Borderlands of Memory. Croatia (Istria-Kvarner) – Slovenia (Primorska) – Italy (Friuli-Venezia Giulia)

The Memory of War and Violence in the 20th-century northeastern Adriatic

Route and destinations of the study trip:
Lipa (Croatia) Gonars (Italy)
Basovizza (Italy) Risiera di San Sabba (Italy)
Kobarid (Slovenia) Pula (Croatia)
Log pod Mangartom (Slovenia) Rijeka (Croatia)
Redipuglia (Italy)  
Map Study Trip Route and Destinations

29 May 2012: Risiera di San Sabba (Italy)

Martina Draščić

The Risiera di San Sabba is the only Nazi concentration camp in Italy that was equipped with a crematorium. It is placed in the city of Trieste, a port city in northeastern Italy, in the autonomous region Friuli-Venezia Giulia bordering Slovenia. The concentration camp was set up in the buildings of a former rice-husking factory. It was first used as a prison camp, then as a Polizeihaftlager. About three to five thousand people were burned during the Nazi occupation in this place where once rice had been milled. When the Allied troops proceded towards Trieste in April 1945, the Nazis partially destroyed the camp. It eventually fell into a state of neglect, up to the point when the complex was renovated and a museum opened in 1975.

Official web site of the Museum of Risiera di San Sabba:

Photo Impressions

Photos of the previous destination Photos of the next destination

Travel Diary


Stillness of mind. The story ends in the Risiera di San Sabba, again in Trieste, near Lucchini steelworks with its smell of tobacco. The story ends, because no one can translate it without losing words and their meanings, Zorko’s letter. Human language is not enough, too incomplete, too young to retell this letter. “Farewell forever. Farewell mama, farewell sister, farewell papa.”

The story ends for today, because someone yet has to grow to continue it the next day.



Our next stop was la Risiera, a WWII concentration camp in Trieste. Our tour guide and guest lecturer was Stefano Fattorini, who did an excellent job in indicating everything an average beholder might miss; I remembered being surprised at the thoughtfulness and symbolism embedded in the construction of the place. I listened to the lecture, but soon came upon our bus driver; I ended up telling him what Prof. Fattorini told us and he told me about his visit to Auschwitz.

Diary of the previous destination Diary of the following destination

History of Trieste – Timeline

Dajana Pemac

1382 – 1918: Trieste is under the Austro-Hungarian authority.

18th century: During this period of time, a lot of people are coming to Trieste:
immigrants, investors, refugees, etc. Trieste is gaining its "cosmopolitan city" title, thanks to its becoming the most important port in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Trieste becomes the fourth largest city in the Empire.

November 3rd, 1918: The "Armistice of villa Giusti" is signed, ending hostilities between Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Trieste is occupied by the Italian Army.

1920: Trieste is officially annexed to the Kingdom of Italy with the "Treaty of Rapallo". The region reorganizes under a new administrative unit known as the Julian March. The Italianisation of the Slovenes and Croats begins. On July 13, a group of Italian Fascists burns down the "Narodni Dom", the community hall of Trieste's Slavs.

1922 – 1930: The Fascist regime is established in 1922 and enforces the policy of Italianization. The fascist movement starts to erase Trieste's cosmopolitanism by prohibiting the use of the Slavic languages and by Italianizing names and surnames of Slavic and German origin. Yugoslav irredentism appears with the Slovene militant anti-fascist organization TIGR, which carries out several bomb attacks in the city center.

September 1943: Trieste is occupied by German troops and becomes a part of the newly constituted Italian Social Republic ruled by Nazi Germany. This happens upon the capitulation of the Italian troops in the course of World War II.

1943-1945: During the period of Nazi rule, there is a concentration camp for partisans, other political enemies and Jews in the middle of the city. The camp is put up in the former rice factory of San Sabba and the camp is known accordingly as the "Risiera di San Sabba".

May – June 1945: The Yugoslav Liberation Army takes over the bigger part of the Julian March: Istria, the Karst Region (Kras), Rijeka, Pula, Gorica and Trieste. The Yugoslavs hold full control of the city during the period known as the "forty days". The area of Julian March is split into two zones – one under Anglo-American military administration, one under Yugoslav administration.

September 1947: The "Paris Peace Treaty" establishes the Free Territory of Trieste under UN protection. The area is again split into two now smaller zones. Zone A comprises Trieste and its surrounding area, falling under the authority of the Allies. Zone B comprises the provinces of Koper and of Buje and is put under the authority of Yugoslavia.

October 26th, 1954: The Free Territory of Trieste's situation is resolved by the London Memorandum, with Italy getting Zone A and Yugoslavia Zone B. However, the Memorandum is only initialed, never signed.

1975: The final borderline between Italy and Yugoslavia, along with the status of ethnic minorities, is settled by the "Treaty of Osimo", thus ending the conspicuously long post-war period in the region. The line today demarcates the border between Italy and Slovenia.



