In the 13th 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 center 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 Jewish students were excluded from their school classes, business licenses were withdrawn, rent contracts were cancelled, and stores and businesses were “aryanized”.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 (“Reichskristallnacht”), 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 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 Tyrol and Vorarlberg” was finally legally established.
In 1961, members met regularly on the High Holidays 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 was publicly erected on the very spot where the synagogue had been ravaged in 1938. It was put up in the presence of mayor Alois Lugger, provincial governor Eduard Wallnöfer and the Israeli ambassador.
From 1987 onwards, Esther Fritsch was President of the Jewish Community for Tyrol and Vorarlberg. 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 honored for his achievements in inter-denominational communication by the Viennese Bnei Brit and by the Jewish Community of Tyrol. This honor also pays tribute to the bishop’s efforts in doing away with the cult surrounding “Anderle von Rinn”: This false legend about the alleged ritual murder of a young child in the fifteenth century had for centuries been terribly 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 honor from the spheres of politics, culture and science. Again, Israeli Jews who had been driven out of Tyrol were invited by Innsbruck’s mayor to take part.
The synagogue has since become the spiritual and administrative center of the Jewish community as well as an important place for Jewish tourists – not only on the High Holidays.
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 the 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.
In the spring of 2007, scientific research into the old Jewish cemetery at the Judenbühel began – inspired by Bishop Dr. Reinhold Stecher and supported by the city of Innsbruck. The archaeologist Michael Guggenberger, together with the historian Niko Hofinger, was able to clarify and document the exact course and nature of the cemetery wall as well as the access to the cemetery area.
In the summer of 2009, the area along the original course of the wall was rebuilt and thus made visible, supplemented by an information board. The thus created memorial at Judenbühel was inaugurated by Chief Rabbi Paul Chaim Eisenberg in the presence of former Bishop Reinhold Stecher and Bishop Manfred Scheuer in July 2009. (see “Cemetery”)
A year earlier, in November 2008, a memorial had been inaugurated on the grounds of the Innsbruck University Hopsital to commemorate those expelled from the Faculty of Medicine in March 1938. The artistic design was carried out by the sculptor and painter Dvora Barzilai, who comes from Israel and is based in Vienna.
In December 2014, the Community Center was expanded to include a library and event space, which has since hosted festivals, cultural events, discussions and community meetings.
In May 2016, Günter Lieder was elected the new President of the Jewish Community for Tyrol and Vorarlberg and succeeded Esther Fritsch, who had led the community for 29 years and remains Honorary President for life.
At the end of October 2016, a memorial for those murdered in the 1945 death march was created at the Waldfriedhof (forest cemetery) in Seefeld. At the end of April 1945, thousands of half-starved Jewish prisoners had been evacuated from the Dachau concentration camp, and some were sent on death marches and some were sent by train to the “Alpine fortress”. Many of the 1,700 Jews who arrived in Seefeld died just hours before the liberation by American troops. 63 of the former prisonsers were buried in today’s forest cemetery. Just as many cubes – designed by architect Michael Prachensky – stand there today as symbolic tombstones of the victims of the death march.
The memorial was inaugurated by Chief Rabbi Paul Chaim Eisenberg on October 31, 2016.
In October 2019, the community fulfilled the long-cherished wish for a book to inform tourists, guests and interested parties about everything Jewish in and around Innsbruck by publishing “Das jüdische Innsbruck”. The authors, Niko Hofinger, Sonja Prieth and Esther Pirchner, created a city portrait from a Jewish perspective, introduced formative personalities, gave their say to those who shape everyday life and festivals in the Jewish community, and followed the traces of scientific and artistic engagement with the Jewish Community in Innsbruck. “Das jüdische Innsbruck” draws attention to visible and no longer visible places in the city; historical places combine with the scenes of today’s Jewish life in Innsbruck to form a diverse picture.
An English version of this book is currently being planned.
In November 2019, a second long-term project was realized and presented to the public: “The pogrom of 1938 in Innsbruck – Victims and locations of terror“. In this joint project by erinnern.at and the Jewish Community for Tyrol and Vorarlberg, all the murderous attacks, raids and crime scenes of the pogrom night in Innsbruck in 1938 were meticulously reconstructed by historian Michael Guggenberger and recorded in individual representations. The texts assigned to the individual locations of terror were recorded in two languages (German and English) and processed into audio clips that give an interested audience outside of Austria insights into the events of the November Pogrom in 1938. In particular, the descendants of Innsbruck Jews now have access to part of their family history.
The project was developed as a web app by Niko Hofinger based on geodata that enables a virtual tour with images, sound and text corresponding to the locations of the terror of the November pogrom in Innsbruck: pogrom-erinnern.at
The recent history of the Jewish Community has been dominated by cooperation with a great variety of people and institutions, such as the municipal, provincial and state government, and Christian churches and associations. Even though the approx. 120 members are scattered all over Tyrol and Vorarlberg, Passover celebrations have once again become one of the central social events 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 who were born in Tyrol.