The Austrian Alps rise like a giant patchwork curtain being pulled from the ground—green pine groves, mountain stone, jagged peaks topped with snow.
The sun’s early light reveals the bright colors of summer all around us: the tall grass, verdant brush, and polka-dot pinks and whites of wildflowers. Behind rolling clouds, the wide morning sky shows its truest blue. In the Krimmler Achental Valley, every view is a postcard come to life.
I voice my admiration to Aster Karbaum, a former bookseller from Hamburg, Germany, who has traveled to this valley half a dozen times. She smiles and points to a distant peak. “That,” she says, “is where you’ll be crossing.”
For a moment, I assume she’s joking. From where we’re standing, that mountaintop looks to be about halfway to the moon. Turning back is still an option for me. But for the Jewish refugees who walked this Alpine trail into Italy 75 years ago, giving up was unthinkable. Their numbers included men, women, and sometimes even children and infants.
After World War II, there were some 250,000 displaced Jews in Europe. They’d escaped the Nazis or survived concentration camps. Once they returned home, however, they found their houses occupied, their communities decimated and many of their non-Jewish neighbors unwelcoming. They decided the only place they could build a new life and find true sanctuary was in British Palestine—or, as they called it, Eretz Yisrael.
Still, a great many obstacles stood in their way. A plan to circumnavigate them came by way of a clandestine organization called the Bricha. The Hebrew word means “escape” or “flight,” and the journey was both. It was also illegal.
I first learned about the Bricha while researching my book Into the Forest. The Polish Jewish family at the book’s center survived World War II by hiding in the woods. Nearly two years after they were liberated, they crossed through the Alps in the hopes of reaching Palestine. That family ended up staying in Italy for two more years before choosing to join relatives in the United States, but I was fascinated to learn about the inner workings of the group that had smuggled them over the mountains. Given that the Bricha helped illegally move more than 100,000 Jewish refugees throughout Europe, it seemed a wonder that its name most often appeared as a passing mention in Holocaust histories, if at all.
Instead, when I mentioned the Jewish refugees who had escaped across the Alps, many people responded, “Oh, like the von Trapps?” The Austrian family portrayed in The Sound of Music was not Jewish, and its real-life members didn’t trek through the Alps to escape the Nazis. But with the Bricha’s help, tens of thousands of Jewish refugees did. And between May and September 1947, as many as 8,000 of them used a dangerous route called the Krimmler Tauern, or the Krimml Pass, which runs 12 miles long and 8,642 feet high.
Though the Bricha faded from mainstream memory, locals in Krimml never forgot that Holocaust survivors had fled through their town. In 2007, a non-Jewish Austrian bank director founded Alpine Peace Crossing (APC), a group devoted to commemorating this history. Over the past 15 years, more than 2,800 people have participated in APC’s annual hike, retracing the path the refugees traveled in 1947. Participants come from Israel, North America and elsewhere. Many survivors have returned with their children and grandchildren. The gathering, which also includes non-Jewish Austrians and Germans, has expanded to represent other refugee populations as well.
This is how I find myself in the small Alpine town of Krimml, some 90 miles southwest of Salzburg, with 250 people. It’s the 75th anniversary of the Bricha’s operation here, and we’re about to walk the same route, heading toward the mountain pass that Austrian historian Harald Waitzbauer deemed the “most strenuous and spectacular escape route of the entire escape operation.”
Moshe Frumin, now 83, remembers when his family tried to make that crossing. He was 6½ years old on that summer night in 1947, holding still in his mother’s arms as they hid inside a pile of hay. The boy heard distant shouting, and then the sounds of Austrian soldiers entering.
The refugees had been spotted by guards, and Bricha guides had shooed their charges into a barn. It wasn’t long before Moshe and his mother, Yehudit, heard the swishing of soldiers prodding the haystacks with bayonets. Yehudit wrapped her arms around Moshe, offering her back as a shield against any blade or rifle butt that might breach the hay’s flimsy protection.
Mother and son managed to stay hidden. But their group was forced to retreat to Givat Avoda, their displaced persons camp in the Austrian town of Saalfelden. They made seven attempts before their trip was complete.