A Concentration Camp as a Museum

The Museum of the Risiera di San Sabba (Civico Museo della Risiera di San Sabba) Trieste, Italy

Alexandra Mikheeva

The Museum of the Risiera di San SabbaOne can hear footsteps in the museum's yard. These are the steps of tourists in Risiera di San Sabba, via Giovanni Palatucci 5, Trieste, Italy. 100,000 tourists a year visit this former concentration camp. Majda Pupena heard footsteps, too when she was in the camp as a prisoner. But these were not the steps of tourists, but rather the sound of death:

“ […] I saw two or three men and women disappearing from the room where the crematorium oven was situated. It always happened at around ten or eleven at night. To mask the noise of their ghastly deeds, the SS often turned on the engine of a tank or car or switched on the radio. I remember it as if it were yesterday: a soldier would go and get those condemned to death. Sometimes they were silent, sometimes they started to shout. You could hear their footsteps dragging on the paving. Women's sandals made more noise than shoes. I began to scribble down notes on those tragic comings and goings. One night I counted the footsteps of 56 people who went from the courtyard to the entrance of the crematorium oven; another night 73. Then I couldn’t go on any more.”(1)

It is difficult to say how many people have been killed; estimates range from 3000-5000 people (2).

The importance of commemoration in memory of the victims was marked at the opening of the museum of Risiera di San Sabba in 1975. The opening of such museums (or a memorial plate, monument) sometimes occurs unexpectedly for the population of one or another place. A usual building receives a new purpose. Throughout this paper we will refer to some examples of concentration camps as museums or memorials, but with particular focus on the Museum of the Risiera di San Sabba. A special attention is given to the following object of research: Which questions are raised from museum creators at the stage of planning a museum? How would the exposition be perceived by tourists? Finally, it will then go on to how the location of a museum affects its specific character.

The Museum of the Risiera di San SabbaWhat are the motivations of tourists who come to places like this? A study addressing this question was carried out in Dachau in 2007. Some visitors were interested in the period of national-socialism, others were interested in the daily life of a camp, and some wanted to pay tribute to the memories of the victims of the regime; others simply felt that they “must” go and have a look (3).

Boris Pahor, member of the Slovene minority and born in Trieste in 1913, belongs to a special group of visitors to concentration camp museums. He has had a hard life, having been imprisoned during the Second World War in Trieste and sent to Dachau. For him, a concentration camp museum is a part of his own “inner” memory (4).

What do the visitors expect to see in museums, a realistic representation of current events or symbolic implementation? Both tourists and creators of museums raise such questions. The creators set the question and realize the ideas of a museum's structure. In turn, the tourists perceive the concept of a museum solution. Two opinions of visitors to Dachau show possible responses to the museum. After his visit, Brazilian tourist Carlos Araujo sent an email where he described how the museum exposition could be changed. He wanted to see something more realistic so, that nobody will repeat such horror. A reaction to museum exposition of the writer and poet Arja Salafranca is the opposite. She wrote in “Sunday Tribune” that it was difficult to see the photos which were made in the museum because of its horror. (5)

How did museum creators approach the construction of Risiera di San Sabba?

The museum is organized as follows. It consists of a complex of partially reconstructed buildings and new buildings with a large yard at the center. An entrance leads down a corridor, which is formed by two massive walls. There is an information center at the end of this corridor. To the left side of the yard are death cells (A), prison cells (B) and the “hall of crosses” (C). In the death cells people were placed who were to die within several hours or days. At one time the current “hall of crosses” had floors and cells too, but these floors were destroyed in a fire: at the end of April 1945 the complex was dynamited by the fleeing Germans to hide the places of crime and in 1967 it was enveloped in flames. After that it looked like a large room space without floors. For the constructors of the museum, how to present this hall was a difficult question. They decided to leave the hall without floors and to make a wooden floor frame to hold the walls of this building. Let us return to museum plan of Riesiera. The museum of the Risiera (E) and the meeting room for museum needs (F) are located on the right side of the yard. As it was a camp this building, six stories high, was used as a barracks for the prisoners. The lower floor housed the kitchen and mess. Now it is also a museum room. German, Austrian, Ukrainian and Italian SS troops were quartered in the upper floors (the Italians were employed as guards) (6). One finds in the yard the trace of the chimney and smoke symbolized in steel (D1). The trace of the crematorium is shown by a metal paving. Another building is situated within the territory of this complex – the commemoration room with a historical exhibition of the Risiera (G) (7). We could see that the Museum of Risiera di San Sabba showcases two forms of museum representing. For example, there are realistic prison cells, but the symbolic chimney smoke is also represented as a monument.


This plan for this space was approved in 1966, after a decree of 1965 which raised “Risiera di San Sabba” to the status of a National Monument. A competition for the museum's design was won by the architect Romano Boico. He said:

”The Risiera, half destroyed by the fleeing Nazis, was squalid, like its surroundings. I thought that this total squalor could rise as a symbol and itself become a monument. I decided to remove and restore rather than add. After removing the ruined buildings I demarcated the context with 11-metre high concrete walls arranged so as to form a disquieting entrance on the same spot as the existing entrance. The walled courtyard is intended as an open-air non-denominational basilica. The building where prisoners were kept was completely emptied and the load-bearing wooden structures pared down as much as seemed necessary. The seventeen cells and the death cell are unchanged. In the central building, level with the courtyard, is the Museum of the Resistance, minimal but alive. Above the Museum, the rooms of the Deportees’ Association. In the courtyard is a terrible path of steel, slightly sunken - the trace of the oven, the smoke channel and the base of the chimney.” (8)

Originally, the whole complex of buildings was built in 1913 as a rice mill. After September 8, 1943, the former rice mill was used as a prison camp by the German occupation forces. In this camp (in late October it was converted into a Polizeihaftlager – a police detention camp), equipped with a crematorium, thousands of political opponents, hostages, members of the Italian, Slovene and Croatian resistances, political prisoners and Jewish prisoners were tortured and killed. After the German invasion into Poland in 1939 a list of “dangerous people” was prepared. In 1940 instructions with reference to act N. 442/38954 were given, concerning people who had to be interned (9). The prisoners were sorted to be sent to Germany and Poland. Among them were about 37 000 Italian people in total, but this quantity is still being debated (10).

