Mir záynen do! From Saalfelden across the Krimmler Tauern to Eretz Israel

Mir záynen do!

From Saalfelden across the Krimmler Tauern to Eretz Israel

Mir záynen do! We are here! That’s how Hirsch Glik’s Yiddish partisan song ends. Many Jews must have felt a similar sentiment when they arrived in Eretz Israel at the end of their journeys from Europe. One of these journeys took them across the Krimmler Tauern. The so-called Krimmler Judenflucht (Jewish escape across the Krimmler Tauern) accompanies our organization since its inception, but as of now an article that approaches this topic from a historical perspective cannot be found in the Alpendistel. In this article Jakob Gruber will give a historic overview of the escape of thousands of Jews across the Krimmler Tauern.

A group of Jewish DPs on their way across the Krimmler Tauern.

It was impossible for us to live there”

The starting point of the escape of 1947 can be traced to the regions of Eastern Europe where around 800,000 Jews experienced the liberation of the concentration camps. The situation was described as follows by Aba Gefen, commander of Bricha, a Jewish organization aiding refugees which smuggled Jews out of Europe from the end of the war up until 1948: “It was impossible for us to live there, where every trace of culture and humanity has been destroyed by the Nazi occupation. […] The surviving Eastern European Jews encountered raging antisemitism in their native countries, and if they had any hopes of rebuilding their lives there, they were rapidly and thoroughly let down.”

Many of them therefore decided to leave Europe by ship from Italy. Salzburg, the headquarters of the American occupation zone in Austria, was an important intersection in this undertaking. The city of Salzburg itself had five camps for Jewish displaced persons (DPs) and around 120,000 to 125,000 Jews passed through Salzburg or were temporarily sheltered there. The Austrian population showed little concern for the fate of the Jews and antisemitism was still widespread among most Austrians. The prevalence of antisemitism led many stranded Jews to embrace the necessity of an independent Jewish state. The destination many had in mind was Palestine which at the time was still under a British mandate. However, Great Britain was not interested in Jewish migration to this region and therefore pressured the Allies in Europe to close the borders to Italy. So, at the end of 1946 France closed various borders between Tyrol and Italy which up until then were frequently used routes. To still ensure passage to Italy, Bricha started looking for new routes. One of the possible routes which our organization commemorates with annual memorial hikes led from the DP camp Givat Avoda in Saalfelden to Krimml and then across the Krimmler Tauern to Italy. Crossing the border to Italy was possible here because the approximately 10 kilometers long border strip was controlled by the US armed forces, and they were open to the Jewish escape to Palestine.

“It was impossible for us to live there, where every trace of culture and humanity has been destroyed by the Nazi occupation.”

Givat Avoda

Givat Avoda, Hebrew for hill of labor, was a DP camp in Saalfelden which started to exclusively shelter Jews in August of 1946 on the territory of today’s Anton Wallner barracks of the Austrian Armed Forces. Upon learning that Jewish DPs were coming to Saalfelden, the local population was outraged. The then-mayor wrote to the US local command: “The news that Jews are coming to Saalfelden has resulted in tremendous outrage because it is known here how they behaved elsewhere.” The DPs therefore continued to be confronted with antisemitism. Up to 3,000 Jews temporarily lived in Givat Avoda, which among other facilities consisted of a hospital with 75 beds. The camp was supplied with stocks by US troops. Besides shelter and care, the camp offered another important possibility: the preparation of the escape and of the creation of the Jewish state. This happened with Zionist education services in the camp and with the attempt of making the DPs accustomed to long hikes. For example, the DPs deliberately went for long walks.

However, prior to going on the long hike across the Tauern starting in 1947, the DPs were smuggled by train into Tyrol in the French occupation zone in 1946 from where they could get to Italy. The Bricha organization already showed some creativity here. Viktor Knopf, a Bricha member, recounts that he disguised himself as a ticket inspector and that he bribed the actual inspector. In doing so he could hide between 30 and 50 people behind the packages in the railway post office. That way the DPs could pass the border between the occupation zones undetected and in Tyrol other Bricha members picked them up with trucks. One of Bricha’s central tasks was finding creative ways to get Jews from Europe to Palestine. Aba Gefen described Bricha’s approach as follows: Bricha saw guiding the Jews to Palestine as their highest moral duty and in their eyes, it was immoral to leave any possible means of reaching this goal unused.”

Entrance to the DP camp Givat Avoda.

To Krimml

As previously mentioned, in 1946 France closed several border crossings between Tyrol and Italy, so Bricha had to start finding new paths. While it was difficult, the decision fell on the route from Krimml to the Tauernhaus and the mountain pass next to the Birnlücke to Italy. Marko Feingold, one of the Bricha men who were looking for new routes, remembers the first attempts of scouting the route across the Krimmler Tauern: “It was difficult to drive on the street, so one of my passengers suggested turning the car around and driving uphill in reverse which actually worked. We examined the streets and concluded that crossing the mountain was possible.”

