Thunder’s breaking above as I write this, intermittent floods of rain hammering on the roof force us to shout out load to each other, although we’re only a couple of meters apart. To my left, through our plastic motorhome window, I can almost touch the outline of a tall window in a stone wall. It’s been filled, leaving a small metal-barred gap, by roughly-laid concrete. It’s the window into a death camp.
I’m writing this piece separate to our usual blog posts. Mixing what we’ve just experienced with news about food we’ve tried, buildings we’ve seen and living people we’ve spoken with doesn’t seem right.
As usual, we knew nothing of Trieste before we came here. Our education, in the form of Rough Guide, Lonely Planet and Wikipedia, takes up a fitting amount of our time as we journey from place to place. One of these sources told us of an ex-rice husking factory which had been converted in 1943 into Stalag 339 by the Nazis – Risiera Di San Sabba. Despite being easily within the city limits, it had been used to detain political prisoners and Jews, and commit acts of inhumanity. To people who had done no wrong. The place, which was much larger than its present day incarnation, served as a work camp, prison, transit camp for those being moved to Dachau, Auschwitz and other camps, and for the torture, murder and burning of innocents.
We’d struggled to find the place, an encounter with a narrow and steep, wet cobbled street had our nerves on end, so we sought out refuge in Lidl car park. It transpired we’d found it; Lidl is built on it, and the remaining buildings next to our van were the museum. The fleeing Nazis had done the filthy, cowardly thing of blowing apart the apparatus of death; the chimney and oven are gone, replaced with stone and metal reminders. They’d later claim to know nothing of the place, or pretend, perhaps even to themselves, it was just used as a prison. I write on the verge of tears; the same emotion I felt when we walked into the first room as we entered, the room where those unfortunate enough to be chosen to die quickly were held, labelled the ‘death cell’. We’re told sometimes these new entrants would find themselves interned with dead bodies, awaiting burning. We can’t imagine the dread.
Ju wasn’t keen on coming here, which I can easily understand. I felt a powerful draw. I felt it was our duty to expose ourselves to this thing, this evil which persists to this day, this burning hatred, this greed, this dark side of human nature which we’re only too happy to ignore. Only yesterday we saw news of a Syrian massacre; it’s a never ending struggle. I felt we had to come, wandering in leisure, safety and comfort that we are, free from fear that our beliefs alone will cast us into a situation where we find ourselves writing letters to our loved ones telling them we’re scheduled to die today.
As the rain beat down on us, we were much of the time alone in the rooms. The scrawls the prisoners had made on the walls were gone, deliberate or accidental neglect erasing them. Just a few ‘tally’ marks remain on some of the windows. There were no signposts to the place on the roads outside. It would certainly be easier for Trieste to demolish this place and extend Lidl’s car park over the lot of it; Trieste we learn is where the commander of the camp was born. It is to their credit it remains.
I won’t write about the details of the place, the people who passed through here or didn’t make it, the Nazi beliefs, the strategic location of Trieste, the design of the camp, the way in which engines and music were used to mask noises of pain and desperation, the complicity of some Italians. I’d encourage you to come if you’re nearby, buy the €1 booklet from the information office, wander the small rooms, breath the air, and think.
We’re driving south now, through the rain to the Slovenian coast. One aim of our travels was to educate ourselves; today has built upon our education. It has certainly hardened my resolve to fight against ignorance, my own above all.