Daily life was organized by police and the Carabinieri (national military police of Italy) (13). On the camp territory footwear was produced by the prisoners.

As we said, this camp was dynamited at the end of the War. After that three sacks with human bones and ashes were discovered. Luigi Jerman (born in Capodistria, lives in Trieste) worked not far from the camp. He remembered about the crematorium:

“[…] ebbi più volte occasione di passare per ragioni di lavoro lungo il pontile, dove i soldati tedeschi portavano i sacchi delle ceneri dei cadaveri che venivano bruciati nei forni crematori della Risiera. Ho potuto vedere nel fondo del mare molte ossa umane, resti cioè di cadaveri che non poterono essere completamente bruciati.” (14)

Luigi Jerman is one of the survivors of the Second World War. He belongs to the non-profit organization ANED - the National Association of Italian political deportees from Nazi concentration camps. This organization consists of survivors of Nazi persecution and relatives of camp prisoners. In the Risiera are kept such museum objects as a funeral vase with ashes of prisoners, which was donated by ANED. Such donations are very important for museums because of their emotional charge. They can also change the concept of a whole museum space and exhibition. Thanks to donations in 2002, the museum became more focused upon the question of memory. A photographic-documentary exposition was prepared by the curator Elio Apih in 1982 and expanded in 1998. (15)

Elio Apih (Trieste, 1922 – Trieste, 2005) was one of the most important Italian-Slovenian historians in Italy. He specialized in the local history of the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region. In the museum of Risiera di San Sabba  some of the pictures shown are the same as in other concentration camps. For some tourists this seems unusual. But it is an advantage of such thematic museums as well. Presenting the same photos in different museums can show visitors that the problem of violence is not locally restricted. It concerns all people without relation to national identity.

Not only the exposition, but also the museum building itself can increase the importance of the place. The importance of this museum complex consists in its location. It is often impossible to raise a museum building on its native place due to many difficulties. For example, other buildings or villages are built over time in the same location, or the building becomes private property. For example, in the Russian State Military Archive in Moskow in Fond 1п (фонд центральных, фронтовых и тыловых учреждений ГУПВИ НКВД-МВД СССР, (1939 - 1961 гг.) (16) there are 6205 storage units. Among them are documents depicting the location of work camps in the USSR. After the disbandment of these places almost no one could say what was situated at one or another place. Moreover, there are photos taken after 1956 showing how burial places or camps once looked. In most cases, there are now new villages or fields. But this is not the case for the museum of Risera di San Sabba.

Other reasons to build a museum or memorial in a non-indigenous place involve transport accessibility, distance to the city center or the impossibility of restoring a particular building. For example, a monument in Gonars (North Italy) is situated at the city graveyard. The monument symbolizes the victims of this concentration camp, which was located not far from the memorial, and the unity of the Slovenian, Croatian and Italian people against fascism. Often places like Gonars find meaning in a symbol or a collective image.

Therefore, the museum of Risiera di San Sabba features various special qualities. First of all, it is a monument and a museum at the same time (conception of architect Boico). It represents a local and global history and this complex is located right on the territory of the former camp - at the authentic place. (17) It is therefore a place of memory for people who survived and for younger generations.




(1) Fondazione Memoria della Deportazione
(2) Comune di Trieste: Risiera di San Sabba. Monumento nazionale, Trieste, 2003, p. 14
(3) Koch, Peter: Mit eigenen Augen sehen, wie es war. Zwischen Symbolisierung und Historisierung. Besuchererwartungen an den historischen Ort. In: Dachauer Hefte. Studien und Dokumente zur Geschichte der nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslager, 24. Jahrgang, Heft 24. Berlin, 2008, p. 221-228.
(4) Pahor, Boris: Nekropolis, Berlin, 2001, p. 9.
(5) Koch. p. 223-224.
(7) Pic.: Comune di Trieste: Risiera di San Sabba. Monumento nazionale, Trieste, 2003
(9) Osti Guerrazzi, Amedeo; Di Sante, Costanino: Die Geschichte der Konzentrationslager im faschistischen Italien, in: Reichardt, Sven: Faschismus in Italien und Deutschland. Studien zu Transfer und Vergleich, 2005, P. 184.
(10) Klinkhammer, Lutz: Polizeiliche Kooperation unter deutscher Besatzung. Mechanismen der Repression in der Repubblica Soziale Italiana. In: Klinkhammer, Lutz, Osti Guerazzi, Amedeo, Schlemmer, Thomas (ed.): Die „Achse“ im Krieg. Politik, Ideologie und Kriegsführung. 1939-1945, P. 486.
(11) Pic.: The San Sabba Risiera Civic Museum, picture taken in the Museum by Alexandra Mikheeva.
(12) Pic.: Comune di Trieste: Risiera di San Sabba. Monumento nazionale, Trieste, 2003
(13) Osti Guerrazzi, Amedeo, P. 182.
“[…] I had several opportunities, for work reasons, to spend time on the landing stage, where the German soldiers brought the sacks of ashes of the dead bodies burnt in the crematorium ovens of the Rice Mill. I could see many human bones lying on the bed of the ocean; they were the remains of the corpses they were unable to burn fully.”
(15) comune di trieste - assessorato alla cultura
(16) РГВА. Ф. 1п. (the Russian State Military Archive, Fund 1p:Fund of Main Administration for Affairs of Prisoners of War and Internees  The People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs- Ministry of Internal Affairs USSR)
(17) Buggeln, Marc: Erinnerung am Ort der Tat. Außenlager des KZ Neuengamme. In: Benz, Wolfgang; Distel, Barbara (ed.): KZ und Nachwelt. Dachauer Hefte №24, P.138.

