02 January 2016

Ghosts of Trieste

When poking around in the 19th century the name Trieste often comes up. Today situated in the northeast corner of Italy it was the Habsburg's chief port for many generations and the fourth city of their empire.

Today it is more generally known as the city which hosted San Sabba, a small-scale concentration camp, if not death camp which included crematoria. It is a short and relatively unknown chapter in the history of the Holocaust.

After the war Trieste was famously known as the southern terminus of Churchill's Iron Curtain.

I absolutely loved the place. I passed through it on a couple of occasions. When I would head east on the train, I would leave Venice and then on my way to Zagreb or Budapest we would inevitably have a stopover in Trieste. I would just wander about and try taking it all in. As with many locations in Europe it can be a bit overwhelming.

It's one of those 'sleeper' locations that contains quite a bit of history and has an intriguing air about it. You could 'feel' the hint of the east, the air of Slavic Byzantium floated about. It also evokes a frontier feeling, the edge of the Habsburg and Balkan worlds reminding one of tales of revolution and the breaking of the old order a century ago. Walking its streets I would imagine the famed explorer Richard Burton skulking about during his final years. He died there in 1890.

I recall riding the train down the long winding and verdant pathway into the town all the while looking out over the Adriatic. The air was thick and warm and it was hard not to think about Franz Josef and Sisi as well as Maximilian, his castle Miramare and his fateful and foolish scheming with Napoleon III, leading to his 1867 death in Mexico.  

Trieste also has some interesting Waldensian history which also made it near and dear to my heart.

Recently while looking into Italy's various scandals regarding the Vatican Bank and Fascism the name Trieste came up once more. This time it referenced the headquarters and warehouses of Assicurazioni Generali, the insurance company charged with profiting off the Holocaust in refusing to pay out on a multitude of policies. There are still many untold chapters of history obscured by the chaos of war's end. Properties lost, populations on the move and borders re-drawn meant that many wrongs were not made right. Many banks, insurance companies, investors and corporations made out handsomely from the war and the Holocaust. Many things were stolen from land to art and artifacts, and not a little gold. Where did it all end up? The story is still being told and there are people yet alive desperate to bury the past and leave behind this chapter of history.

The story which broke in the 1990's evoked for me a feeling of that period when there were still a lot of World War II stories coming out. The fall of the Iron Curtain had opened up a new era of investigation. Archives were opened and records were being searched. There was an air of urgency as well because many of the people seeking redress were rapidly aging and the survivors were beginning to die off in earnest. Some of the last important Nazis and their collaborators were being hunted.

Places like Trieste and Rome were evocative to me. The books I had loved since my youth, the morbid tales of stolen gold, Nazis on the run, hunters chasing them and forgotten secrets came alive when looking over monasteries in Rome, the harbour of Trieste and Brenner Pass. Though it might not make sense to others, for me Trieste always reminds me of Croatia and Hungary and of their dark chapters during the war. It was the stopping point on my way to those places.

I've always appreciated ex-Nazi movies and 1989's Music Box has always been worthy of my appreciation. It was both revolting and exhilarating to stand on the banks of the Danube as Jessica Lange did in the movie and think about the Arrow Cross and the nearby Jewish Ghetto.

History was in many ways put on 'pause' from 1945-1991. The nineties were an exciting time to venture into Europe. Newly open borders also allowed for tremendous ease in travel. There was something about that period that constantly reminded me of World War II. Of course there were still a lot of survivors that could tell you about it, a myriad of interesting stories that will never make it into any chronicle.

The last time I was in Trieste was in 1997. Little did I know that as I walked along the waterfront there were secrets buried in warehouses that overshadowed my footsteps. That's part of what is so intriguing about traveling through Europe, the connections with the past and the virtually inexhaustible layers of history that surround you. The stones themselves seem to whisper like the ghosts from the past.

There are still many untold tales from World War II. So much of the world was turned on its head, so many people moving about, fleeing and dying. There are so many lost stories, buried secrets and both dark and heroic deeds. The world was pushed and stressed in a way that's hard to even imagine. Even while standing among Roman or Medieval ruins the shadow of that war looms over you.