Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 5, 2013

Trieste (2007), by Dasa Drndic, translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac

TriesteShadow IFFP badge 2013Trieste, shortlisted for the 2013 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize  is a shattering book, even if you’ve already read a few books about the Holocaust.  That’s because it brings those events firmly into the present, not neatly tucked away in the category of  events some would rather forget.  Daša Drndić’s powerful story repudiates anyone who thinks it’s  ‘time to move on, it was all so long ago’.  The book, in revealing the existence of the Nazi’s Lebensborn Program tells us that there are men and women living today who, whether they know it or not, have identities that are false, and that the parents of some of these people are – after all this time – still searching for them.

In the author’s note at the back of the book Drndić explains that her story is based on fact, and the construction of the book is testament to that.  It includes family trees; archival records; newspaper clippings; photographs and testimony from various war crimes tribunals.  In the middle of the book Drndić lists 35 pages of the names of the 9,000 Jews deported from Italy or killed in Italy between 1943 and 1945.  I was shocked to find there the surnames of Italian families I know, and now I wonder whether their extended families were among the victims.  There are also brief biographies of the SS – their backgrounds, their crimes, their court proceedings, and all too often, their contented post-war lives amid sympathisers and the world turning a blind eye.  The book also includes snippets of music, and poetry and prose from writers as diverse as Ernest Hemingway, Jorges Luis Borges, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and other authors and poets perhaps more familiar to European readers.   It is not easy to read, not just because of the subject matter, not just because not everything is translated into English, but also because of the accumulation of detail and the way fragments leak into the narrative.

It is the story of an old woman, Haya Tedeschi, whose infant, was stolen from his pram in late 1945.  In July 2006 having spent a determined lifetime trying to find him, she waits to be reunited with this child.

He was stolen during the period of Nazi control of the northern Adriatic coast, known as the Adriatic Littoral, (Adriatisches Küstenland).  The administrative capital was Trieste, a city always in flux between the great powers of Europe.

Under the Occupation the Germans wasted no time in setting up in Trieste the only Death Camp in Italy, on the site of a rice mill called San Sabba.  Amongst the members of Aktion T4 1943 listed on page 201 was Kurt Franz from Dusseldorf, a handsome young Aryan who took a fancy to Haya.  The attraction was mutual and she bore him a son, baptised Antonio Tedeschi by the local priest.  While the rest of the family survived the war by hiding their Jewish antecedents and moving from place to place, Haya the collaborator stayed in Trieste to be with her lover.  But as the Allies advanced and the Germans beat a hasty retreat, Kurt Franz nonchalantly reminded Haya that Tedeschi was a Jewish name and there was no future in such a risky relationship for him.

But this did not save the child from inclusion in the Lebensborn Program – a secret Nazi breeding program set up in 1935.  It was the obscene brainchild of Heinrich Himmler and his SS cronies, intended to raise the Aryan birth rate of  the ‘racially pure and healthy’ children of SS officers having an extra-marital fling.  It also included ‘orphans’ that passed their bizarre tests of racial worthiness.  It operated all over Occupied Europe, from Italy to Norway, with orphanages devoted to the Germanisation of hundreds of thousands of these children so that they could be adopted by Nazi families loyal to the cause.   Testimonies from these children in Trieste include an Australian Ana Johnson and the ABBA star Anni-Frid Lyngstad.  After the war, the return of these children to their parent/s was subject to official obstruction, not least by the Roman Catholic Church under Pius XII because – according to a directive sent to Monsignor Angelo Roncalli – later Pope John XXIII – the children had been baptised, their souls therefore belonged to the church, and they could not be returned to Jewish parents who would not bring them up in the Roman Catholic faith.

With the refrain, ‘behind every name there is a story’, Drndić builds a picture of a the Nazi Occupation in Italy, a story muffled by Italy’s own collaboration with Hitler prior to its capitulation.  In the context of so many deaths, and the horror of the Death Camp at San Sabba, the reader discovers what Kurt Franz’s son must learn: that his father was a brutal sadist.  As Haya sifts through her wastebasket of documents and memories, the reader pieces events together, and the cheery photographs of Kurt Franz and his dog Barry take on a new and sickening meaning.

Daša Drndić is a distinguished Croatian novelist, playwright and literary critic. Born in Zagreb in 1946, she also translates and teaches at the Faculty of Philosophy in Rijeka.

Other reviews of this sobering book are at The Financial Times;  and The Independent.

I read this book as a member of the Shadow Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Jury.  To view other juror’s reviews of this and other nominations please click here  or on the IFFP graphic.

Author: Dasa Drndic
Title: Trieste
Translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursac
Publisher: Maclehose Press, 2012, first published 2007
ISBN: 9780857050250
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Fishpond


Fishpond: Trieste


  1. I really don’t know why I am drawn to books like this, but I find them compelling and an absolute “must read”. Your review has inspired me to buy the Kindle version straight-away. Thanks!


    • Thanks for dropping by, Tom. I think you will find the Kindle version easier, it is quite a heavy book to hold:)


  2. I felt out the two books on the longlist dealing with the War this was the best for me that list of names is so haunting I still pick it up and read them so many lives lost it is heartbreaking ,all the best stu


    • Yes, and the photos too… that dog …


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