Discourses of silence: The Risiera and the foibe

Tea Marković   


Discourses of silence that surround the Trieste concentration camp known as the Risiera di San Sabba and the foibe, mass killings by partisans all over the Julian Region in the Upper Adriatic, are of a twofold nature: that of eloquent silence and imposed collective amnesia (Pizzi, 2006: 2). Moreover, these places invoke multiple standpoints manifested in a cacophony of individual and collective voices, all remembering the events of WWII, all speaking of and in absence, inextricably intertwined with the eloquent silence of the chronotopes (1) and, at the same time, the collective amnesia of polarized, distanced and abundant commemorative stories and practices.

The aim of this paper is to portray particular stories, silent narratives and narrative silences of two such paradoxical phenomenon that, in fact, address the same problem: filling the gaps of historical representation by using individual and collective, historical and political subjectivity. What are discourses of silence? Where do they appear and why? We are not interested in setting forth the historical facts. During our trip through the Julian Region, we have visited several places where historical accuracy belongs to ghosts alone. Two such places are the Risiera in Trieste and foiba di Basovizza.

La Risiera

The Risiera di San Sabba was built in 1913 as a rice-husking factory in San Sabba, a rural/industrial area that was being integrated into the expanding town of Trieste at that time. During the events of 1943-1945, la Risiera got a new purpose: it became a concentration camp for the detention of political prisoners, Yugoslav Partisans, Jews and other victims of the Nazi regime. In the primary stage of the re-purposing, la Risiera was meant to be a temporary detention camp; however, in October 1943, it was converted into an internment camp where most prisoners waited to be taken to other camps (2) or to be killed within the camp walls (3). Most of the prisoners were brought to the Risiera from the Julian Region, suburbs of Ljubljana and surrounding areas.

What arouses attention, however, is the location of the factory/concentration camp. Unlike other places of death during the Nazi regime, this concentration camp was located inside a city. Looking at the incredible proximity to local households, we wondered how it was that the citizens of Trieste never did anything, knowing what was going on just a block or two from their homes. But our question somehow answered itself. Those Individuals who had managed to raise their voices were soon silenced by the repressiive regime of la Risiera staff (Smoljanović (4), 2012: 2).

The inside of the factory

As a colleague stated, being unprepared (5) for what we were about to see shaped the entire visit, as well as our personal impressions.

The entrance to the factory is through a long hallway, with impressively high side walls and without a ceiling - it absorbs voices (Smoljanović, 2012: 4) and silences people in expectation of its end. Like the rest of the building, it is of high monumental value, indicating a strong symbolic architecture. Walking through this hallway is almost like being consumed: the walls seem alive and unwelcoming and the blue sky above seems to represent the only exit.

During our visit, we were received in the “death cell” – a room in which new arrivals awaited transport, assignment or killing. Bodies were also held there before they were cremated and individual testimonies indicate that prisoners were often locked in the “death cell” together with the bodies.

We felt the heavy, black atmosphere of this room and were numbed by the air: not the exterior walls and not the uneven flooring, not even messages carved in wooden doors, but a specific condensation of trauma, pressure, claustrophobia and anxiety it emits (Ibid.).

The room screams with silence, and the extreme brutality, the fear, and the overall anxiety of the place seem to be woven into its wooden and stone walls.

The look of this room made us want to ask how the victims were killed. Stefano Fattorini, our guest guide, answered they were usually suffocated with gas or killed with a blunt object resembling a club. This death object, as professor Fattorini had explained, was no longer exhibited in the Risiera but replaced with a replica because the neo-Nazis stole the original item in 1981, considering it a totem.

This last bit of information made us realize that the current time bears but a contextual difference with the memories represented in the Risiera – it is the context that mutates while human nature remains unchanged.

Going further, we visited the rooms for forced labour and rooms in which the prisoners in the Risiera slept. Stone floors, walls, and wooden beams look on fatefully while professor Fattorini explains how it must have looked once: crowded, stunted, a place unworthy of human life.

The most shocking rooms were those the prisoners slept in. Each one has two bolsters, within which six people were closed at a time. The conditions these people lived in are unimaginable by a modern beholder: cold, damp, dirty, it is hard to visualize their winters and their summers (Ibid.). Dormitories resemble stables and consisted of capsules with air openings on the doors. They line one after another, making us think it is physically impossible for a room that small to contain so many people. The walls and doors of the Risiera are covered with inscriptions: names, messages, greetings... traces of lives resonating trauma.

