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In Italy too, lest we forget,
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This review is from: Trieste (Hardcover)
In this masterly blending of fact and fiction, Dasa Drndic has produced an extraordinary work, one recognised in the UK by the judges of The Independent Foreign Fiction 2012 awards.
So far as the historical record goes, the book is concerned with the rounding-up of around 9,000 Jews in German-occupied North-Eastern Italy, the area centred on Trieste, and their transport north to (mainly) Treblinka. When winter snow closed the Brenner Pass, the wagons went the long way round through supposedly neutral Switzerland. In addition, many captured partisans and anti-Fascists were taken to a converted rice-mill outside town and liquidated.
The book makes extensive use of archives, including transcripts from the Nuremberg Trials and the later trials of those involved in the many cruelties of Treblinka. The book is full of historical characters, not just leading Nazis but also junior officers and others running the camps, and `ordinary' witnesses bearing testimony. Dasa Drndic approaches her subject in oblique ways, using poetry and songs, interviews and documents, lists and photographs, to set up an almost Cubist design wherein the structure can only be viewed one part at a time and each from a different angle.
As for the 'story', the historical Kurt Franz`s career accelerates rapidly as the 1930s becomes the 1940s. In the 1930s he has been a cook at one of the euthanasia centres set up under `Aktion Reinhard', a programme whose purpose is the elimination of the physically and mentally disabled (as determined by the SS) in Southern and Eastern Poland. A change in policy has seen Franz transferred to the new death camps for Jews, first at Belzec, then at Treblinka, where having been promoted to his deputy by Christian Wirth, Franz has been made commander on Wirth's assassination by partisans. These camps are designed (unlike forced labour camps like Auschwitz-Birkenau) to gas as many Jews as possible within minutes of their arrival by railway.
The significance of this for `Trieste' is that when Kurt Franz comes into the (fictional) Catholicised Jew Haya Tedeschi's shop in Gorizia, not far from Italy's north-east border with what is today Slovenia, to her he is just a handsome German officer. But the baby son she conceives then vanishes, having been abducted for Himmler's `Lebensborn' programme aimed at producing a pool of Aryan `Ubermenschen'. The stolen children are lodged in a chain of orphanages across occupied Europe from where the blondest and bluest-eyed are given up for adoption. Now, six decades later, the start of the book sees Haya still waiting for her lost son to put in an appearance. As her aged mind melts to chocolate, as the author describes it, she riffles through the memories contained in a basketful of documents and photographs, and reflects on those far-off days.
The paperback edition acknowledges that large parts of the first third of the book are based on the real-life experiences of Fulvia Schiff (though she didn't have an affair with Kurt Franz, indeed she fled abroad for much of the war). The latter stages of the book describe, in a tour-de-force of imagining, the emotions that run through the mind of Haya Tedeschi's son, now aged 62, as he contemplates being re-united with his birth mother. These passages deal with the crises of identity undergone by those adopted under the `Lebensborn' programme who later, often very much later (if at all, and no thanks to the obstructions of the Catholic Church), discover they are not who they thought they were, and are in fact often the children of the murderers of their own people. For me this is the most affecting part of `Trieste', even more powerfully rendered than the better-known horrors of the camps.
Original and moving, Trieste is also beautifully translated and produced.