Trieste: A Novel
Trieste: A Novelby Dasa Drndic. Translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac. (Mariner Books, 320 pp. $15.99 paper)
Few cities have had as rich and varied a history as Trieste, whose borders have been defined and redefined countless times. Now, in a work of fiction brimming with shock and outrage, the impressive Croatian writer Dasa Drndic takes us through the well-documented but little-known decimation of the Jewish community beginning in 1938, when the city had the third-largest Jewish population in Italy.
Drndic then fast-forwards to July 2006. Haya Tedeschi, 83, a retired math teacher, is sitting in a rocking chair in her home in Gorizia, on the border of Italy and Slovenia, near Trieste. She awaits the arrival of her son, Antonio, fathered by a young German soldier and stolen from her 62 years earlier as part of Himmler’s Lebensborn project, which aimed to establish a racially pure Germany. Before and during the war, many Jews in Italy were baptized (and buried) as Catholics, and Aryan soldiers sometimes fathered babies with a Jewish mother.
Haya was born to a Jewish family that converted to Catholicism and supported the fascists in Italy. Essentially a bystander to the Holocaust, Haya enjoyed movies while Jews and partisans were transported to concentration camps and attended concerts with her Nazi lover while families were torn apart.
The Holocaust came home to her when her infant son was stolen out of his stroller; he was given to another—“racially pure”—family.
From the red basket at Haya’s feet, Drndic writes, “she takes out her life and hangs it on the imaginary clothesline of reality.” In her basket there are letters, poems, photographs, postcards and newspaper clippings forming a collage of history; there are also transcripts from the Nuremberg trials and lists of Holocaust victims. Haya kept testimonies and interviews with second-generation Jews and eyewitness accounts of unimaginable atrocities in her city.
“I have arranged a multitude of lives,” she says, “a pile of the past, into an inscrutable, incoherent series of occurrences. I have dug up all the graves of imagination and longing. I have rummaged through a stored series of certainties without finding a trace of logic.”
Drndic pauses midway in the book to list in 44 pages the names of 9,000 Jews who were killed by the local Italian community.
“Behind every name there is a story,” Drndic writes. Convoys of camp inmates (“Cargo. They were cargo.”) are sent to Auschwitz and Treblinka. Then the author turns to San Sabba, a converted rice mill near Trieste that became the only concentration camp on Italian soil with a crematorium. To tie this together, Drndic unmasks Haya’s charming soldier-lover. A real historic figure, Kurt Franz was the sadistic officer overseeing the execution of Jews at Treblinka before being assigned to Trieste.
Even if you have seen the horrific pictures or read about the gruesome practices in the concentration camps, be prepared to read about even more ghastly deeds. Some of the punishments, tortures and killings are so revolting that a reader could be forgiven for taking a time-out as these unconscionable acts are spelled out.
Drndic was born in 1946 and went to school and taught in the United States and Canada. Translator Ellen Elias-Bursac deserves praise for the flawless English version, the force of this narrative, the clear presentation and the power of the language.
As Haya awaits her son, she wonders about, “the deep emptiness, which…spreads its putrid cloak in all directions to draw her in, her, the woman rocking, to swallow her, blanket her, swamp her, envelop her, ready her for the rubbish heap where the emptiness, her emptiness, is piling the corpses, already stiffened, of the past.”
The author invokes a number of leading writers as the story unwinds. However, one historian who is omitted, George Santayana, is best remembered for writing: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” and that is one of the underlying codas of the book. In the 20th century, wars erupted over and over again. “Despite the fact that history stubbornly repeats itself,” Haya says, “we are bad learners.”
For those who forget Santayana, Trieste should be a signpost for what could happen if the unspeakable forces of fascism were to be unleashed in the 21st century.