Diverse memories

Stefano Fattorini spoke of circumstances changing fast from one week to another, making it almost impossible for us to grasp the subjective extent of the Risiera trauma. Besides the testimonies of Nazi soldiers questioned by war tribunals, there are also testimonies and recollections of those soldiers who were forced to collaborate with the Nazis, testimonies from Italian Fascists, personal stories of people from Rijeka (Fiume), and Jewish prisoners who worked in warehouses; there are also letters, diaries (Diego de Henriquez was the author of the famous Risiera diary), etc. (Stefano Fattorini, Trieste, May 29th 2012. Audio data.). These testimonies differ; in fact, they differ a great deal according to professor Fattorini. There is also the fact around 8 000 people went through the Risiera walls on their way to other camps and destinations, thus exhibiting the sheer impossibility to grasp or even sketch the overall memory that surrounds this particular context.

It seems that once they are silenced, fear and trauma resonate, implementing the story of the Risiera with a cacophony of silent voices covered with the intensely heavy atmosphere of the location.

Foiba di Basovizza

The word foiba signifies an open-air carst pit (Latin: fovea – cave, pit), while the term infoibamento signifies the act of throwing a person into a foiba, a type of crime common during WWII in these parts. This crime is often associated with Yugoslavian Partisans who practiced infoibamento on Italian soldiers and civilians. Massive killings were committed in 1943 after the capitulation of Italy and in 1945 when Yugoslavian Partisans took control over the regions of Dalmatia and Venezia Giulia (Julian Region).

Infoibamento was often practiced by tying the prisoners with barbed wire and shooting them in front of the foiba.

We visited foiba di Basovizza on May 27th 2012. The foiba has been an Italian national monument since 1992 and is now situated alongside a newly built museum. The impressions we have been left to encounter there are almost endlessly confusing and incomprehensible (Smoljanović, 2012: 3). Today, foiba di Basovizza is a pit closed with a giant piece of steel for a lid. On site we learned this foiba is not an actual foiba, in the strict geological sense; this particular site had previously been a coal cave that was abandoned. Professor Katia Pizzi, our guest lecturer on site, stated foibas represent bare nature, strong emotional force often used in literature and literature tradition, mainly novels, poetry... explicitly or more often non-explicitly, they became symbolic for a whole memorial grouping(Katia Pizzi, Basovizza, May 27th. Audio data.). Pizzi also stated foibas present a blanket tone, a general tone because of being applied very much of the strong motif force, not necessarily connected with actual examples of atrocity that happened on the sites themselves (Ibid.). Indeed, we discovered that most of the killings did not actually happen on site, but elsewhere, and the bodies were thrown in the foibe afterwards.This makes the foibas symbolic of traumatic forms of violence (Ibid.).

Memory being fluid, sedimented and shifting (Ibid.) there are many facts that make the stories of the foibas problematic, especially due to irreconcilable differences in the official (and unofficial, collective and individual) memories.

Vacant memory

Katia Pizzi underlined the phenomenon of important polarization, typical to this region, constructed to divide the memories and the victims (Ibid.). Together with Pizzi, our second guest lecturer, Gaetano Dato introduced to us two separate institutions: ‘giorno dalla memoria’ or ‘day of memory’, an international institution for the victims of Holocaust commemorated on January 27th; and the ‘giornata del ricordo’ or ‘day of remembrance’, a national institution of the victims of the foibe commemorated on February 10th.

The two institutions are discorporated and appropriated by different parties wanting to celebrate their own victims yet interestingly, the two manifestations are quite close together (Ibid.). Just a couple of weeks divide them from one another.

Professor Dato explained the need for a strong symbol as a vehicle to encourage a shift in commemorative practices (Gaetano Dato, Basovizza, May 27th. Audio data.). The absence of bodies thrown in the foibe (6) makes it impossible to determine the number of casualties, causing a gap in the collective memory. Professor Dato said that the absence of actual bodies makes impossible for the people to focus their mourning (Ibid.) and Prof. Pizzi underlined this thought saying: When you have a gap, you can fill it as you want with meanings and signification. She spoke of wild and incredible numbers on continuously issued lists that construct the meanings and signification to the foiba discourse. She exemplified this with the story of an alleged list issued by Gianni Bartoli, former mayor of Trieste, being buried in the Basovizza foiba. This list represents an important and ultimate list and was itself infoibato, leaving no historical evidence of its existence behind. When the body is not there we annonimize things, leaving important implications of a depersonalized memory (Katia Pizzi, Basovizza, May 27th 2012. Audio data.).

The infoibamento of Bartoli’s list itself tells a meta-narrative, brushing this term onto the foiba discourses as such. In a manner, it underlines and symbolizes the narratives and the entire discourse of this particular phenomenon. Vacant memory therefore indicates the gaps left to be filled out in order to symbolically construct memory, with respect to commemoration but also to abusing historical events for political purposes.

