When we finally arrived to Trieste we zipped right by the sea-facing Piazza dell’Unità di Italia, the round globed lamp posts, the Austrian architecture and the steep roads of Trieste’s town center. We followed the sea, looking as the charming buildings were slowly replaced with squat post-industrial apartments. They rose up one after the other with seemingly no space between them. The sea was blocked by cranes and freight ships in the industrial port. The port that wasn’t just for show. At this port ships came and went with goods, people worked and the ship fumes created low hanging clouds over the water.
We passed right by Trieste’s beautiful city center, its sidewalk tables and touristed streets because we weren’t looking for beauty, but history.
Few people realize that Trieste is more than just a beautiful port city. It’s more than the well-tended canals and much-loved spritz’s. Behind the beautiful facade is a loaded, painful history that dates to the head cornerstone. Trieste has long been fought over by various ruling parties. Its strategic position caused the city to oscillate continually between Italian, Slovenian, Austrian and even German rulers, not to mention the tribal wars between each nationality. The city’s scars run deepest, however, from the First and Second World Wars.
We headed to the outskirts of the city to see those scars with our own eyes. To bear witness. We went to the Risiera di San Sabba. Originally an old rice mill since 1898, in September 1943 the Risiera was taken over by the Nazis as a makeshift prison. Hostages, partisans, politicians and Jews were kept there before being deported directly into Germany or Poland. That is, until April 1944 when the rice mill’s ovens were turned back on in an act of desperation at the war’s impending end. Then it was no longer a prison, but a concentration camp to all effects and purposes.
It was the only concentration camp in all of Italy. It’s a camp that we don’t study in our history classes in America, actually, few Italians even know it exists. This part was left out of the history books, out of the national spotlight, the novels, the memorials. But today the monument still stands.
On first glance, the Risiera is simply an open, empty courtyard surrounded by tall brick walls. Particular, but not sinister. Further exploration and notes from our audio tour proved otherwise. A long wooden building built up against the brick wall was divided into three different spaces. Once used as workshops to shift and clean the rice, the rooms were easily transformed into horrid prisons.
The first room was empty. It was used as a torture and interrogation chamber, though they also began storing items stolen from the prisoners there, including thousands of ID’s. The doors and walls as far up as a man can stand were once covered in graffiti from its detainees. Those writings have since faded, but some have been recorded and reprinted in the monuments attached museum. The second room was filled by 17 micro-cells lined up one attached to the other. Some had small round face holes on the doors, others nothing. Wooden planks were inserted as beds in a space without enough room to stand. Up to six prisoners were held in each one until their execution, some for days, some even for weeks.
The following room was wide, with ample space above and around us. Huge wooden beams stood from floor to the ceiling, a distance four stories high. Once there were actually four stories, but today all that remains are the vertical support beams and the horizontal beams that once held the rickety wooden floor, leaving what looks like enormous crosses to tower over the dim room. This space, in fact, is called the Sala delle Croci or Room of the Crosses.
Of course there’s no shortage of atrocities from the war. What surprised me most, was how this particular atrocity went nearly unknown at the time, and is still largely unknown now. While Auschwitz and Dachau are names known throughout the world, the Risiera di San Sabba in Trieste is barely known by Italians themselves.
Before we visited we discussed at length the general merits and demerits of visiting a concentration camp. None of us had ever been to one before and we didn’t want to turn a historic hell on earth into a tourist center. Ultimately we decided to go not only on the advice of a friend, but to see for ourselves what happened in the industrial periphery of Trieste, on Italian land, in our own history, and I’m happy we did. The monument isn’t set up as a tourist trap, it’s set up as a memorial. It’s here to remind us. There was no entrance fee, just a 2 euro fee for the audio guide, something quite necessary as otherwise there are no signs or explanations throughout the structure.
The most difficult reality to face while there, however, was the crematorium. Today all that stands are the outlines of the small building that served as the Nazi’s crematorium while there. Though originally designed as a wide oven to dry the rice grains, as the war winded down and the Nazi’s began to panic, they ordered mass executions on site of what were once prisoners destined for a true (read: bigger, more secluded with easier ways to kill people) concentration camp further afield. The prisoners were killed with gas, beatings or starvation. Being just a few kilometers from the center of the city made things a bit difficult, however. Remember, people believed that this was simply a prison, not a concentration camp. So the SS officers in charge of the Risiera held troop parades and practices. They played music over the loud speaker to drown out the victims’ cries, while the citizens of Trieste did the best they could to continue life during a horrendous war, with no way to know what horrors were happening on their doorstep.
In April of 1945 the Nazi’s trying to escape exploded the crematorium to eliminate any proof of their crimes. Today all that remains is the steel outline of the terrible building. Three to five thousand people were killed during the short time the Risiera served as a concentration camp, but thousands and thousands more passed through as prisoners, only to be moved to places even less secure.
A visitor can’t escape Trieste’s long, sad history – it runs through the city itself – and though difficult to witness, by facing the history head on with a visit to a place like the Risiera di San Sabba, we returned to the beautiful city center with a stronger understanding of Italy, WWII, and of course, Trieste herself.