The Museum opened in 1993, the brainchild of Mario Stock, at that time president of the Jewish Community, and of Gianna, daughter of Carlo and Vera Wagner, and her husband, Claudio de Polo Saibanti. The set-up was devised by the architect Ennio Cervi, with the scholarly advice of Luisa Crusvar, Silvio Cusin, Ariel Haddad and Livio Vasieri.
The perfect location was found: a building of particular historical significance to the Community, one which has been declared a site of national interest.
From the end of the eighteenth century to the late nineteenth century, Via del Monte 5-7 had been the Jewish hospital. From the beginning of the twentieth century it was used to host the thousands of refugees fleeing Tsarist anti-Semitism and, later, Nazism. These refugees left from the port of Trieste to travel to British Palestine or the Americas. The building also housed the Jewish Agency, which assisted Jewish emigrants leaving for Eretz Israel. In recognition of its role during the two World Wars, the city has earned the epithet of Shaar Zion, Gateway to Zion.
In 2014–15, the Jewish Community of Trieste undertook a complete rearrangement of the permanent exhibition. The new museum itinerary and texts were devised by Annalisa Di Fant, under the supervision of Tullia Catalan and with the assistance of the scientific committee, namely Stefano Fattorini, Ariel Haddad, Mauro Tabor and Livio Vasieri.
There were two main objectives: to appreciate the Museum’s wealth of offerings, which in terms of both quality and quantity are among the most important in Italy and which represent a unique testimony of Jewish life in Friuli Venezia Giulia; to make the exhibition as accessible as possible for visitors from Italy and further afield – thanks to English versions of all materials – with the particular aim of engaging school groups.
On 14 September 2014, to mark the European Day of Jewish Culture, the first restored part of the Museum was inaugurated: the section dedicated to culture, which is located on the first floor of Via del Monte 7, where the conference space can also be found. The project was managed by Massimiliano Schiozzi and Cristina Vendramin (Comunicarte, Trieste).
On 29 March 2015 the restoration was completed, and the ground floor spaces, accessible from Via del Monte 5, were opened, with sections dedicated to the spirituality, traditions and history of the Jewish Community of Trieste, the Holocaust, and the links with Eretz Israel. The project was managed by Giovanni Damiani and Matteo Bartoli (Fresco, Trieste).
In 2017 there was a further expansion: the second floor of Via del Monte 7 was transformed into a space for temporary exhibitions. This project was carried out by Giovanni Damiani.
THE MUSEUM TODAY
Nowadays the Museum not only offers the public a vast permanent display, but also temporary exhibitions which are organised in collaboration with the Humanities Department of the University of Trieste, or thanks to loans from other institutions.
The conference space on the first floor of Via del Monte 7, which accommodates up to 80 people, hosts meetings, book launches, film and documentary viewings, conferences, training courses and encounters with student groups.
The Museum is particularly dedicated to its links with schools: from teacher training, and the annual organisation of refresher courses, to the warm welcome we extent to school groups of every level.
The wealth of items exhibited in the Museum draws on the Jewish Community of Trieste’s vast collection of Judaica, with ceremonial objects collected following the dismantling of the four ancient Triestine Synagogues (also called Schole).
The collections include silverware (of particular significance are the eighteenth-century pieces made in Venice), textiles, documents and books which offer an insight into Jewish life on both a community level and a family level. The names of the ancient owners and donors of these objects – the oldest of which, an ornamental plaque engraved with gothic characters, dates back to 1593 – bring back to life the great Jewish families of Trieste, who played a vital role in the city’s history.
The Museum also holds several highly important historical documents, such as a pawn book from the mid-1600s and the sovereign licenses granted in 1771 by the Empress Maria Theresa of Habsburg.
There is also documentation on the history and memory of the Triestine Jews deported to concentration camps during the Holocaust. The museum houses a moving collection of personal objects stolen by the Nazis. Discovered by Allied soldiers inside jute sacks, they were sent to Rome where they remained forgotten for decades in a basement of the Ministry of the Treasury. In 2000 they were returned to the Jewish Community of Trieste, which decided to display them in the Museum and to donate a small but significant selection to the civic museum of the Risiera di San Sabba and to the Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem.
The museum is enriched with many multimedia components and is presented fully in two languages: Italian and English.
The section dedicated to religion is located in the small “Polish” synagogue, which is partially preserved in its original set-up, including the Aron HaKodesh (the holy ark) on the eastern wall, the bimah (lectern) and the benches that were brought here after the demolition of the last synagogue in the Ghetto. The ceiling reveals part of the ancient wooden beams in the roof, from which several Ner Tamid (eternal light) and Shabbat lamps hang. In this room, which also tells us the story of how the three pillars of the Community – worship, education and charity – were managed in the 1700s and 1800s, there is a collection of ritual silverware, several Parokhot (Torah Ark curtains), including the example in green velvet with golden embroidery donated by Rabbi Itzhack Guetta to Schola n. 3, and objects of family use. The ceremonial silverware, which was gathered following the dismantling of the four ancient Triestine synagogues, is of particular merit. It includes various ornaments for the Torah scroll, including Atarot (crowns), Rimmonim (pinnacles) and Tassim (ornamental plaques) made in Venice, Ancona and Trieste, mainly dating from the early 1700s to the late 1800s. Amongst these examples is a particularly precious piece, a plaque from 5353 (1593), which is one of the oldest in existence today.
In the other rooms on the ground floor visitors can follow the historical evolution of the Jewish Community of Trieste from its medieval origins until after the Second World War, accompanied with texts and documents, which range from a page from a seventeenth-century pawn book to the sovereign licenses granted in 1771 by Empress Maria Theresa of Habsburg, to the moving collection of personal objects stolen by the Nazis during the occupation from the Jews sent to the extermination camps.
Two information boards at the start of the exhibition offer a concise overview for those who do not have the time to read every single caption.
Passing from the ground floor to the first floor, on the stairwell there are symbolic images of the Community’s rebirth after the Second World War, the history of the building and the relationship with Eretz Israel.
The section dedicated to culture offers a rich and detailed insight into a number of individuals – both famous and less well-known – living in Trieste, from those alive at the end of the eighteenth century, to the more recent “eclectics” active in the twentieth century.
Accessible from the first floor, on the external terrace there is also a small lapidary garden, which displays fragments of the tombstones from the ancient Cemetery and a few remains from the Levi house in the Ghetto, as well as two eighteenth-century tubs, one of which was used for the ritual immersion of women, and the other for washing the dead.
Over the years the Museum has amassed a vast library, thanks to the collections of books donated by Professors Giovanni Miccoli and Riccardo Guala Duca, and by members or supporters of the Community, who have donated their own private libraries.
The library is not currently open to the public, but by contacting the Museum, it is possible to access the library to carry out research on Jewish topics, anti-Semitism, contemporary history and sociology.