For a member of the Slovenian minority in Trieste, Central Europe’s history of violence began decades before the Nazi concentration camps, and did not end with the defeat of Fascism in WWII. This is the message of Slovenian writer Boris Pahor, and perhaps this explains his enduring importance and popularity to his countrymen and fellow Europeans both. In his most acclaimed book, Necropolis, Pahor recounts his experience as a “red triangle,” a political prisoner shuttled between four concentrations camps in the last years under Nazi rule. Yet the book is not solely a recollection of his imprisonment; it is an opportunity for a master to meditate on the dramatic events of an entire lifetime, and on their meaning for the present, both personally and historically.
Going back after twenty years to the desolate landscape of the Vosges Mountains in Alsace and visiting the Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp where he was once imprisoned, Pahor remembers the atrocities of the camps with a striking clarity, almost cinematic. What is at stake for Pahor, however, is that the Nazi camp is in his case only the last indignity in a long sequence of crimes and violations. His personal history of violence begins on July 20, 1920, when at the age of seven he was present at the nighttime destruction of the Narodni Dom (“National House”), the community hall of the Slovenian minority in the city of Trieste, Italy. The local Fascist militia set fire to the building, supposedly in retaliation for recent attacks by Croatian nationalists in the city of Split. This was a grim foretaste of life under Mussolini, who would rise to power two years later, bringing with him systematic racial discrimination against Slavic minorities in Italy, and bloody repression of every sort of defiance. Young Pahor was no longer allowed to attend the same school as Italian children, both of his parents lost their jobs, and his native language was brutally banned. Nonetheless, at the outbreak of the Second World War, Pahor was forced to fight for the Italian Army in North Africa as a Fascist. After the Italian Armistice and his return to Trieste, Pahor was soon arrested as a member of the Slovenian resistance, and found himself turned over to the Nazis as a traitor. He who had fought for the freedom of his people, strangled by Italian nationalism, was now obliged to die as an “Italian” in the camps.
Meeting him at a library of Slovenian books in Trieste, I see that Boris Pahor stands as a living monument to his conviction that history is never one sided, no matter what the “winners” and politicians might say. At ninety-seven years of age, he is no less possessed by a fierce desire to speak the truth, no less angry at the injustices he and his countrymen were made to suffer.
BORIS PAHOR: After all these years the quest for a “just” history should be a matter of honor for a nation like Italy, but politically speaking there is still no real will to clarify what happened . . . Why weren’t Italian war criminals indicted after the war? . . . This is only one small part of a history that is still not taught in schools, despite all the good books on the subject that have been published in recent years. Italian imperialism became most apparent during the Fascist era and the 1941–43 occupation of Yugoslavia, but it was in the works as early as the nineteenth century, when the Italian nationalist movement wanted to “redeem” the city of Trieste, which was then part of the Habsburg Empire, without taking into account that all the surrounding countryside was populated by Slovenians. These people were accustomed to go into the city daily: farmers selling their produce, dockworkers, women serving in bourgeois houses or sometimes working as prostitutes. Historically speaking, Slovenians were a Central European people, but after the collapse of the Habsburg Empire in 1918 they found themselves scattered across many different countries. In order to save itself, Slovenia joined Yugoslavia, despite the hundreds of thousands living in territories now ruled by Italy. Slovenia then became, in the eyes of the world, a Balkan entity . . . Tito and his Communist Party, the only legal party after the institution of the “second Yugoslavia,” erased the reality of a pluralist struggle for liberation encompassing the entire spectrum of political ideas. A federation uniting different republics would have been a remarkable achievement, if things had actually worked out that way. Instead, we got a kingdom with a king: Tito. Slovenia couldn’t help but be the loser in such a situation. Culturally speaking, Slovenian writers had only one way to gain recognition, even in Western Europe: to be recognized first in Belgrade. Personally, I had decided to criticize the regime, and together with my wife ran a journal between 1966 and 2000; because of some articles published in this journal, Zaliv (“The Gulf”), the dictatorship eventually—in 1975—prohibited me from stepping foot in Yugoslavia.
