The first time Yaakov Schwartz traveled the mountainous path beside Austria’s Krimml Waterfall, he was 6 years old and riding on his father’s shoulders.
That journey, in the summer of 1947, ultimately led Schwartz to Israel, where he still lives. He and his father were among the more than 5,000 Holocaust survivors who trekked over the Alps, into Italy and onto Aliyah Bet ships bound for Palestine, part of a little-known chapter in postwar Austrian history.
Night after night that summer, displaced persons who were interned at barracks 40 miles away slipped into a convoy of trucks that smuggled them to the base of the waterfall and the start of a 1,246-foot climb. Though poorly equipped for mountaineering, these refugees, some, like Schwartz’s father, carrying children, trudged in darkness to an inn at the halfway point. There they camped for the day and at sunset resumed the journey, across boulders and snowfields.
This weekend, Schwartz will hit the trail again, this time joined by approximately 150 participants in the Alpine Peace Crossing hike, an annual event that aims to draw attention to the 1947 passage and the plight of refugees worldwide.
Ernst Loeschner, an Austrian banker, launched the commemorative hike in 2007 because he was disturbed that the escape — which is not mentioned in any of the local tourist brochures — had garnered so little local attention. “I couldn’t let this chapter in Austria’s history be buried,” Loeschner told The Jewish Week.
Born in 1943, Loeschner himself knew nothing about the escape over the mountain pass until a decade ago. He was hiking a nearby glacier, complaining about the rain, when his guide said, “The Jews who went across that pass over there did not even have proper shoes.” Curious, Loeschner hiked the Krimml Waterfall trail in 2003 and stopped for a bite at the Krimmler Tauernhaus. On the walls of the inn, he discovered a series of black-and-white photos showing scores of families pressing their way up the steep trail. The innkeeper recounted how his grandmother, Liesl Geisler-Scharfetter, had fed and cared for the refugees.
The Jews who hiked the route in 1947 were mainly Poles who had ended up in a network of DP camps in Austria’s Salzburg district. They were barred from settling in Austria or entering neighboring Italy, and the British barred them from Palestine, their ultimate destination.
The Brenner Pass, heavily guarded by British soldiers, was out as an escape route, but the Tauern Pass beyond the top of the Krimml Waterfall was loosely patrolled. Italian soldiers at that mountaintop outpost were reportedly easily bribed with cigarette lighters and tins of sardines, and American soldiers stationed along the region’s roads looked the other way as truckloads of Displaced Persons made the four-hour drive to Krimml.
Last year, 161 climbers made the trek, which spotlighted the plight of Tibetan refugees. This year’s journey begins with a peace dialogue focusing on asylum seekers within Austria (www.alpinepeacecrossing.org). In addition to the hike, the Alpine Peace Crossing is a charity that helps refugees and asylum seekers inside Austria with emergency situations.
In addition to Schwartz and Loeschner, participants this year include Marko Feingold, a centenarian who in 1947 organized the clandestine operation with Bricha, an escape arm of the Haganah, the underground paramilitary Zionist organization. Feingold is currently president of the Jewish Community of Salzburg.
Israel’s ambassador to Vienna, Aviv Shir-on, will be at the opening ceremony along with Vienna’s Community Rabbi Schlomo Hofmeister.