EDITORS NOTE: I wrote this a few months back and then put it to one side. I’ve kept it in the same voice I wrote it in originally, when I was just back from the Risiera di San Sabba concentration camp in Trieste. It is not a pleasant topic and may well be upsetting, so please do bear that in mind if you’d rather not read on.
This past week, I took advantage of a long weekend to finally get some travelling in. My target was Trieste, a city I’ve wanted to visit ever since I picked up Jan Morris’ superb book on the city, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere (which I wrote about here). In her book, Morris wrote about the Risiera di San Sabba, which was the site of the only death camp on Italian soil. There was nothing I wanted to do less on my first weekend away from Padua than visit a WW2 concentration camp, but I believe in the importance of memory, and keeping memory alive, so I would have felt like a hypocrite had I chosen not to go simply because it was unpleasant or inconvenient on a bright and breezy day.
There was another reason I didn’t want to visit, and it has to do with stereotypes. When I was 14, my grandfather, who emigrated from Poland to Israel in 1933 and lost his entire family in the war, took me and my brother on a visit to Poland. The entire week was dedicated to Holocaust history. I left Poland swearing I would never be back, until such time as I had children who needed to know. To me, Poland has only ever been, and will only ever be, the country which took away my family. I know that’s unfair, that history is more nuanced than that, and that many Poles fought and died opposing the Nazis, and yet still, to me that is all I can see in Poland.
Italy is the polar opposite in that respect. Like so many giddy and naive western tourists, to me Italy has always been rolling hills, chianti, aperitivi, the Dolomites, the cradle of modern western civilisation and culture and the home of good food and beautiful cars. It was hard for me to reconcile that Italy with the one that allowed Mussolini into power, the one that allowed for the chain of events which would culminate in the conversion of a rice-husking facility into a death camp. This didn’t belong in my Italy, the Italy I fell in love with when I came here for my bar-mitzvah.
So I didn’t want to go, yet here I am, sitting on the bus, on my way across town to the Risiera. All I can think about is just how normal everything seems around me. I realise that Poland, my only previous face-to-face encounter with Holocaust history, is a distant and blurred memory from over a decade ago, locked away in a part of my brain where it can’t do any harm.
I get off the bus and head down a side-street into the industrial area. The Risiera sits at the bottom of a hill, so I see it from relatively far away. An ugly, featureless five-storey brown-brick building pocked with small windows, it looks identical to a thousand factories and warehouses on non-descript industrial areas across the UK. Across the valley from it, a row of identikit council estate apartment blocks face onto it. I wonder if the people in those buildings know what their neighbour is, what it was, and whether they even register it when they look out of the window, or whether it has just become part of the landscape. A hundred metres up the hill, Unione Triestina football club’s hulking Stadio Nereo Rocco dominates everything below. I have a vision of their fans, pouring out of the southern gates after a particularly tight match, arguing and gesticulating between themselves over this decision by the referee or that substitution by the manager. Do they catch themselves, stop for a moment, when they see the Risiera in front of them? Do they ever talk about it, about what happened there, touching distance from where they’re standing? All these thoughts are going through my head, and I haven’t even set foot inside yet. I know I’m just delaying the inevitable, distracting myself.
I don’t want to give a step-by-step guide to the site, now a museum, but there are two things that really hit me hard. The first is the smell; sickly, pungent… the smell of death. I don’t know why “death” would have a particular smell, or how one recognises it, and it’s also absurd to think that any odour would linger over 70 years later. I’m sure my mind is playing tricks on me, but it’s so overpowering, and the association so instantaneous.
The other thing is the crematorium, built right in the middle of the courtyard, a few steps away from the prisoners’ quarters. One report written by a survivor, which is now hanging up in the exhibition space, describes in chilling detail how they could hear the screams as the executions took place, and how they could then see the smoke rising up from the crematorium at night. When I read that, the smell from before overpowers me again, only now there is also an image to go alongside it. I don’t know how long I spent there, blinking in the bright, sunlit courtyard, then moving slowly from room to room, reconstructing the scenes. Finally, I leave, back the way I came, past the stadium, to the bus station, back into the centre of Trieste, away from the sickening smell and the hideous, hateful building.
Over 3,000 people, mostly partisans, are believed to have lost their lives at the Risiera di San Sabba, and many Italian Jews were brought here as a transit point on the way to Auschwitz. It is an ugly blot on Italy’s pristine landscape, a reminder that below the perfectly-manicured image Italy has a dark past. We should always remember that. Because the memory is important, and because if we don’t keep it alive, nobody else will do it for us.
If you liked this post, tell people about it, and help to keep the memory alive.
-The Wandering Jew-