Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Trieste WWII. Examine Bystanders, Why, How, Who. Dasa Drndic.

Trieste, the Novel: Author, Dasa Drndic.
Examine the wartime institutional and individual Bystander.

Now that Trieste is firmly part of Italy, its variegated past of conqueror after conqueror dims for many.  It is the larger places that retain Big-Screen appeal. Trieste still offers, however, an important vantage point on violence in the 20th and 21st Centuries.  Atrocities and abuses of power recur globally.  What acts and responses mitigated the horror; what exacerbated it. What are the commonalities of humans subjected to and required to react, in order to live. Read Trieste, by Dasa Drndic, published in Croatian in 2007, now in English. See review at Her focus is on the Bystander. There are always bystanders.  Who were they, as individuals, in Trieste.  Who refused to by-stand. What result?

 Behind every name of someone killed is a story.  Behind every name is an association with an institution, other people.  Find the Church as Bystander; The Red Cross as Bystander;
Individuals and groups look away, or are forced to.

  • Trieste. This Adriatic port city is now Italian, since WWII. Its legendary history echoes from Jason and the Argonauts, to Trojans, to domination by Empires of Rome and the Byzantine, Longobard and Frank "Barbarians", to the Habsburgs (Austria -- to escape control by Venice) and Napoleon, to the Byzantine Empire, and back to the Austro-Hungarians -- and now, Italy. It has been a perennial crossroads for trade and ideas and cultures. It is a microcosm of forces in WWII.

A.  Trieste's Institutional Bystanders

1.  The Red Cross as Bystander

Events in Trieste include the Red Cross organizing ladies' night-time soup-cup lines, to pass some nourishment to the hundreds locked in the cattle cars stopped briefly in Trieste on their way to the German extermination or labor caps. 

When the Brenner Pass over the Alps to Germany was blocked with snow, and use of a tunnel was required,  so the transport trains went by way of the St. Gotthard tunnel to ultimately arrive at Treblinka extermination camp in Poland, and others including Auschwitz, Mauthausen, and the transit camp ghetto at Theresienstadt.  The Red Cross made no objection, and even arranged for local ladies to join in passing soup at night, secretly, to the human cargo in the train cattle cars as they passed through Trieste. See Trieste at 124-131.

In summer and fall, the alps are far less menacing than in winter.  This view is at the Great Saint Bernard pass.

Examine the Swiss Red Cross. Did the organization facilitate passage of transports of Jews through Switzerland to extermination and labor camps in Germany and elsewhere.

The Gotthard pass and tunnel through the Alps now is upgraded and soon to be 35 miles long, trains hurtling at 150 mph, see  The completion date is anticipated to be 2016.  Update:  It is complete,

2.  The League of Nations as Bystander. 

The League of Nations was founded in 1919, after WWI.  The term "United Nations" was coined by President Roosevelt in 1942 when 26 nations pledged to oppose the Axis (Germany, and its allies including Italy) It replaced the largely ineffectual League of Nations. The United Nations itself, as we know it, was formed in 1945.  See

The League of Nations was hamstrung by politics, mutual distrust among nations, lak of will, lack of military or other power, see Talk, talk, talk. Trieste reflects the fatalism of the people there, does anyone make a difference, does anyone care, no.

3.  The Institutional Church as Bystander.

What interests did the Church, the Roman Catholic branch, have in fostering genocide in order to benefit its own ranks. Information is still being revealed, see

In Trieste,  Read of the priest, baptizing the child whose mother was Jewish, the father in the SS, what was reported, and what happened.  What patterns, under the rubric "saving their souls."  Lebensborn. Then consider the priests, and higher, standing by and merely conducting "conversions" as Orthodox Christians were executed, to save their souls, Croatia and elsewhere. 

  • Alojcize Stepinac, priest, then Bishop as of 1938, later Cardinal Stepinac, and even later beatified.  One view holds that he satisfied himself with converting Serbian Orthodox Christians to Roman Catholicism before their executions, and the record indeed is not strongly supportive of his actions in the face of the Ustashe, genocides, mass murder. Others say, beatify!  beatify! and the record will show that was done.

In Trieste, fact patterns are laid out, and the varying reactions also laid out. We get to know many of the people standing by, or opposing, with the consequences to each. As with any larger cultural institution faced with moral issues, and threats to institutional teaching power, there are vacillations, practicalities, all sorts of reasons for not acting in concert against Fascism, Nazism. See pp 30-36 in Trieste especially.  Read, The Catholic Church and the Holocaust 1930-1965, by Michael Phayer, Dickinson University, at Will the real Stepinac please stand up.

