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05 April 2012

Battling Euphemisms

Guglielmo Oberdan was an Italian irredentist who attempted to kill Austrian Emperor Francis Joseph on his visit to Trieste for the 500th anniversary of the city under the Habsburg kingdom. He failed, but two innocents died, thus he was executed in the central square that carries his name. Just before the execution he cried 'Viva l'Italia!' (Long Live Italy!) and became a martyr of Italian Unification.

Pino Robusti wasn't a partisan but he was killed all the same, arrested and later burnt in the crematory facility down under. He was 22 and was waiting for his girlfriend Laura in Oberdan Square on a sunny Spring day of 1945. They never met because the moment the girl stepped off the streetcar, police arrested the guy. He wasn't working and the fact seemed strange, even if he legally was on a day off from forced slavery work at Todt Organisation. He had to be working and was killed because of that.  

Laura never saw him again. She only got a letter from him, one of the most innocent, powerful, true love letters ever written. 

"It feels weird that, while writing to you, in a few hours I'll be shoot to death. I feel calm, barely glad. The only thing that hurts is I couldn't enjoy you as I wanted to, the only and most desired reward of my youth years (...) Goodbye, my adored Laura, I'm going towards the unknown, the glory and the abyss. Be strong, generous, inflexible. Goodbye. Pino."
From his real letter exposed at the Risiera Museum

Cantico dei Cantici sculpture in Oberdan square

Marcello Mascherini probably had Pino and Laura in mind while creating this statue that was placed in the infamous square. It stands there, covered by Spring blooming trees, utterly slim and utterly tall, to commemorate the horrible events. You need to have a good eye to catch it, it easily camouflages with the pompuous renaissance style of the other buildings. And it's so so different from the usual sontuous dead people monuments 

You know, Trieste is a city that never ceases to fascinate me, because every building hides a fact, every statue means a legend and in every corner or street something happened. Its story is so complex and so full of obscure and obliterated chapters, that maybe it's a reason why people are so eager to populate bars and enjoy life. Because their past is full of tragic and complicated aspects.

Since I live here I can't separate the beauty of this place with its intricate history, so I had to visit THE place where Pino was killed. It takes you a long corridor to arrive, where footsteps echo makes the place even more sinister. Its walls are so high that even the blindest light fail to illuminate the way. It's the entrance to a national museum, which gives honour and respect to many victims today, but that was a gateway to hell for many people. It takes to the only death camp Nazi had in Italy.

Built in 1913 as a rice-husking facility (hence the former name that hides the shame, Risiera di San Sabba), during the Nazi occupation it became an efficient prison where to keep political dissidents of the regime and Jewish people, who were sorted out to be deported to Auschwitz. The premise also had crematory facilities. It's where Pino was imprisoned and burnt. It's the peculiar killing camp of ideas, not necessarily tied to the madness of Nazi racial doctrine.

The only photo I dared to take, from the cells room.

There never were official statistics about the number of people exterminated here (though it's calculated around 5000 victims). Germans were efficient in destroying records and Post-War Italy did very little to aknowledge and even commemorate the events. The Risiera was declared National Monument only in 1965 and still today, complicity of the locals make it difficult for tourists to reach and even know about the place for those who are unaware. It's like they're doing their best to avoid involvment in the holocaust.

Which isn't true, because we had our part in the horrors instead. I hate recalling this, but we were a puppet state of Nazi Germany. Benito Mussolini was largely dependant on them to maintain control, especially in areas like Friuli Venezia Giulia were partisans were very active and Slovene irredentism was causing trouble since the brutal italinisation of Istria started when fascism started to spread.

The dependance became even more inevitable when German Army liberated Mussolini, an action which helped him to build The Salo Republic. And as a sign of gratitude, territories that once belonged to Austria were given to Germany, so Trieste, Udine and Fiume, with their hinterlands, were abandoned to their destiny. And while Marshall Badoglio secretly began negotiations with the Alley to let Italy capitulate, we persecuted Jews and repressed partisans. And once these large portions of land were under the Nazi control, they immediately started up a detention and death camp, using an abandoned rice facility here in Trieste.