Conclusion: literature as symbolically adequate archive

Pizzi writes that foibas and la Risiera speak with the virtue of their silence, and it is indeed possible to imagine, without the help of literature or a guide, what went on in these places. The possibility of imagination without actual references, unfortunately, leaves the event and/or practices open for all sorts of subjective and politically engaged interpretations. There were many foibas in the Julian Region; the internet provides us with over 40 of their locations (Smoljanović, 2012: 4). Although the commemorative dates evoke remembrance to the Italian infoibati, not all the victims were Italians. Some were Croatian and Slovenian anticommunists and various political enemies. (7)

The division of these phenomenon and versions of history are additionallycomplicated by the fact that borderline regions (such as Julian Region) bear hybrid identities, which are impossible to gather, list and issue as a historical fact.
Most of the remaining testimonies, as professor Pizzi stated, we owe to literature and traditional arts. She recalls Il Baratro by Enrico Morovich, a story written in 1954 and issued 10 years after. (8)

His fiction is relevant because it speaks of the foiba massacre from a distance, using metaphors. In Il Baratro the narrator is a dog, as well as a protagonist in the first part of the narrative. It is possible to read the story as a ghost story, since the character of the dog is deceased and we are in fact addressed by its ghost. Furthermore, ghosts can ignore the border, and it is presented as loose and inconsistent in the story. The people are inhibited by it, but the ghosts are free to step across any way they like. According to Pizzi, there is no place in the story where actual historical events or specific locations, anxieties or traumas are mentioned (Pizzi, 2006: 4).

Pizzi writes that despite the meetings between Slovenian and Italian history committees, which have been held since 1993 in order to bring some light to unanswered questions regarding foibas and the Risiera, these sites have nonetheless continued haunting both national and local imaginations, coming prominently to the fore in bouts of collective obsession or, conversely, remaining neglected in temporary and equally eloquent episodes of collective amnesia (Pizzi, 2006: 2).

The silent narratives are embedded within these places and the narrative silence is exemplified through the usage of metaphors, both signifying an invisible but palpable pressure of the atmosphere and the memories, both evident on sites regardless of their ghostlike nature.

Discourses of absence have been invoked with reference to both sites. Their silence is, however, eloquent, pointing to the uncertain, disconnected, and displaced cultural identity prevailing in this border area (Pizzi, 2006: 2).


(1) A term coined by M.M. Bakhtin signifying the way time and space are represented in language, namely literature. The literal meaning of the term is “time-space”. In this paper, the term refers to both its literate and scientific meaning.
(2) Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland.
(3) It is estimated that within this time (1943-1945) around 3 000-5 000 prisoners were killed within the factory itself.
(4) Kristina Smoljanović is a Cultural Studies baccalaureate. She participated in the Adriatic Study Trip organized by dr. sc. Vjeran Pavlaković in 2011. Cited work is her course paper she has agreed to share with the approval of dr. sc. Vanni D'Alessio for the purpose of this paper. I use this occasion to thank her for the good will as well as the insight in the making of this paper.
(5) Not one of the Rijeka students could have imagined a concentration camp having existed in the middle of a city, especially because most citizens of Rijeka traditionally refer to Trieste as the city for shopping and leisure (Smoljanović, 2012: 4).
(6) A few foibas have been investigated for casualties; however, there is a lack of concrete data on the actual number of the infoibati. Circumstances of the crimes make these inquiries even harder because once revealed, it is virtually impossible to determinate the identities of the casualties and also, the geological foibe were not the only pits in the ground people were thrown in. Various discussions mention various lists and other search results. They differ to a large extent, making the problematic obscure and results versatile (Vanni D'Alessio, Basovizza, May 27th 2012. Audio data.). Professor D'Alessio gave an example of a relatively unknown foiba di Vines situated near Labin in Istria. 84 bodies were found in this foiba, but the site remains uncommemorated.
(7) There are also many discussions about the identities of the infoibati, as well as the numbers of them. The lectures held at Basovizza site explained why Italians mostly commemorate their own victims. The Nazis and the Fascists never accepted the Yugoslav Partisans as an actual army, but as barbarians rather like today's impression of terrorists. This is because Partisans weren't logistically equipped and the natives remember them mostly for inhabiting the forests and resembling a gang rather than an army. This is one of the reasons for various interpretations of the foiba discourse.
(8) These dates also bear significance because in 1954 Trieste had been assigned to Italy and the first Istrian exiles started immigrating to Italy during the 60s. The later is known as esodo.


(Re)Writing history: Textbooks in Croatia

Jelena Batista

Translation and editing: Tea Marković

This work concerns history and culture of memory as subjects of educational curriculum. Particular attention is paid to elementary education, which represents an educational experience common to most people in Europe. While meditating on this topic one should remember that school is not merely an educational tool, but a pedagogic one as well. Special attention should be given to the long-term effects of schooling within our lifetime. In most countries of the West, elementary school is a mandatory process organized under state law. In reviewing some of these concepts and indicating their connectivity, this paper shall demonstrate the ways schools are used as strong ideological tools which enable certain political groups to influence the construction of collective and individual identities. The paper shall concentrate on testing this theory in with reference to the Julian Region, paying particular attention to its Croatian base.

The Julian Region is defined by the Julian Alps on the north and the Trieste and Kvarner bays on the south. The region therefore covers watershed leverage of the Soča River, Istria and limestone area surrounding Trieste. This region is not notable merely for its natural and cultural richness, but also by the fact this area has long faced issues related to the creation of borderline identities – from the time of Charlemagne until today, when Croatia and Slovenia still concern themselves with the question of Savudrija bay. The Julian Region is currently divided among three states: Trieste and Gorizia regions belong to Italy, the maritime portion is part of Slovenia, and the entire territory of Istria and nearby regional parts are Croatian.