4.  Daily life. Who carried on as usual, as far as feasible, going to the movies, to the clubs. 

Trieste still draws those who want to enjoy life -- where else find kayakers downtown.  Visit Trieste and admire the kayaks in the revamped harbor area, old warehouses now fine offices to all appearances.

The other Trieste.  How can this have hosted the Holocaust?

For a view of kayakers in Trieste, see

Other fine buildings, from the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, line the waterfront.  Unpack history. Upend the hidden drawer bottoms, as Drndic does. Find ordinariness, origins, the daily amid the ongoing unthinkable catastrophe, so many just did not think. Is that us, facing other kinds of violence in our cultures.  And live the violence in the words of those caught in it, their testimony.

5.  Abuse of facilities used. The great hiding.  Why are these so downplayed now.

 Risiera de San Sabba is the rice mill complex turned prison, torture center, holding pen, outside Trieste. See

Our own tourist-y guidebooks on Trieste mentioned nothing of this Nazi past, especially at an area rice mill complex at San Sabba outside Trieste.  Its extensive buildings, housed death, torture, transit, imprisonment, with political and ramdom prisoners held and many forced on train transports to the more major death and concentration camps farther north. See photo gallery at
  • We customarily pay our respects by visiting the camps in countries we visit, but knew nothing of the San Sabba compound. Dan and I have been to Mauthausen, Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen, Jasenovac, Buchenwald, andI had earlier been to Dachau. But we mostly saw old Rome in Trieste, and had known only of generalized killings and bodies hurled down ravines in wartime.  On full view were all the merry kayaks and no trace of mass death in Trieste. See

6.  Echoing Theme of Bystanders.

One premise of Trieste, the novel, is this: 

In violence, people sort themselves, where they are not otherwise forced,  into roles of proponents, actors, promoters; opponents, resistance; and indeed bystanders.  Bystanders get ignored, but are as much a part of the rolling boulder of atrocity and its comprehensiveness, its speed, as are the hitters and the hit. Yet, can we expect them, us, to join the resistance the active antagonists, and perhaps then die, or our families die? 
  • The number of bystanders looking away in brutal wartime, or somehow able to escape notice as they try to survive, may be more than the numbers of participants - soldiers, partisan opposition, military brass and the like.  
  • Yet bystanders do not so easily escape. They, many, carry unpredictable scars and follow an altered trajectory, some haunted, others hoping for closure.
  • Is self-sacrifice to counter an immediate violent event more moral, or is endurance so that the family can survive.
  • This is a documentary form book, a memorial, and how else to convey the enormity of that era where history is not taught in schools so as to preserve it.
7.  The Croatian connection. This novel was written in Croatian, see

Croatia. With Slovenia, the Istrian Peninsula, and the former Yugoslavia.  This book about bystanding, Trieste, is appropriately originally in Croatian because Croatia is no more interested in preserving its past than are other overrun countries.
  • Even in Croatia, the slaughter not only of Jews but Orthodox Christians, and Roma, and the mentally challenged, and the weak, is shoved under the rug. Fascists, Nazis, what? See Jasenovac, the camp in Croatia where its "artifacts" allegedly have been sent to the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. 
  • Go to Washington DC to see the relics of Jasenovac, however, and find nothing.
  • And at Jasenovac itself, there is left only a park and some raised grave acreage, an old train with bullet holes (from when?),and a now-shabby shell of a non-museum, a walkway and a dry memorial where water once gave life.  Even Croatians want to be bystanders, as does the rest of the world forgetting what happened. See

Jasenovac, Prison Camp, Extermination Camp WWII, Croatia.  Relics sent to Washington, and from there, disappeared?

 From Croatia, too, comes the convoluted revisionism of the legacy of Bishop Stepinac, soon made Cardinal Stepinac, above.


As anywhere where violence percolates against some, those not immediately targeted, or not in the targeted category, choose not to see.  Some see, but turn away, even deny, trivialize, and go to the movies beside the victors, even loving them. The Occupation. A few oppose, even to death.  What is in their DNA, that would, we secretly think, may not be in ours, focused on our own survival, not on ethics, principles, humanity beyond ourselves.

Trieste is a new setting for this kind of discussion.

Bystanders all around. Take out the book, return it with a comment that it was well worth reading, and hear another local librarian over there saying, I am so sick of these holocaust books. Some do turn away at the lists of the dead, their stories, testimonials to matters long interred, it is hoped. No. Start at the beginning and begin to read, and without skimming, this memorial, a documentary, a novel of people, institutions. And the idea of Bystanders. Who has the mirror?

The Bystander. Behind the name of every bystander there also is a story.
The many who fell into looking away, their lives still changed trajectory because of exposure, or willful ignoring their surroundings over time. Examine those who stood by. 

Are Bystanders enablers; or did they correctly assess that they had no choice if they were to survive. What price survival. 

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