Moshe and his family first were displaced in 1941, when Hitler broke his nonaggression treaty with Stalin and attacked Eastern Poland. The family left what had been a comfortable life in the Polish town of Rovna (now commonly called Rivne and part of Ukraine) and fled to Uzbekistan. Moshe’s father and grandfather died shortly thereafter, and a hired driver stole their belongings. Yehudit, her two sisters, and their mother had no choice but to forge on, along with young Moshe, until they reached Uzbekistan. They spent the next three years wandering from town to town, begging for food. The women finally managed to earn wages picking cotton, but the pay was low and the labor rough. Moshe’s hunger pains were so acute that he often couldn’t keep from crying.
When the war ended, the family returned to Poland, only to find their home occupied by strangers. Throughout Poland, a toxic mix of economic depression and still-ripe bigotry had reignited a fresh wave of anti-Semitic discrimination. In the summer of 1946, a false rumor spread that Jews in the southeastern Polish town of Kielce had kidnapped and held a young Polish boy hostage. An angry mob, whose perpetrators included police officers and soldiers, brutally murdered 42 Jews and left some 40 more injured. Many Jews became convinced they could never again call Poland home. So desperate were they to flee that their hasty departure—an estimated 100,000 in all—was called the Polish Exodus.
Such embattled homecomings were not unique to Poland. Newly liberated Jews throughout Europe were finding it impossible to rebuild their lives. Even Jews who had not previously supported Zionism—a political movement that had been underway since the turn of the 20th century—were now embracing the dream of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. It seemed to be the only place that could resemble a safe haven, especially for Jews who had been liberated from concentration camps and were now confined to displaced persons camps.
Palestine had been under British control since the end of World War I, and it saw an uptick in European Jewish immigration after Hitler took power. From 1933 to 1936, as many as 130,000 Jews arrived, alarming the British. In the words of the White Paper published in 1939: “His Majesty’s Government therefore now declare unequivocally that it is not part of their policy that Palestine should become a Jewish state.” With that, Britain placed a cap on Jewish immigration. After the war, Zionist leaders asked for immediate entry for 100,000 displaced Jews, but the British government limited the number to 1,500 per month.
With legal migration all but impossible, getting to Palestine required illegal passage, first across European borders and then into the British-controlled territory itself. The question was not just how these tens of thousands of refugees would make it to Palestine, but who would take them. At first, the task fell to disparate groups—the men of Britain’s Jewish Brigade and Nazi-era Jewish resistance leaders (most notably Abba Kovner, a poet who’d attempted to start a Jewish uprising in Vilnius, Lithuania, and led a partisan brigade in the forest), as well as Zionist youth organizations. Eventually these groups joined forces in what would become a highly coordinated organization operating across Europe: the Bricha.
Lisa Nussbaum Derman, a Polish Jewish woman who’d joined a partisan resistance in the woods, remembered hearing that a group was helping Jewish refugees reach Palestine. “This was something sort of unbelievable,” Derman said in her 1994 testimony housed in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum archives. “How could it be possible? After a while we learn that it is true.” With the help of the Bricha, she said, “we started getting out.”
The Bricha worked around national laws. From ports in Southern Italy, the refugees could head toward Palestine, hoping the British wouldn’t intercept their boats. But the only way to cross the Alps was by foot under cover of darkness. The Bricha first primarily used the Brenner Pass to the south of Innsbruck and the Reschen Pass on the Swiss border. These crossings were relatively easy and lightly guarded. But in 1947, as the United Nations General Assembly prepared to vote on Palestine, Britain successfully pressured Italy, France and the United States to help stem the flow of Jewish refugees.
One Bricha operator tasked with finding a new way through the mountains was Marko Feingold. A native of Vienna, he’d been interned at Auschwitz in Poland, then transferred to three different camps in Germany. When the U.S. liberated Buchenwald in April 1945, Feingold was just weeks shy of his 32nd birthday and weighed 70 pounds. He returned to Austria, and in 1946, he started working with the Bricha movement, getting food, trucks and supplies from the black market.
