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February 17, 2012 10:01 pm
Trieste, by Dasa Drndic, translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac, Maclehose Press, RRP £20, 358 pages
This is a quite appallingly painful book. It begins in 2006, with an old lady in the Italian town of Gorizia, near Trieste. Haya Tedeschi is sitting in a rocking chair with a red basket beside her, full of photographs, letters and diaries – evidence of multifarious human lives. Her intelligent mind is full of memories. And gradually, as these memories unfold, the horrors inflicted by the Nazis, the second world war, the massacres of countless Jews and others, comes before us. Except that they are not countless. One of the truly uncomfortable things about the many deaths in this book is that they are itemised (in an extraordinary 40-page section, Dasa Drndic lists the 9,000 names of the Jews who were deported from Italy between 1943 and 1945). Although this is fiction, it is also a deeply researched historical documentary.
Haya’s life story is woven artfully into a broader tale of the twentieth century’s atrocities. The book begins gently, introducing us to the archiepiscopal see of Gorizia in a manner reminiscent of WG Sebald, with smudgy old photographs and historical digressions. This background story soon becomes disturbing. In one paragraph early on, we are told that during the first world war, in this area alone – the borders of Italy and Austro-Hungary – nearly 2m people were killed and 5m wounded.
Haya, we discover, was born into an assimilated Jewish family in 1923. Because of the rise of fascism and Nazism, the family move around a lot, keeping their Jewish origins low profile. (One side of the family even accepted Catholic baptism.) They find work in Albania, Milan, Gorizia and Trieste. When the war comes, Haya finds herself working in a tobacconist’s shop in Gorizia. A handsome young man comes into the shop one day, they fall in love, and have a child.
Haya’s story only emerges piece by piece as Drndic tells the wider story of what is happening in the region. Even those who have read many Holocaust books will find new details here that shock and horrify. One such detail is that the Germans persuaded the Swiss to allow the cattle-trucks, containing Jews and others, to be transported to the death camps from the Adriatic coast through supposedly neutral Switzerland. The Swiss Red Cross insisted on the right to offer the people in the trucks coffee and refreshments – but no one seemed to have thought of releasing them.
One of the many brilliant things about Drndic’s narrative method is that although you think that you must have read the worst of the story, there is yet more horror to come. Haya’s German boyfriend, Kurt Franz, who deserts her when she has her baby, leaves behind a photograph of himself and his dog taken at his place of work – Treblinka. Kurt, a real-life SS Untersturmführer, did not merely work at Treblinka. He was one of the worst – responsible for killing Sigmund Freud’s sister, he enjoyed shooting babies that other guards threw in the air, and watching his huge dog Barry tear off the genitals of live prisoners.
Meanwhile, in Gorizia, someone steals Haya’s baby, Antonio. The book, we learn towards the end, is narrated by the child, now in his sixties. As well as all the victims of the Holocaust, and those wounded and killed in battle, we come across the bastard children of SS officers – such as Antonio – reared in the crazy Lebensborn homes set up by Heinrich Himmler to preserve the purity of the Teutonic race. We also encounter the hideous behaviour of the Catholic Church. After the war, Pope Pius XII decreed that Jewish children who had been baptised to avoid massacre should not be returned to their Jewish parents, since their salvation as baptised Catholics was more important than the heartbreak of their families. Antonio was stolen by the kindly old priest who baptised him and handed over to the SS for adoption. Brought up by Catholic Austrians to believe he is called Hans, he boils with rage against the Germans and Austrians who have tried to curtain the past in silence, against the criminals in the death camps themselves and against the Church.
Trieste recalls that great essay by Simone Weil on the capacity of war to reduce human beings to things. It contains no consolation, no happy resolutions, no hope. It makes you groan with despair, and you feel yourself going mad as you read it. I seldom read any book that made me more achingly unhappy. It is a masterpiece.
AN Wilson is author of ‘Dante in Love’ (Atlantic)
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