From Tom Ložar: Trieste and the Meaning of Ignorance
24 June 2011

A Trieste, vi odiate ancora tanto?

-- Montale to Svevo

Recently, Adam Begley celebrated Trieste in The New York Times. Imagine an article on Montreal in which there is no mention of the English-speaking minority. Thus, in Begley’s Trieste, there are no Slovenians. Of course, senz’altro, Begley recommends Jan Morris’s “lively and intelligent” Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere. Let’s have a look.

Here, for instance (p. 112), Jan is at the opera:

The orchestra that played Smareglia’s Nozze Istriani… included violinists named Ivevic and Leszczynski, a cellist called Iztpk Kodric, Neri Noferini a horn player and an oboist named Giuseppi Mis Cipolat.

Is Iztpk Kodric related to Joe Btflspk of Li’l Abner?

All this is in the first edition. If Morris has since corrected some silliness, it is thanks to me. We corresponded, but stopped. I would check if a later edition made my changes, but I cannot bear to touch the book.

I’ll not complain about punctuation. The Brits are lax, and Noferini may well be that rare virtuoso, a horn player and an oboist. But, the opera is Nozze Istriane, fem. pl. And, though my ear did not need its help, the Teatro Verdi site would have told Jan that the violinist is Ivicevic, that Kodric’s name is Iztok, and Cipolat’s is Giuseppe, with an e. The Teatro Verdi site had no accents. One crummy sentence, four mistakes. Brava! Illustrating diversity, you really should get the names right.

Tom’s Test for Travel Writers: if they don’t get the little stuff right, they get the big stuff as more wrong as it is bigger. You want to eat where Jan eats, they’ll poison you, and you’ll have to thank them.

The book contains a bigger lie. Throughout, Morris confuses the perps, the Italians, and the victims, the Slovenians. Here she says that “down the generations many Triestini have had their names ethnically adjusted.” To her this sounds like great cosmopolitan fun at a tailor’s. Her final lovely illustration is Ettore Schmitz’s nom de plume, Italo Svevo. Only once does she produce a less pleasant adjustment: “When the Yugoslavs arrived in 1945,” she writes, “they…obliged many Italians to change their names” (115). And the Jews persecuted the Nazis.

In 1926, Fascist Italy, which had been given Slovenian lands as a reward for switching sides in the Great War, codified what had long been going on amateurishly: Slovenian place names, first names, family names, and grave markers were Italianized. Trieste’s Fascist rag, Il Piccolo, published columns of Slovenian names and the Italian names they had to be changed to. Or else. Morris manages to do worse than not mention these racist laws. She has the Italians the victims. What really happened in 1945, Jan, was that the Slovenians were able to revert to their real names.

Is there even worse in this book than switching the victims and the killers? I’m afraid so.

She knows there was a Nazi extermination camp in Trieste. That’s all she knows. She could not be bothered to learn more, so she wrote her chapter on the Risiera di San Sabba as if its only victims were Jews. So would you assume that of a Nazi extermination camp, but you’re not the writer. She’s supposed to be. Predictably, Nicholas Howe, in The New Republic, concludes this: “As [Morris] says in one exact sentence of the Risiera di San Sabba, where Nazis exterminated Jews: ‘It is one place in Trieste that speaks of the tragic rather than the poignant.’ Much honor is owed to a writer who scrupulously maintains that distinction.”

One "exact sentence," Nick? 6,000,000 million Jews died in the Holocaust, but the Risiera was not for killing Jews.

Though some Jews were murdered in the Risiera, Jewish sources contradict Morris. The Risiera’s crematoria were almost entirely for non-Jews. They were almost entirely for non-Jews precisely because the Nazis were efficient Jew-killers and had special camps for killing Jews. The Nazis insisted the Risiera send its Jews to those camps. And the capo, Globocnik—judging by his name, a Slovenian—sticklerishly complied.

Here is Silvia Bon Gherardi, quoted in Fölkel’s The Risiera di San Sabba. I have the honour of translating her from the Slovenian translation of the Italian original:

“Hundreds of [Jews] left behind [in the Risiera], only information scratched into a wall: name, date of arrival, date of departure."


My Silvia, again: “They treat the Jews very cruelly. First they take away all their possessions, then they lock them up in the big room on the fourth floor. There they live in constant terror of the crematoria, for when they do not have enough bodies for the ovens, they fill the quota up with Jews."

“For when they do not have enough bodies for the ovens, they fill the quota up with Jews."

Silvia: “…or they live in terror of deportation to Germany.”

"Deportation to Germany.”

In short, the Risiera was a stop for Jews headed for other extermination camps (mainly Auschwitz) and the primary “bodies for the ovens” were not Jewish.

Why would Morris get this so wrong? The assumption in “One Night at the Risiera” that the Risiera killed mainly Jews and the silence about the other victims may just be examples of Morris’s fabled carelessness and the ignorance of her reviewers, in homage to her lyrical cluelessness.

Or did the great stylist get it wrong in that oh so precious chapter because she thought murdered Jews would go nice so it was worth ignoring the thousands of non-Jews for effect?

Having the Jews murdered in Trieste and not where they really died is, at least, a lack of respect. In truth, the Risiera specialized in killing Slovenians, Croatians, Italians—the natural anti-Fascist Resistance. In the Risiera chapter, Morris does not once mention these thousands.

So, do you believe me, or the great Jan Morris? She admitted to me that she got some things wrong but said that, anyway, I should be reading her great Pax Britannica. I have been reading it.

Do you trust me or the woman who says that Toronto is on Lake Superior, that there is a great hatter on a street in Toronto called Spandia, and that Yonge Street runs all the way to the “prairie farmlands”?

For the April 29, 2011 issue of The New York Times, Adam Begley wrote the same article on Trieste that everyone or his brother or Jan Morris has written. His is called “In a quiet corner of Italy…Trieste.” Jan Morris’s Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere saw the smog of day in 2001. Neither Simon nor Schuster had a clue about how shoddy it was. Nicholas Howe bought it all in The New Republic, September 2, 2002. You can find the review on-line. Yes, it is cloyingly called “Triste Trieste.” Morris’s Canadian geography is in Farewell the Trumpets. She still signed James Morris then. This was 1978, and Faber & Faber was encouraging her. I first laughed at pages 322-324 in the Westmount Public Library.

I do not have Ferruccio Folkel’s La Risiera di San Sabba (Milano: Mondadori, 1979). I read it in Trieste’s other language as Rižarna—Vrata v Smrt. The translator is Vida Gorjup Posinkovi?. It was published by Založništvo Tržaškega Tiska in 1990. In Trst, i.e., Trieste. Silvia Bon Gherardi is quoted on p. 124. Deportations to Auschwitz start on p. 125. I know, I can’t expect you to read Slovenian. Imagine, I expected Morris to know Italian. Clueless Lonely Planet, which idolizes Morris, says in its Risiera blurb that 5000 of Trieste’s 6000 Jews perished at the Risiera. For a contradiction in plain English consult Raphael Rothstein.

For a truer version of Trieste, tell Google to take you to Bernard Meares’s Where the Balkans Begin. Or dig out Matrix 38, Fall 1992, for A. D. Person’s “TRST: A Guide.” Of course, A. J. P. Taylor said everything that ever needed saying about “the Trieste question” in Trieste (London: Yugoslav Information Office, 1945).

Old sources all? Alas, Trieste, nest of iniquity, is eternally true to its calling.

Tom Ložar

Tom Ložar is a columnist for Ve?er in Maribor, Slovenia.

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