With the Brenner and Reschen Passes closed to Bricha guides, Feingold set his sights on the Krimml Pass, near the American zone. In a 2017 interview with the Vienna-based Jewish journal Das Jüdische Echo, Feingold remembered scouting out the new route by car. The Givat Avoda camp was only 42 miles from Krimml, but the unpaved road was in such poor condition that the drive to the hike’s entry point took four hours. “The last hundred meters, the wheels didn’t want to go,” Feingold recalled. “They spun; it was such a gravel road. My co-drivers said to me, ‘You know what, Feingold, turn around and go up the wrong way.’” So Feingold shifted the car into reverse. “And just imagine”—he concluded, laughing out loud—“that worked! We drove the last 100 meters like that.”
The U.S. military’s policy was to neither help nor hinder the refugees. But Givat Avoda was in the American zone, and by most accounts, the U.S. soldiers in the area were more involved in helping than hindering. The Austrians, on the other hand, were not largely sympathetic to the Jewish plight, but many wanted the Jews out of Austria. When the Bricha led the first group across the Krimml Pass, Austria’s minister of the interior, Oskar Helmer, ordered the gendarmes: “Do not look out the window.”
Some guards were not easily deterred. These postwar Austrian officials didn’t pose the mortal threat the Nazis had; instead of murdering the Jews, they sent them back to their displaced persons camps or held them in custody. But for families like the Frumins, the stakes were still high: Until they could get past the checkpoints, their lives would remain in limbo.
Three times a week, the Bricha loaded 80 to 250 refugees into four trucks. It wasn’t safe to board until dark, which fell around 10 p.m. at the height of summer. Around 2 a.m., the guides would lead their charges by foot beyond a series of waterfalls through the valley. Five or six hours later, with the sun rising, they’d reach the Krimmler Tauernhaus, an inn and restaurant that had been in business since the 1300s.
The inn’s owner, Liesl Geisler-Scharfetter, later wrote about the refugees who sought rest on her lawns and in her laundry room. “There were poor people who didn’t even have a rucksack; there were small children who were carried in wooden crates on people’s backs, and the house was often full. During the night I cooked flour mixed with water for the poor children.”
Leaving the inn, the groups would press on with the most difficult leg of their journey, which could take upwards of ten hours. They’d make their way through the Windbach Valley, hiking upward another five hours until they reached the peak and the border crossing.
The Italian Carabinieri, who manned the borders, weren’t hard to bribe. “I chatted with them—in half-Italian, half-German—and found out what they wanted in exchange for their help,” the Bricha guide Viktor Knopf later told Austrian historian Thomas Albrich. The guards needed sardines and lighters, so Knopf started filling his backpack with both. From then on, Knopf said, they’d offer to carry the refugees’ packs and even their small children. Despite the lung damage Knopf had suffered at Auschwitz and Ebensee, he was able to shepherd as many as 3,000 refugees.
British officers sometimes patrolled near the Italian border, so the Bricha remained cautious: The groups descended toward South Tyrol in darkness, without lamps or lanterns of any kind. Considering how ill equipped they were to make the mountain trek, the low incidence of nighttime injuries was nothing short of miraculous.
When the group reached Kasern, usually around 2 a.m., a new group of Bricha guides loaded them into Red Cross vehicles and drove them to Merano. Anyone who was unwell convalesced at an inn or rented farmhouse. The most taxing physical part of the trip was behind them. But they still had to reach the Southern Italian ports where the Bricha launched ships, large and small, into British-patrolled waters. Many were intercepted, their passengers sent to internment camps in Cyprus.
Such would be the fate of Moshe Frumin. On their seventh attempt to cross the Alps, his family had to separate. His mother, Yehudit, hiked the Krimml Pass on foot, while Moshe and his grandmother were each smuggled across a different route: The Bricha put his grandmother into a Red Cross ambulance and hid Moshe in the well of a taxi. When Moshe and his grandmother arrived in Merano, Yehudit was nowhere to be found—she had been arrested. Eventually she was allowed to rejoin them. But after the family finally left Italy on a small boat, they were surrounded by the British Navy and diverted to Cyprus. The family spent months there in detainment camp number 55 before they finally made it to the newly established State of Israel in 1948.
Moshe says that when their boat was detained, he learned that Germany’s enemies weren’t necessarily the Jewish peoples’ allies. Just after the Frumins were forced to disembark, one of the British soldiers took Moshe’s mandolin, a special gift he’d received while he was in Italy. “They just took it,” he says. Moshe tried to hold on to his most precious possession, but the soldier ripped it away without a word.
