Gargellen, Austria. A village on the foot of the Alps in the Montafon region of Vorarlberg sandwiched between the Swiss and German borders.
Snow-dusted mountain peaks towering of green countryside, picturesque Medieval towns, and quiet streams rumbling by along hiking footpaths. These are the views one might expect of such a place. But as you might imagine, this was not a place you’d want to be 80 years ago. If you were Jewish, you wanted to be in neutral Switzerland. That’s where the Juen family came in. Friedrich Juen, a Gargellen local and storyteller, explains.
“My grandfather and great uncle were poachers before smugglers. At first, they took advantage of the bad times to transport goods. Then in the Second World War, they smuggled people. Refugees, well-known Jewish writers and actors who would dare to say anything were prosecuted.”
Today, Friedrich leads what he calls ’theatrical hikes’ around the Austrian Alps using routes his family took to smuggle refugees, telling stories along the way. But in order to smuggle refugees, they needed the right conditions.
“Not with this weather, nice weather, but rather truly terrible weather with fog in the night. Perhaps even rain. You needed bad enough weather so customs would get fed up and decide that nobody would come that day and leave the customs station. The worse the weather, the better it was for smuggling.”
Of course, taking on such a task put Friedrich’s great-uncle, Meinrad Juen, in danger himself.
“He was arrested but managed to escape and hide in St. Gallenkirch for two-and-a-half-years. He hid among neighbors, but not somewhere in the Alps in a cave or in a forest. He hid in the middle of the village where nobody would’ve expected.”
Friedrich first learned about his family’s smuggling tradition from his father, but the story is well-known around Gargellen.
“You could go to almost every house in St. Gallenkirch and find someone who could say something about Meinrad. He was something of a legend. A rebel. A Robin Hood of the Alps, one could say.”
Given his family’s connection to helping refugees, it’s important for Friedrich not only to reflect on what his family did but to connect the stories from those times with the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe.
“Some people get brought to tears. They’re touched because they might have had a refugee story in their family.”
When visitors are able to reflect on their own history as refugees or meet someone with that experience, it makes it easier to empathize with the millions fleeing violence and persecution today.
“And of course this topic is incredibly relevant because there are flows of refugees across Europe. It’s not just a story from the past. It’s today’s story as well. There are people persecuting people. In the Second World War, Jews were the ones being persecuted. Today they’re from somewhere like Pakistan or Iraq. When someone’s being persecuted, they have to flee and find a new home.”