Trieste by Croatian writer Dasa Drndic is a novel about family. This is demonstrated visually (in a novel that is also scattered with photographs) as early as pages 6 and 7 when we encounter the family tree of the main character, Haya Tedeschi. The early part of the novel takes us through her family’s experiences, beginning prior to the First World War, but this is really background for its main concern, the Second World War and the Holocaust. Family, then, is more important than ever before, particularly for a Catholicized Jew like Haya.
She exists in a limbo throughout. Initially this is created by her vague grasp of her own identity which allows her to have an affair with a German officer, Kurt Franz, in Italy, but then suffer for it as a result of her Jewish background. Not only is she abandoned by Franz, but her son is taken from her as part of Himmler’s Lebensborn programme to promote Aryan children. This creates a second limbo as she waits for years for any information on what happened to the child. throughout Drndic paints a damning picture of almost all involved: not only those who ran the concentration camps, many of whom seem to have suffered little in the way of punishment, but the Catholic Church, the Red Cross, and those who guarded the records of the Nazi regime after the war.
This is a novel that tells more than the story of a character – indeed so much of it is factual that it may well be the case that no part of it is fiction. Drndic uses a number of techniques to achieve her aim of presenting truth in a way that goes beyond the normal parameters of literature: not only by including the photographs already mentioned, but also by utilising a series of voices. These include testaments from both Nazis officers and camp inmates. Not all are literal as a number of them end in a declaration of death (“Later I am killed in Warsaw, in 1943”), but this does not alter their effectiveness. Some are presented as question and answer, as if in court.
The novel also contains a 44 page list of all the Jews who were either killed in Italy or deported, and a section presenting brief biographies of many of the Nazis involved in this. Drndic questions everything. Why did the Red Cross feed Jews travelling through Switzerland on German trains but, though aware they were going to their death, did nothing to prevent this? Why did the Catholic Church seek to protect Nazi war criminals? Why was it made so difficult to obtain access to Nazi records after the war? In particular, the novel still has the power to shock in two main ways. Firstly in the inhuman cruelty of those involved in the movement and murder of Jews. As one camp inmate says:
“One simply could not grasp that it was possible – extermination.”
Secondly, and perhaps more surprisingly, the way in which many of those responsible remained unpunished, or were given very lenient sentences. – a large number were not even tried until the 1960s.
Of course, it is possible to argue that there have already been very many books about the Holocaust and that perhaps it is time for writers to move on. Reading this, however, you can’t help but feel that that will never be the case.