The story of the Jewish refugees who fled through the Krimml Pass in 1947 might have remained in obscurity if Ernst Löschner hadn’t gotten caught in a thunderstorm while hiking near those mountains in 2003. His guide, Paul Rieder, offered a stray comment: “At least we’ve got good shoes. The Jews who crossed over there”—gesturing toward the Krimml Pass—“didn’t even have good shoes.”
Löschner recalls being “thunderstruck.” He’d grown up in Zell am See, a picturesque nearby town, and had never heard of Jews making that crossing. Rieder encouraged Löschner to go to the Krimmler Tauernhaus, where there were photographs of the refugees and guides from 1947. Sure enough, the pictures were on display—it was all true. “It was right there and then that I resolved this will not remain forgotten,” Löschner says. He founded the Alpine Peace Crossing.
Before the first hike in 2007, Löschner made every effort to reach out to the people who’d lived this history. He tapped into his connections and enlisted the help of Israel’s then-ambassador to Austria, Dan Ashbel, who put out a call on an Israeli radio program. “I was expecting that I would find at least one or two in Israel,” Löschner told me. But the next day, the Austrian Embassy in Israel received 21 calls. That year, more than ten of the 1947 refugees and guides made the journey to Austria from Israel with their families and friends. These “contemporary witnesses,” as APC calls them, continued to play an important role. Marko Feingold last took part in APC programs in 2018 and died the next year at 106. In 2017, Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen attended APC’s annual events. Löschner stepped down from the helm two years later, though at 79, he remains heavily involved.
Krimml is home to just 800 or 900 people and the highest waterfalls in central Europe. APC has attracted a surge of tourism to the town. The night before the hike, I ask the man at the Krimml Hotel for a very early wake-up call. He reluctantly agrees. I find out later that this gentleman—who reliably delivers three loud bangs on my door the following morning at 4:50—is not only the owner of the hotel but Krimml’s mayor, Erich Czerny.
An hour later, I’m in front of Krimml’s tourism building, getting ready to board a bus to the Krimmler Tauernhaus, where Liesl Geisler-Scharfetter welcomed passing refugees.
On the lawn of the inn, Löschner opens the 2022 ceremony. His pride is evident as he continues to speak past our scheduled departure time. Robert Obermair, Löschner’s successor as APC head, steps in to tactfully retrieve the megaphone. With a jubilant call in German and English for everyone to gather their packs, the 2022 APC hike officially begins.
The hikers form a mass of brightly colored hats, parkas and backpacks. I’ve outfitted myself with hiking poles, hiking boots, vented pants, a weatherproof windbreaker and an old baseball cap. There’s a buzz of upbeat chatter, most of it in German. A number of young Austrians are with us, though Obermair suggests that they may be less enthralled by the history than APC’s guided trip and the guaranteed ride home. Part of our €70 participation fee goes toward private bus transportation back from Italy.
I settle into a comfortable pace with two women in their 70s from Hamburg. Annette Manger-Scheller, with a gray-blond bob and tortoiseshell glasses, is the former mayor of a 11,000-person municipality just south of Hamburg. Aster Karbaum, a former bookseller, has white hair, a deep tan and topaz-blue eyes. They’ve been friends for 40 years and are very knowledgeable about the pass. It might seem odd that two non-Jewish German women are so dedicated to this part of Austrian history. Like many participants, they’re friends with Ernst Löschner and his wife, Waltraud.
As we walk along the river, the German women pepper me with facts. A dog belonging to one of the hikers takes an interest in the speckled cows grazing beside the path. Disturbed, a large bull crosses in front of us and then stops. We move cautiously around him. Karbaum tells me that the route we’re hiking was used by cattle thieves in the 1500s to move herds over the mountains into Italy. She marvels at the mountains’ smuggling history—cows, then Jewish refugees. Then she quickly adds that it’s an unpleasant comparison, given that the Nazis “herded” Jews to their deaths in cattle cars.