Bricha saw guiding the Jews to Palestine as their highest moral duty and in their eyes, it was immoral to leave any possible means of reaching this goal unused.”

Each “hike” saw on average somewhere between 150 and 200 Jews crossing the mountain pass, sometimes there were bigger and smaller groups. Bricha primarily chose young and fit people for the journey, so that no one would be left behind on the mountain.

In the afternoon Bricha picked the group for the next escape in Givat Avoda and told them to ready themselves for their departure at 10 pm. Bricha then took the people from Saalfelden to Krimml in four trucks. Around 2 am the four-hour drive came to an end as close to the Krimml waterfalls as possible. The DPs were told to stay silent, so as not to wake the local population. The local gendarmerie was in the know, but they were following the indirect order of ignoring the escapees.

The night not only protected the Jews from being detected. The steep terrain was another reason why Bricha carried the escape out in darkness. To prevent nervousness and panic, the mostly inexperienced hikers should not see how dangerous the path they took was. The nightly hike started at the Krimml waterfalls and led in the direction of the Tauernhaus which is situated at 1,822 meters above sea level.

The route across the Krimmler Tauern.

To the Tauernhaus

Each group was accompanied by two Bricha members. One of them led the group, while the other one brought up the rear. The people had different fitness levels which is why the groups had to wait at regular intervals. When the 150 to 200 DPs finally all reached the highest waterfall, it was often already 5 am. The rest of the way to the Tauernhaus usually took an additional while. Viktor Knopf remembers the path to the Tauernhaus: „The journey from Krimml to the Tauernhaus did not take us three hours, but sometimes five or six hours, but when we arrived, we were always complete, there was never anyone missing.”

At the Tauernhaus the people could rest for a while. The group brought food with them on a horse cart, the innkeeper Liesl Geisler prepared it for them at the Tauernhaus. They could rest, eat, and sleep until the afternoon and at 4 pm the next section up the mountain pass would lead them to 2,634 meters above sea level.

“The night not only protected the Jews from being detected. […] To prevent nervousness and panic, the mostly inexperienced hikers should not see how dangerous the path they took was.”

Crossing the mountain pass to Italy

The path from the Tauernhaus to the mountain pass partially led them through flat terrain along two high valleys. Some steep passages were sprinkled in and at the last section from the end of the valley to the mountain pass they had to climb a particularly steep slope which was partially covered in gravel. Viktor Knopf remembers the final meters to the top of the mountain pass: “The path through the Windbach valley up to the border took several hours, till 8 or even 9 pm. Then we were just up there at the border, at the crossing of the Tauern main ridge.” Once they crossed the mountain pass, a downhill hike followed which took between three and four hours. The destination of this section was the small Italian village Kasern/Casere in the Ahrn valley in South Tyrol / Alto Adige. The groups had no lamps with them, so they would not be detected by border patrol, even though the authorities had no negative attitudes towards them. After all, they knew that Kasern was only a temporary stop and that the DPs would quickly move on. But these were nonetheless illegal border crossings, and some groups were occasionally sent back. Between 1 and 3 am the groups finally arrived in Kasern. The weakest among them could rest in an inn that was rented by Bricha and in a farmhouse. Everyone else was immediately transported to Meran/Merano or Milan/Milano in Red Cross trucks by Bricha. Italy also had a well-organized network around Bricha which took care of the Jews and organized the journey by ship to Palestine. The hike across the Krimmler Tauern was only possible in the summer months, when the first snowfall set in in September 1947, crossing the mountain was too dangerous.

Mir záynen do!?

Exhausted, yet at the same time filled with the hope of soon reaching Eretz Israel, the DPs boarded the ships in Italy to Palestine. However, Great Britain still tried to prevent a large Jewish migration movement to Palestine. The ships were often intercepted, and many Jews had to wait in camps in Cyprus until the State of Israel was officially established to finally seek refuge in Israel. Once the state of Israel was established in May 1948, the illegal and arduous routes were no longer necessary. Jews could now legally cross the borders of Israel. In the short time of a couple of months in the summer of 1947 a large group of thousands of Jews could be smuggled from Saalfelden across the Krimmler Tauern and finally to Eretz Israel.

Tips for reading:

Thomas Albrich (Hg.), Flucht nach Eretz Israel. Die Bricha und der jüdische Exodus durch Österreich nach 1945, Innsbruck-Wien 1998.

Roland Floimair (Hg.), Über die Berge dem gelobten Land entgegen. Alpine Peace Crossing, Salzburg 2008.

Sabine Aschauer-Smolik / Mario Steidl (Hg.), Tamid Kadima – Immer vorwärts. Der jüdische Exodus aus Europa 1945-1948, Innsbruck-Wien-Bozen 2010.

AuthorJakob Gruber is studying Jewish Studies in Graz and Heidelberg and is a board member of APC. His work revolves around antisemitism prevention in open youth work.