In the thirteenth century, the counts of Görz brought the first Jews to the shire of Tyrol, where they worked as toll collectors. Jewish families were generally tolerated, but not respected; they were often discriminated against, persecuted, and used as scapegoats in the wake of catastrophe. Periods of tolerance alternated with periods of persecution. In the Tyrol-Vorarlberg region, the Jewish village of Hohenems had existed since 1617, so the centre of Jewish life was in the province of Vorarlberg. However, over the course of the 19th century, most of the members of the Hohenems community left. Rabbi Josef Link moved from Hohenems to Innsbruck in 1914. A small community of immigrants (mostly from Vienna, Bohemia and Galicia) had been forming here since the 1880s. Its members had managed to establish themselves chiefly as merchants and traders. On the eve of World War I, there were nearly five hundred Jews in Innsbruck. This immigration did not go unnoticed. Clerical anti-Semitism, Arian statutes in the various clubs and associations, and the Tyrolean Anti-Semite Alliance left Jews excluded from many areas of public life. Even so, Tyrolean Jews were patriots; the many graves in Innsbruck’s West Cemetery belonging to soldiers who died in World War I are testimony to this. During the economic depression of the inter-war period, the political climate turned cold. Nevertheless, Innsbruck’s Jews enjoyed a relatively undisturbed community life under the protection of the laws of the First Republic well into the 1930s. They met in the annex of the building in Sillgasse 15 every Shabbat. Several attempts to build a synagogue failed due to lack of funds.
In March of 1938, the illusion of a peaceful coexistence for all Jewish communities in what had now become the “Eastern March” were shattered. Jewish students were excluded from their school classes, business licenses were withdrawn, rent contracts were cancelled, and stores and businesses were “aryanized”. During the so-called Reichsprogromnacht on the night of November 9 – 10, 1938, most of the Jewish Community’s board members were murdered by SS men dressed in civilian clothing. The prayer room in the Sillgasse was destroyed. The last Tyrolean rabbi, Elimelech Rimalt, had managed to leave Innsbruck only a short time before. By the middle of 1939, nearly all Jews had been forced to leave the “Tyrol and Vorarlberg” district. At least two hundred Tyrolean and Vorarlberg Jews did not live to see 1945. The cause of their deaths range from the desperate suicides of March 12th, 1938, to those left dead in the Night of Broken Glass, to children who were murdered as late as mid-1944 in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. About three hundred Jews are known to have survived abroad or even in concentration camps. But the fates of over 70 people from Tyrol and Vorarlberg who were victims of racial persecution remain unknown to this day.
After 1945, only a few of the older community members returned to Innsbruck. Rudolf Brüll was one of them. Brüll had returned from the concentration camp at Theresienstadt in 1946, and had been named the official contact person for Jewish matters by the province. On March 14th, 1952, the organization that is now the “Innsbruck Jewish Community for the provinces of Tyrol and Vorarlberg“ was finally legally established. In 1961, members met regularly on the high holy days in a small prayer room that had been rented in the Zollerstrasse. Next to this room there was a small office, where the concerns of the congregation and exiled Tyroleans could be dealt with. Slowly, a sense of Jewish community began to grow once again. However, Jews still tended to keep to themselves, and were a virtually invisible minority in society. The archives of the Jewish Community shed very little light on the post-war period up to the 1980s. It wasn’t until 1981 that a plaque commemorating the horrors of the Reichskristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) was publicly erected in the very spot where the synagogue was ravaged in 1938. It was put up in the presence of mayor Alois Lugger, provincial governor Eduard Wallnöfer and the Israeli ambassador.
Esther Fritsch has been president of the Jewish Community for Tyrol and Vorarlberg since 1986. Under her guidance, the Jewish Community soon gained new self-confidence. In 1988, the largest commemorative event up until that time was held in Innsbruck: the 50-year anniversary of the Reichskristallnacht. Guest speakers included Bishop Reinhold Stecher, Chief Rabbi Paul Chaim Eisenberg and Provincial Governor Alois Partl. In 1989, the Tyrolean committee for Christian-Jewish cooperation was initiated by Bishop Reinhold Stecher. In June of 1990, Bishop Stecher was honoured for his achievements in inter-denominational communication by the Viennese Bnei Brit and by the Jewish Community Tyrol. This honour also pays tribute to the bishop’s efforts in doing away with the cult surrounding “Anderle von Rinn”: This legend about the alleged ritual murder of a young child in the fifteenth century had for centuries been incredibly insulting to Tyrolean Jews.
In 1991, the foundation stone for the new Innsbruck synagogue in the Sillgasse was laid in the exact location where it had stood until November of 1938. Mayor Romuald Niescher invited all the Israeli Jews who had been forced to leave Tyrol to these festivities. Thus, Jewish life once again became a normal part of public perception. The Jewish museum in Hohenems was opened, and historians published the first books on Tyrol during the Nazi era. In March of 1993, there was a festive ceremony to open and dedicate the new synagogue. Over 600 people participated in these celebrations, including numerous guests of honour from the spheres of politics, culture and science. Again, Israeli Jews who had been driven from Tyrol were invited to take part by Innsbruck’s mayor. The synagogue has since become the spiritual and administrative centre of the Jewish community, as well as an important place for Jewish tourists – not just on high holy days. In November of 1995, the “Provincial Youth Government” proposed the construction of a memorial dedicated to those Jews murdered during the Reichskristallnacht. After a contest held among school-age students, a Menorah was chosen as the winning project. It carries the names of those murdered on that night at its base. The Menorah was consecrated by Chief Rabbi Paul Chaim Eisenberg on Landhausplatz square in June of 1997. The host, Provincial Governor Wendelin Weingartner, invited former Innsbruck Jews from all over the world (England, USA, Canada, Israel, etc.) to be present at the unveiling.
The recent history of the Jewish Community has been dominated by cooperation with a great variety of people and institutions, such as the municipality, the province, the state, the Jewish Community and the bishopric. Now, for the first time in 60 years, Bar-Mitzvahs and Brit-Milahs (bris) are once again being celebrated. Even though the approx. 70 members are scattered all over Tyrol and Vorarlberg, Passover celebrations have once more become the central social event for the community. Today, the community includes people of all age groups and professions, of various nationalities, and once again, a large number of children born in Tyrol.