The mountain air isn’t warm, but I feel the heat of sunburn rise along with my own body temperature. A rushing spring offers opportunities to drink and splash my face. For APC organizers, safety is a concern—hiking guides rate this trek “difficult” or “severe,” and many participants, like me, arrive with little experience. The hike is supported by park rangers, a mountain rescue service and, depending on the year, as many as two doctors. In 2019, one APC participant had to be airlifted off the mountain.
At one of the pre-hike events, Lili Segal, now in her mid-70s, told me she and her mother were amused by APC’s precautions when they signed up for the inaugural 2007 hike. “When we got the list of what we have to bring—and the shoes—and I showed it to her, and she started laughing,” remembers Segal. Her mother made the journey with the Bricha in 1947, and she did not have special gear. “I went with what I had on me,” Segal’s mother said back in 2007, recalling her 1947 journey. Her mother was also pregnant when she made that crossing. Segal was born in Merano, Italy, one day after her mother arrived.
On one of the only shady stretches, I fall into step with a family of first-timers from Perth, Australia: Miles and Deborah Protter, and their daughter, Lily. They are avid hikers who take the incline in seemingly effortless strides. Two of Miles’ three brothers are also taking part. Their father, Bernard Dov Protter, was a Bricha guide on the Krimml Pass.
Bernard, a prominent Canadian real estate developer, didn’t speak much about his wartime experiences. Whenever his sons pushed him to talk about it, Bernard would grow angry, once even banging his fist on the table. The earliest inkling came during a trip to Austria in the late 1990s, when Bernard took his sons on a seven-hour drive to an unknown destination. It turned out to be the site of Givat Avoda. That was when his sons learned that he’d been a member of Britain’s Jewish Brigade and, later, the Bricha. But the trip raised more questions than it answered.
More clues later emerged when the family watched Schindler’s List. During the final scene, when Oskar Schindler cries in anguish, Bernard tearfully repeated Schindler’s refrain: “I didn’t do enough.” Miles asked, “Didn’t do enough what, Dad?” Bernard never answered. “He just was lost in grief,” Miles says.
The brothers’ education continued to fall into place after their father’s death, mostly through rediscovered photographs and film reels. Today’s hike is part of that ongoing discovery. Miles, who was not raised with any Jewish identity and says he and his wife are “both followers of Jesus,” likens the hike to a religious pilgrimage. It is also a personal one. “The walk helped us let go of whatever lingering resentment we had towards my dad for not opening up,” Miles will tell me later. “I need to honor that choice. I learned so much about him. We’re all so proud of him.”
In the APC archives is a document that looks like a family tree. Along the bottom are drawings of a displaced persons camp, a rowboat navigating the sea, and the Jerusalem landscape. At the top are oval-shaped portraits of the Bricha guides who facilitated the journey. In oval number four is Bernard Dov Protter, having always had a place among them.
As I cross the mostly melted snowfields, signs announce that I am approaching the border. Little more than adrenaline carries me the final few steps to the top. There’s a group of hikers already sitting there—snapping photos, eating snacks or leaning back on their packs, enjoying the view. Obermair, the current APC chairman and a research assistant at the University of Salzburg, is among them. When I met him for coffee a few days ago, he was relatively reserved. Now, on the mountain, he wears a wide smile. His all-volunteer role is a meeting point of his professional pursuits and his nonacademic passions.
“I did my PhD in contemporary history with a special focus on national socialism,” he tells me. When the original APC founders decided it was time to hand over leadership, they first approached Obermair’s PhD adviser. “She said she didn’t have the time, but one of her students who was both interested in contemporary history and hiking might do it.” That’s how Obermair came to the organization.
His generation of leaders faces new challenges. Among them: how to keep the hike relevant by connecting its history with today’s issues. Drawing attention to the plight of present-day refugees has always been part of APC’s mission. The inaugural hike in 2007 was “dedicated to the refugees in the world today,” Löschner says. Over the years, that idea evolved into action, adding what Löschner calls a “third dimension to APC: social projects for refugee support.”
According to the United Nations, there are currently 146,000 refugees in Austria, mostly from Syria and Afghanistan. In 2011, APC raised money for programs that would provide, among other things, trauma therapy and family reunification. This effort grew so much that, in 2019, the program branched off into a separate nonprofit called APC-Help, whose 2022 projects include fundraising for Ukrainian refugees.
