Book review - Trieste

Dasa Drndic’s vast, sprawling, magisterial work begins during the First World War and ends in July 2006.

At the heart of the novel are the experiences of Haya Tedeschi and that of her Catholicized Jewish family during the Second World War.  Now an elderly woman, Haya sits alone in a rocking chair. She is waiting, as she has done for sixty-two years, to be reunited with her son. As she waits, she sifts through the contents of a basket at her feet. It contains letters and newspaper cuttings, posters and photographs of movie stars, old programmes, tickets and photographs of her family now yellowing with age.  Haya’s story is just one of many “about encounters, about the traces preserved of human contact” alluded to in this brilliant work of documentary fiction.

Haya was born in Gorizia (also known Görz, Goritz and Gorica), situated between Italy and Slovenia, and her story is inextricably entwined with this small town’s own history, its shifting borders and transient population.  Haya’s own family travel – they are initially displaced by the Great War. Later, in the 1930s, they move - to find work or to escape persecution - to nearby Trieste, Naples, Valona in Albania and finally Milan.

As a young woman, Haya returns to Gorizia, now part of the new German province, Adriatisches Kustenland, where she has an affair with an SS officer and gives birth to a son, Antonio. When just a few months old, Antonio is snatched from his pram and ends up a victim of the notorious Lebensborn programme. As Haya later learns, with the help of the International Red Cross, he had been sent to an orphanage to be ‘adopted’ by ‘racially pure’ German parents.

Interspersed through the novel, sometimes detracting from, sometimes adding to the main narrative, are lengthy asides, transcripts from the Nuremberg Trials, the names of 9000 Jews who were either deported from Italy or died there between 1943 and 1945, the brief biographies of SS members, snatches of song and words of poetry. This makes it a challenging read but, ultimately, a rewarding one.

Haya’s main failing, like so many at the time, is to ignore what is going on around her. Her family lives “in the illusion of ignorance. Those who know what is happening do not speak. Those who don’t know ask no questions…the Tedeschi family don’t ask so there is nothing for them to find out, so there is no reason for their getting unduly upset.” When they can no longer ignore what is happening they act as a means of survival: “The Tedeschi family are a civilian family, bystanders who keep their mouths shut, but when they do speak, they sign up to fascism.”

It is only when Haya begins the long search to find her son that she begins to piece together the atrocities that were happening on her doorstep, the concentration camp in Trieste, and the terrible culpability of her German lover, Kurt Franz. “Haya deciphers her past. She builds a file of her past.” Drndic also rails against the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church and the Swiss who allowed the sealed freight trains transporting Jews to death camps to pass through their country.

The last part of this phenomenal book, lucidly translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac, is dedicated to the voice of Haya’s son, now a middle-aged man, trying to make sense and come to terms with what it means to have been fathered by a mass murderer and war criminal. “Hans, what do the children of murderers look like? some of my kind ask me. Like us, I tell them, they look like us.”

Orignally published by Tribune magazine