Culture of Memory

When we speak of history it is important to state that we are in fact talking about representations of history (Nora, 2006: 24); hence there is not a single viewpoint on a certain event, but rather many possible perspectives. History is multiple and intertwined. We are now beginning to grasp how and why the issue of history can be considered problematic. Memory is (...) always created by groups of people and it is therefore in a constant state of change, open to dialectics of remembrance and amnesia, unaware of its constant distortions, liable to usages and manipulations, long periods of latency and sudden revivals (Nora, 2006: 24) (1).

To write history and hold primacy over its contents is important for many reasons. For one, written history is often used as a justification for the invasion of territories due to the supposedly inextricable historical connections between certain groups of people and a given region.

The myth of a territory according to George Schopfilin is only one of six elementary myths a certain group uses when creating the basic standards for its existence, morals and values. Other elementary myths include the myth of justice and redemption, the myth of an unjustified existence, the myth of perpetual birth, the myth of an uprising of a nation and the myth of the chosen nation. These are especially important because they create an emotional and deep connection among the participants of a group, stronger than any political or monetary union. This connectedness lends to stability and homogeneity within the group by providing its members with social capital and a shared sense of responsibility. The formation of solid group identities is a goal of political leaders because doing so helps create the necessary conditions for a stable and long political rule.

However, it is not enough to merely proclaim a myth; it must also be constructed, scientifically justified and changed in time of need. To set and systematically sustain myths is a goal of every state government. The government uses its various ideological apparatuses in order to implement a myth onto a chosen sociological background. These include special institutions of the following types: religious, educational, familial, juridical, political, informational and cultural (Althusser, 2009: 88-89). The practice of every government is to use state apparatuses (repressive and otherwise) to rule and maintain social order (government, administration, army, police, neighbourhood, prisons). The reason for this lays in the fact no ruling class can maintain the status quo without using such ideological state apparatuses. The importance of ideological state apparatuses is to be found in their underlined socio-practical functions (Ravlić, 2001: 150), which can become efficient means in the hands of the subdued classes in an eventual battle against the State.

The importance of a myth (for a State) is also underlined by the fact that constructed communities must be divided from others territorially using an idea of a border. Also, within a nation there are many groups that exclude those participants who do not share the adoration for a certain myth. The Myth conserves a community, as is visible in a life story of Daniela Visintin, portrayed in the paper by Bjørn Thomassen (2). After WWII, the cold war politics had taken their place on the world's political scene. In the Julian Region, this brought about the polarised concepts of Italo-fascists and Slavo-communists. This situation brought many people to a state of political inbetweenness forcing the people of Istria to leave their homes on both sides of the front.

Political opinion was not very important at that time. Instead, emphasis was placed on which language families used: it was believed to reflect their political engagement. This is how the Italian family Visintin from the Istrian town of Montona became labelled as Italians and therefore nationalistic. This label made it impossible for the Visintins to live at peace with their countrymen. They decided to keep their Italian citizenship, the usage of Italian as a mother tongue and their religious devotion to the Catholic Church, and to opt that is to say to move  and start their life anew on Italian territory. However, the local population did not accept the Visintins as “real Italians”, they were thought foreigners, of alleged German origin, and a new trauma was caused to their already traumatized identity. Rejected by two states, not belonging to either one of the two state myths, the Visintins were forced to seek help in refugee communities and organizations founded by Istrian refugees in Italy, the same ones that contributed to the myth of exodus (3).

(Re)Writing history

At one time in Europe, the Catholic Church held primacy over ideological production; after the French revolution this role had been forwarded to schools. School is not merely an educational institution which provides knowledge of the context, but is also disciplinary. That is to say, it is an institution assigned for collective upbringing. In school, we learn about the rules of behaviour and how to interact with other members of a collective. In the words of Althusser, school teaches us rules of respecting the socio-technical division of labour and hence the rules of order founded by the ruling class (4) (Althusser, 2009, 81). The school is an institution in which children, dependant on the State, spend at least five days in a week, a place they experience their first independent social interaction. School is therefore an ideal place for implementing certain ideological formats which condition ways of life and the perception of its entirety. Its ideological subtleness contributes to a dose of excellence (5). Most of people outside the narrow humanistic discourse find it difficult to look at school as an ideological apparatus because its represented credibility, reality and veracity are connected with science(s) and based on empirical evidence. This is why many people still take textbooks as “good books” that have taken on a solid, almost biblical connotation.

Let us exemplify this by using history books, which have long been used to harden the national identity.  As such, they are excellent indicators of the ways ruling ideologies work because every ruling political party finds reasons for its current position in history and uses these inquiries to gain legitimacy in front of the nation. In Croatia during the 90s (6) and after, explicitly highlighted the influence of the Catholic Church in the supposed creation of a nation (claiming to be over 2700 years old). The Catholic Church (another ideological state apparatus) could always find support in the only political party of the time (HDZ (7) as an ideological apparatus).