Löschner feels these efforts are completely in line with honoring Krimml’s Jewish history, but they’ve invited controversy. In 2011, APC decided to tackle Middle East peace and the Palestinian refugee crisis. In the spring just before that year’s annual hike, APC organized a film festival in Vienna that showed a number of Palestinian films followed by panel discussions. Some Israeli APC members were deeply unhappy—and remain so years later. “I have found with my Israeli friends there is a quite a divide,” Löschner says. “Some are very liberal—open toward Palestinians, open to peace. Several Israelis who I’ve met are very racist, I would call them, looking down on Palestinians, considering them to be inferior.”
When APC began inviting Syrian refugees to participate, one of the people most opposed was Marko Feingold. As Löschner remembers it, Feingold said to him: “Ernst, you are inviting Syrian refugees. You know they are all indoctrinated. We have imported anti-Semitism as a result. And you are welcoming them to hike with you and to Krimml.”
Löschner replied that APC had always promoted openness toward all. “We don’t differentiate by color or religion,” he told the former Bricha guide, adding that one of APC’s main goals was to overcome prejudice and indoctrination with dialogue and education. Feingold eventually softened. “He said, ‘I see your point,’” Löschner recalls. “And we overcame it.” In 2019, refugees from Afghanistan and Sudan attended the hike and spoke about the difficulties they’d faced in their own countries, as well as their ongoing struggles finding acceptance in Austria.
Still, APC also has a strong motivation to continue its focus on anti-Semitism. I got my first taste of why less than an hour after my flight landed in Salzburg. When my Uber driver, Dieter, asked why I was a woman traveling alone, I was evasive initially, and after I explained why I was in Austria, his tone changed. “Why are you writing about the Holocaust?” he asked. “It happened so long ago. Why must we still hear about it over and over?”
I later share that conversation with Obermair, and he mentions the “wave of silence” that began after the end of World War II. The prevailing narrative cast Austrians as victims but never mentioned the Austrians who’d crowded the streets to celebrate Hitler’s annexation. In 1991, Franz Vranitzky became the first Austrian chancellor to publicly declare that Austrians had been complicit in the Nazi regime. Still, Obermair said, “There’s a not-too-small part of our population who thinks it’s enough of talking about it.”
For this year’s events, Obermair and his team organized two full days of speeches, awards and panel discussions. On a table in the Krimml elementary school gymnasium, there were pamphlets and books, as well as stickers that said: “In the shadow of the mountains. Anti-Semitism yesterday and today.”
In 2021, Vienna’s Jewish Community recorded 965 incidents of anti-Semitism in Austria. Most disturbing was the account of a non-Jewish 19-year-old woman who was attacked and called a “Jew slut” by three men on the Vienna subway simply for reading a book titled The Jews in the Modern World. Almost more troubling than the attack itself were the station officers who reportedly suggested she’d brought on the attack herself by reading provocative material.
Even the pristine surroundings of the Krimml Pass aren’t immune. In addition to the Grove of Flight, where 49 trees are dedicated to individuals who played a significant role in 1947 and other refugees from around the world, there are eight pyramids marking the camp and the trail, detailing the area’s Jewish history in Hebrew, English and German. As we passed the first one, I saw scratch marks over the Hebrew.
Obermair noted that he saw damage to a pyramid on a subsequent hike. “There are people up there hiking in the mountains who don’t agree with shedding light to that story or who still are simply just anti-Semitic,” he explained. “It reminds us that not everybody feels as we do.” Every year, he says, at least one of the pyramids is vandalized.
Continuing into Italy, a new world awaits: a sun-filled valley awash with deep green pines. I think about Tania Rabinowitz, one of the little girls I wrote about in my book. She spent the war hiding in the Polish woods with her family, and she was still just 9 years old when the Bricha led them over the Brenner Pass. When I interviewed her more than seven decades later, she clearly remembered how it felt to reach their destination in Italy and how one of the Bricha guides told her, “You’re free now.”
My hiking poles soon become like crutches as my knees bear the brunt of the uneven path. As I contemplate throwing my heavy pack down the mountain, I think about Rabinowitz’s father, Morris, who felt the same temptation. His sack contained all that was left of the lives his family had before the war. Morris did not throw down his bag. I have nothing so precious in mine, but I keep going.