FRANCO BALDASSO: Was it because of Tito’s regime that you decided to remain in Trieste, despite what had happened during the war, and despite your ordeal in the camps?
BP: It’s necessary to highlight here that the Slovenians hadn’t been a minority under the Habsburg Empire, despite the fact that the Italians were numerically superior. There were more Slovenians in Trieste than in Ljubljana. The city has two pasts, as Italian/triestino writer Scipio Slataper points out in his books. I was born an Austrian citizen in 1913; the Slovenian language was one of three used in our city on an equal standing. Our history as a “minority” only began in 1918—when it was imposed on us. So, as a triestino, it was simply nonsense to move to Yugoslavia: there was no reason for it! This is my home. I had no desire to move to Ljubljana. With the Anglo-American occupation of the city after the war (1947–54), we could reopen Slovenian schools and theaters, print our own newspaper, and so forth. We regained a normal cultural life after decades of Fascist repression.
FB: And what about the relationship with Slovenia?
BP: In Yugoslavia, Tito realized he couldn’t close the borders completely, as it happened with Stalinist countries in the rest of Eastern Europe. He allowed a certain amount of cultural freedom—so we could live very close to the fatherland, both in a material and a spiritual way. And then, Article 6 of the new Constitution of the Italian Republic recognized our rights—despite a certain hostility from nationalists, which never quite went away.
FB: Still, it took forty years for there to be any recognition of the importance of your books in Italy, despite your many publications and prizes, in France, Germany, the United States . . .
BP: The story of this recognition is a novel itself. Here in Trieste there’s a sort of Europe “in miniature.” The role of the local newspaper, Il Piccolo, was crucial. It was this newspaper that opened up new possibilities for me and one of its editors, Alessandro Mezzena Lona, who gave Necropolis the push it needed to be taken on by an influential publisher [Fazi] in Rome in 2008. The book was launched as a sort of discovery, and I was invited onto a popular Sunday talk show. After that, things changed a lot. I wouldn’t have thought that a book about concentration camps would cause a stampede into the bookstores, but the book did indeed enjoy a huge success all over Italy . . . What I like most is being able to meet young people. They read my books for more than just descriptions of Nazi crimes. Our history is filled with so many tragedies.
FB: Do you see a keen interest in these themes in the young people you meet?
BP: The young are definitely smarter than their depiction by the media. In the last few years I’ve been invited to almost 150 schools. Sometimes, the kids are shy because they feel they can’t really understand what I’m talking about. I start with Fascism, I speak then of Nazism, and eventually move on to the communist dictatorship in Yugoslavia. I am teaching them part of their own history. Still, I think it would be better if the Italian state took charge of this . . .
FB: About Necropolis, was the book known locally, in Trieste, before its Italian publication in 2008?
BP: A small local publishing house had translated some of my books about the Fascist repression of Slovenians when Slovenia entered the EU in 2005. Still, the way Necropolis was recognized in 2008 was amazing. I had a typescript of the book, already translated into Italian, sitting at home for more than twenty years! I’d sent it to all the major publishing houses. I also sent it to Primo Levi, but he never replied . . .
FB: In what year?
BP: Around 1972. I still have the letter I wrote to him. I only wanted to know what he thought about my book, since it deals with my visit to the camps after the war, which isn’t the usual departure point for an ex-inmate’s book about the camps. The gist of Necropolis is the paradox of a free man visiting the place where he was expected to die. I don’t speak only of my own camp, but of the many camps throughout Europe as well. I also meditate upon the meaning of what happened in a society that basically doesn’t care. Today, we have a “memorial day” once a year, and that’s it. There were camps where people died of starvation, illness, beatings, hangings everyday. And I’m not talking about the camps for Jewish people. I met only one Jew in fourteen months of imprisonment.
FB: But you never ended up meeting Levi?
BP: I sent him my manuscript, I only wanted to know his opinion. Many publishers at that time probably thought, “Well, we already have Levi—why should we care about a Slovenian from Trieste? His book won’t ever sell . . . How do you publicize a Slovenian from Trieste?” I suppose some wounds are still open.