which concludes also this article on the “Genesis”. Moshe Talit had served as educator and vocational trainer in the Givat Avoda camp and had brought with him a comprehensive photograph collection, as nucleus of the documentation and exhibition regarding the camp, envisaged by Sabine Aschauer-Smolik and Mario Steidl for 2010. Together we saw then some of the still existing barracks from these days prior to concluding the day with a joint stroll in Maria Alm. Paul Rieder had thought up a special surprise for us: Lois and Josef (“Josch”) Schwaiger played for us with their trumpets, haunting melodies from a world far away and from a different time.
At the subsequent dinner I reported to our guests from Israel about the concluding press conference with the government of Salzburg (Othmar Raus, Doraja Eberle), how the APC logo and the website (Paul Pipal, Gustav Gschossmann) came into being, and that there would be an simultaneous translation into English (Hans-Dieter Nerbl and Judith Wolfframm) at the Krimml ceremony and that over 150 people had signed up for the commemorative crossing.
The festive programme would then unfold on the next day. The Commemorative Stone was unveiled at the former Givat Avoda camp It was much more than a symbolic beginning that there were also 40 refugees present from 10 countries from the refugee home Saafelde. I want to record specifically that this encounter was suggested and organized by Doraja Eberle, as more generally the cooperation with her was of special quality.
It is difficult to describe how much the project had meant to the contemporary witnesses and which emotions it had unleashed: the touching words by Jaffa Levi and Itzhak Drach in the documentary film speak for themselves. I do not wish to describe the enrichment which I have experienced through the work in this project; I only wish to repeat at this occasion my thanks to all those whose names have been written in italics, especially however to my dedicated organization committee, to Romana Codemo, Monika Kenyeri and Karin Doerfler from my BNP Paribas office, and last not least also to my wife Waltraud Loeschner for outstanding support and sincere partnership.
This “Genesis” would not be complete without at least a brief mention of the detailed correspondence with Antoine Sire, Othmar Raus, Evelina Merhaut and Hans-Dieter Nerbl regarding fundraising; without generous support especially on the part of my bank BNP Paribas as official sponsor and also from the Government of Salzburg and the National Fund of the Republic of Austria, this project would not have been possible. The town of Saalfelden and the villages of Krimml and Ahrntal had also contributed financially.
Meanwhile APC 2007 is already history. All in all we can only hope that our initiatives will be further adopted and will gain even wider acceptance; that a significant historical event will not be allowed to fade into obscurity, and that – above all – our message of peace will reach as many people as possible in our modern-day world. To reflect these very sentiments we have chosen “Alpine Peace Crossing 1947-2007” as the international title for our project. Rather appropriately the acronym APC of our project can also be read as A PeaCe.
The Commemorative Medal regarding our project shows symbolically that the refugees of 1947 found care and shelter in the Krimmler Tauernhaus. Today’s refugees are also in need of such caring hands.
Ernst Löschner is the former Head of BNP Paribas Austria and initiator of the project.