By the time we reach Kasern in South Tyrol, it’s after 6 p.m. There’s a generous buffet and a lot of sweaty, happy faces. Deborah Protter from Australia grabs my hands and happily cries, “You did it!” The younger hikers convene in small groups, pull off their boots and settle in shady spots. There are speeches and music, and people raise a glass to the dual anniversary—15 years for APC, and 75 since the Jewish refugees and guides were here in 1947.
When we clamber onto the last bus back to Krimml, the carefree young Austrians continue celebrating. It’s nearly 11 p.m. and finally dark when we pull into Krimml’s town center. The shower and bed waiting for me at my hotel are most welcome.
The Bricha guides had no bus to take them home. Once their charges were safely in the hands of the team waiting in Italy, they turned around and walked back down the pass. Later that week, they would do the whole operation once or twice again.
There are reckonings and healings on the Krimml trail. For me, it was a chance to feel closer to the family from my book, which included the beloved wife of my childhood rabbi. For weeks afterwards, I relished the lingering pain from that downward climb in a way that reminded me of the Passover Seder rituals: We dip vegetables in salt water to taste the tears of our ancestors in Egypt; we eat bitter herbs as a gesture to the bitterness of being slaves. Following the path Holocaust survivors traveled out of Europe seemed like something that should hurt, and I liked to think my physical discomfort honored them.
For Lily Protter, it was the memory of her grandfather Bernard that helped her push through. “Opa did this,” she would repeat throughout the day.
For other travelers, the journey was a chance to reconcile inherited feelings of complicity. Recalling her parents’ silence about the war years, Manger-Scheller told me, “I felt responsible. Typical for children to think they are responsible for our parents’ silence.”
But for families like Moshe Frumin’s, the crossing fulfills a different need. I met with him at a large wooden table outside an inn in Maria Alm, a few miles from the former site of Givat Avoda. The spire of St. Mary’s church was on full view against the mountain range. Frumin had his two daughters with him: Inbal Gildin and Einat Shoshani, and Einat’s husband, Guy. Einat and Guy have a farm in Israel where they grow cherry tomatoes and pineapples. Inbal, like her father, is an artist.
Frumin’s sculptures are in collections from Jerusalem to Australia. One, called Mother Protects, honors Yehudit and the close call they shared in the haystack. His sculpture at the former site of Givat Avoda features King David’s harp, an important Jewish symbol. Frumin, whose own instrument was taken from his hands in 1947, calls the harp a symbol of “reconciliation and healing.”
Frumin spoke quietly as he described the German bombs that fell in his backyard in Poland in 1939 and the mysteries surrounding his father’s death. It was only when he was asked about Yehudit that his jawline stiffened and his eyes reddened. He said simply, “She was a good mother.”
Inbal spoke about her grandmother, who lived a full life in Israel. “She was a joyful person,” Inbal said. “Hard-working.” When she was with her grandmother, Inbal told me, there was “only happiness.”
Frumin added, “There was no Holocaust in our house.” It would be easy to assume, as I did in that moment, that Frumin, like Bernard Protter, avoided talking about the past while his children were growing up. But his daughters clarified: Far from keeping his memories hidden, their father shared his stories in such a way that they grew up thinking of those experiences as fantastic adventures. Inbal started seeing things differently only after her own twin sons turned 6, the age her father had been in the displaced persons camp. “It’s so hard to imagine. It’s impossible,” she told me. “That was the time that I realized that it wasn’t just adventurous. It was … dangerous. It was heartbreaking.”
“I was a child without a childhood,” Frumin agreed. But again, Inbal shared her own interpretation: His inner child—or rather, the child he wasn’t able to be—was reborn once he became a father. “I feel as his daughter that he stayed 6½ years old,” she said. “He is a child in his soul.”
At this, Frumin smiled. It was sweet and light, the smile of a man who has had a happy life. There might be pain in those memories of haystacks and stolen mandolins, but sitting at a table with his loving children, the nearby mountains were part of a story in which his family—however much they struggled—ultimately prevailed. For him, this place marks the spot where a better life was about to begin.