Stories and exploration in Trieste

Whenever I visit Trieste, I cannot help but think about my roots and the time my family spent living in Campo San Sabba. 

The Risiera di San Sabba, an old rice factory, is next to an area that slowly curves upward, toward the Karst hills to the south. 

During the Second World War, it was converted by the Fascists and Nazis into a concentration camp for Serbs, Croats, and Jews. After the war, that camp became Campo San Sabba — a refugee camp for people displaced by Communist regimes. It was there that my family waited four years for our visas to move to America.

Sixty years later in 2014, my brother Sasha — now Alex — and I, headed back to Trieste to revisit our roots in the Balkans. 

Trieste was part of ancient Illyria, part of the Roman empire, and then part of the Austrian empire for 500 years, until World War I ended that era. In 1921 that northern coast of the Adriatic was granted to Italy, an action that turned my infant mother, born some 50 miles to the south in Croatia, into a refugee in Serbia.

As the Cold War replaced the World War, my mother’s marriage to my Russian father — himself an exile of the Russian revolution — forced her new family to flee once again. Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union were at odds, and we were declared stateless. By then, my mother’s hometown had been returned to Croatia, but now Trieste, like our family, was a stateless orphan, a United Nations protectorate.

Alex and I traveled to San Sabba the way we remembered doing so as children with my mother after trips to the vegetable market — By tram. 

In 1913 James Joyce wrote a melancholy little poem about his brother rowing in the waters of San Sabba. It was now an industrialized part of town that did not bring rowboats to mind.

Joyce wrote many of his works here, but he also wrote his only play. It was called Exiles

One of my favorite authors, Jan Morris, wrote a book called Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere. She spent many years in Trieste after the war. In the book, she distinguishes the melancholy from the merely sad. 

I don’t see Trieste in that way. 

The city experienced a major financial collapse when the Berlin wall fell and the people of Eastern Europe could suddenly shop anywhere in Europe. The harbor, in particular, showed the effects of the crisis, but it seemed a new wave of refugees had found their way there. 

I wandered through the abandoned port of Trieste, through hauntingly beautiful remnants of a long gallery built from giant stones. Toward the back of these buildings — which stretched at least 500 yards toward the old, abandoned train station — I found many makeshift homeless shelters built into the colonnades. 

The dirt fields toward the seaside were filled with men playing cricket. I asked if they were from India, knowing that country’s love for the sport. No, they replied, they were all from Afghanistan. Hundreds of them — clearly refugees  — with nothing to do. I wanted to tell them that I, too, was once homeless in this town, but we didn’t have a common language.

With Afghan refugees in 2014, in an abandoned dockyard at the port of Trieste  

With Afghan refugees in 2014, in an abandoned dockyard at the port of Trieste

I continued along a beautiful esplanade laid with half moon patterned bricks that were set by hand and required maintenance. I tried to take a photo of a man re-laying the bricks, but he quickly stepped out of the scene and refused to be photographed. I noticed his accent and asked where he was from. 

"Belgrade," he replied, reluctantly. He told me about his neighborhood, and smiled broadly when he learned that I, too, was born in Belgrade, but now lived in America.