I was silent and watchful while I visited THE place. I felt like I could be caught any moment. When I arrived near the perimeter where the furnace was, I was attracted by the contrast that the red brick of the structure creates with the cobalt sky. I kept looking up, thinking of those swalloed bodies, people on their back who watched the sky for their very last time. I wanted to scream. I turned instinctively to the 'death chamber' instead. It's spacious and wide. There was enough room to cry.

Next, one after the other, the tiny cells with uncomfortable wooden bunk beds. Reluctantly, I forced myself to go. There are bars on the window. I snapped the only picture of my visit, an overview of the courtyard from behind the bars, the view that prisoners enjoyed during the one hour of exercise per day granted to them. I did
not know what else to photograph to document the terror. The writings on the humid walls are enough to testify the shame. There's something horrible in these personal effigy's tombstones.

When I realized there was nothing more for me to witness, I took out my notebook and started to take note of all the possible sentences to document. The exhibit hall includes documents, letters, drawings, photos but, most of all, includes the smell of death. That's where I copied extracts of Pino's letter to Laura. I was alone and I felt the exact shivering terror of when I'm alone in empty churches. The documents distracted me. The thought of what to witness and then write about my visit kept me sane. 

"Goodbye Mom! Goodbye sisters! I'll be shoot tomorrow." Chilling like that. 

Roberto Benigni did a fantastic job in presenting a vision of the Italian humanity during the Holocaust experience, away from the violence perpetrated by others. His film Life is Beautiful perpetuated a stereotype of good Italians compared to violece used by others, and this costed him the claim to compromise historical horror, giving a feeling of Italian extraneity to the fact. To many it sounded like his sentimental optimism protects us, just like the Risiera signs. With all my respect and admiration for Benigni, I find it difficult to understand why he should chose such a theme for his humour. The holocaust was a tragedy without equals and I'm with those who find not nice at all the way how Guido was trying to protect his child from such atrocities.

All you need is a visit to the Risiera and you'll realize how we had our dose of racism too. There were anti-semitic laws in Italy, promulgated in 1938. We had our 'No dogs or Jewes allowed' discriminatory signs and Mussolini was guilty of crimes. The fact many Italian Jews survived the Holocaust helped us  avoid censure for involvment in the persecutions, yet fascist policies and attitudes had a devastating effect on Jews community here. In the case of Trieste, by May 1945 only 10% of the city's prewar Jewish population remained there.

The euphemism of the Risiera isn't the only tragic event we tried to obliterate. When Italy surrended, Tito was doing his best to anticipate the alleys and take possess of the territory. New Zealanders arrived and couldn't help much. Yugoslavs took revenge on Fascists, who had largely imposed brutal italianisation of Yugoslav population in the new territories annexed to Italy after the Absburgic end of kingdom, starting a massacre through foibes and then repressing and humiliating Italians in Istria and Dalmatia, one of the most terrible events of our history.

In those 60 days of Yugoslav occupation it's calculated that many people died, buried still alive and still we obliterated the facts. No single history book mentions about it. We had to wait for 60 years and a brave politician who was trying to run for prime minter to finally commemorate the victims. Isn't this a shame? Primo Levi said that "if we die silently like our enemies want, the world will never know what the man was and is still capable of is capable of." So why being silent?

The least I can do is being firm in my principles and scream the truth from this blog. So, when you come to Trieste, plan a visit to the lager in San Sabba. And remember, it's called Risiera (rice-facility). Ask locals once in the area, because signs don't help. Good luck.

I started this article a few months ago but found a way to finish it only a few days ago, inspired by the statue i photographed in Piazza Oberdan. Then I waited until today to post it, because Pino was killed on April 5 and I wanted to pay a tribute to him. I hope you appreciate.

1 comment:

  1. A wonderful tribute to the innocent victims.


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