Ideology, although non transparent, can be recognized in usage of rituals and symbols. The political dominance of Franjo Tuđman in Croatia brought about the construction of key symbols of the new state (hymn, national flag, emblem, traditional guard in front of “Banski dvori” (8)…) (Rihtman-Auguštin, 1992: 57). It is in fact true that the most interesting history textbooks (in Croatia) were made in the beginning of the 90s and actually reflect the state of the current political condition; these books do not only reflect the perspectives of their authors ,but also the official politics of that time (Agičić and Najbar-Agičić, 2007: 203). The ruling party in Croatia during the 90s had its heart set on deleting associations between Croatia and “the uncivilized, barbaric” East and underlining those that associate Croatia with the “civilized”, European community, functioning as the divisional point for the two.

It is important to realize that the manipulation of past events does not happen only during a particular period or under a particular political regime. On the contrary, the goal is to demonstrate how these interventions help constitute the search for legitimacy in most political regimes.  Although I will not enter deeply into this problematic, the newly created State of Croatia soon encountered a problem regarding the identities of those people inhabiting the west borderline territory; specifically, their regional identity as Istrians clashed with the national identity the state was attempting to legitimate.

The writing and editing of school books is a complex procedure. The books emit the attitude and opinions of their authors, which function together with the opinion of the governmental authority that hired the author in the first place. So, reading the history books of a certain country is a way of beholding its history, but mostly it is a self-presentation of the ruling government trough time (Petrungaro, 2009: 30). History is not a question of a Truth but of self-representation, a picture that the government wants to implement concerning itself and others.

It is important to stress that a textbook does not consist of written text only (its contents and writing style) but also of appendixes such as pictures, drawings, photographs, diagrams and songs. Our perception of textbooks therefore does not depend only upon what is written within them, but on their overall design. In our case, the Yugoslav history books mostly contain numerous pictures of great personalities, making the text cover only half of a textbook page. The texts were also rather short. On the contrary, the NDH (9) history books included a great deal of text and a small number of photographs; they were printed in the low quality paper print characteristic of socialist rule. These, however, also include for the first time graphics, tables and a random selection of brutal war photography (that includes the occasional picture of entry wounds or even hanging) (Petrungaro, 2009: 51).

However, history does not consist only of what was said or done in the past, but also of what was not. The main characteristic of re-writing history is not so much falsification, but silence (Petrungaro, 2009: 33). The unusable history is sinking into oblivion (Kuljić, 2006: 76) (10). The narrative of exodus which Daniela Visintin spoke about, and that of most of the Istrian esuli, (11) indicates communist brutality against the Italians – people whose only crime was declaring their Italian identity.

Tito’s Yugoslavia denied these accusations because they defied the image of a socialist community based on ethnic brotherhood and its democratic character. Yugoslavia spoke only of a Concordia and of the peaceful cohabitation of Italians and Yugoslavs. These examples lead us to a conclusion that cultural memory does not require facts, but merely remembered history which it then transforms into a myth. Myth is a founding history, a history based on telling a story which then throws a light at the present (Assmann, 2006: 64) (12).


Writing history books has always been a question of governmental self-representation. Selecting and editing of contextual information does not reflect past reality but the present characteristics of a government. To put it simply, it underlines the current political context. This information is often used for creating feelings of national unity necessary for the maintenance of the status quo. In these cases it is necessary to remain aware that there is not a single representation of history because there is no such thing as an identical experience of the same event by two different people (or even a single person).

There is no black-and-white world, a world offered to us by textbooks – there are, however, multiple versions that depend on the ideological position of the authority.
The constant is this: history is always created by the present. It is created through choosing the elements that coincide with the feeling which at a given moment inaugurates them (Knapp, 2006: 90).


(1) Translation from Croatian.
(2) Italy from Below and from the Outside-in: an Istrian Life Story across the Italo-Yugoslav Border.
(3) On the myth of exodus in Italy see more in D’Alessio, Vanni. Dynamics of Identity and Remembrance in Trieste. Esodo, Foibe and the Complex Memory of Italy’s Oriental Border. Confronting the Past: European Experiences (book 10), (Ed.) Pauković, D. et. al. Zagreb: Political Science Research Centre, 2010.
(4) Translation from Croatian.
(5) Theoretical rotundity indicating certainty. (Footnote by translator.)
(6) The Serbo-Croatian War was in Croatia called the War for Independence or Homeland War (1991-1995).
(7) Hrvatska Demokratska Zajednica/Croatian Democratic Union – a nationalist party founded in 1989. They won the elections two years later as the only Croatian party at the time. Its first president was Dr. Franjo Tuđman. (Footnote by translator.)
(8) Banski dvori are the residence of Croatian presidents since 1990. (Ibid.)
(9) Nezavisna Država Hrvatska/Independent State of Croatia (1941-1945) was known for expressed nationalistic aim and usage of the repressive apparatus. (Footnote by translator.)
(10) Translation from Croatian original.
(11) Esodo and Esuli are concepts concerning the Istrian refugees of whom the first arrived in Italy in the 60s. At the end of Cold War, these idioms were widely spread in Italy because the eastern border again became a political issue (D'Alessio, 2010: 3). (Footnote by translator.)
(12) Translation from Croatian.


Previous destination Next destination

Lipa Basovizza Kobarid Log pod Mangartom Redipuglia Gonars Risiera di San Sabba Pula Rijeka