Trieste tells the story of the only concentration camp with a crematorium on Italian soil. It was built in the spring of 1944 at the Risiera di San Sabba, a former rice mill in a suburb of Trieste.
Trieste sat at the crossroads of Italian, German, Austro-Hungarian and Slavic cultures and was a richly multilingual and multicultural melting-pot. It is bitterly ironic that it became a site of Nazi mass murder.
The book is specifically about the Lebensborn programme, set up in 1935 by the SS leader Heinrich Himmler. The aim of Lebensborn was to “relocate” the children of widowed or unmarried “aryan” mothers to loyal Nazi families.
After the outbreak of war the Nazis used Lebensborn orphanages – often with the enthusiastic cooperation of the Catholic Church – to find new homes for the children.
In 1941 Himmler argued, “I think it entirely right that we are taking little children from Polish families. We are placing these children in special homes and schooling them because these are children with particularly robust racial characteristics.”
The Nazis packed the Lebensborn orphanages with 250,000 Polish children, 50,000 Ukrainian children, 50,000 from Baltic countries and 600 from Slovenia. In Germany itself 8,000 children passed through the Lebensborn programme and in Norway it was anything between 8,000 and 12,000.
Trieste is the specific story of a Jewish Italian mother looking for the son who was stolen from her by the Lebensborn programme.
Running through the book is the mantra that “Behind every name there is a story.” It is also about the need to rise above statistics and understand that each and every victim of fascism was a living, breathing human being.
As Trieste unfolds it encompasses such diverse figures as Tom Stoppard, a wartime refugee, Anni-Frid Lyngstad, formerly of ABBA and one of Norway’s Lebensborn children, and Gustav Schwarzenegger, Nazi Party member and father of Arnold.
In the centre of the book Drndic lists for 35 pages the names of the 9,000 Jews deported from Italy or killed in Italy between 1943 and 1945 including those murdered by the Nazis at Risiera di San Sabba. The rich biographical detail in the rest of the book gives the stark list of names a powerful poignancy.
What’s Trieste about? It’s a reminder of just how many Nazis, having participated in one of history’s most terrible crimes, died of old age after living comfortable post-war lives. It’s about the endemic amnesia post-war Western leaders developed towards the Holocaust. It’s a reminder of just what monoculturalism is, ultimately, really all about.
Trieste is published by Maclehose Press £18.99.
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