Book Review

'Trieste': Sleeping with the enemy in World War II

Dasa Drndic’s novel examines the meaning of family and loyalty.

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An extraordinarily rewarding novel about little-publicized and still infuriating aspects of World War II, Dasa Drndic's "Trieste" deeply probes the meaning of family and loyalty in a range spanning pure love and political collaboration. Its backbone is the story of Haya Tedeschi, an Italian Jew from a Catholicized family in Gorizia, a town on the Italian-Slovenian border north of Trieste, the novel's namesake.

In the middle of the war, Tedeschi fell in love with Kurt Franz, a dashing German officer, and bore him a son, Antonio. Haya was naive; she didn't know Franz was a particularly sadistic member of the SS who exterminated Jews at Treblinka, the concentration camp where he gussied up the entrance to make it look like a train station.

Her naivete began to recede when the Nazis took away her infant son, prompting her to re-examine her own motivations and dedicate her life to researching the fate of other Italian Jews under the Nazis -- and to finding Antonio. Haya, whom we meet as an old but hale woman, and her son, who finally makes his appearance in the last third of the book, are survivors.

By Dasa Drndic
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ($27)

Ms. Drndic, the Croatian novelist who spins this rich and unsettling tale, doesn't confine herself to straight narrative; had she done so, this might have been a thriller, a kind of detective story with revenge as the denouement.

Instead, in Ellen Elias-Bursac's skillful translation, Ms. Drndic maps out far larger territory, breaking novelistic convention to do so. By interweaving straight narrative with historical documentation and braiding quotations from survivors with stories they might have told, Ms. Drndic has crafted a singular tapestry informed by sorrow and anger.

While her focus is a single family and Antonio, the Mischling -- the term the Nazis used for a crossbreed, a mix of Aryan and Jew -- at its center, her canvas is far broader. At its core is Lebensborn, the name of a Nazi program designed to create an Aryan master race by mating pure Nazis with anonymous child bearers. Antonio is a bastard who slipped through the cracks.

So this novel aims to unearth a largely hidden history, the story of the fate of the Italian Jews exterminated in the camps around Trieste. It's as much war memorial as work of fiction: Ms. Drndic devotes pages 143 to 186 to listing about 9,000 names of "Jews who were deported from Italy, or killed in Italy or in the countries Italy occupied between 1943 and 1945."

You don't have to read them all to realize you can't tell from the names that these were Jews. You don't have to read them all to be crushed by weight of that very confined, underexposed horror.

In testimony Haya unearths, a Treblinka survivor says 10,000 to 12,000 Jews were exterminated at Treblinka at its peak in 1943 and 1944, the years Ms. Drndic puts under her stern and unforgiving microscope. The Nazis started with three gas chambers at Treblinka, added another 10 -- and planned 25.

While this is fiction, facts add weight: Anni-Frid Lyngstad, the Norwegian brunette in ABBA, is a Lebensborn child. The Austrian Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ms. Drndic suggests through testimony, forgives his father as an "ordinary soldier" in the Wehrmacht; and Niklas Frank, whose father, Hans, was responsible for the murder of many Polish Jews, has dedicated his life to shaming his ancestor.

"The truth is absolutely simple," Haya's son, who grew up as Hans Traube, says to sum up. "Our fathers were criminals and murderers, so screw those platitudes about the banality of evil. There are no justifications, there is no valid relativization, there is no excuse."

Carlo Wolff is a reporter for the Cleveland Jewish News.

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