In September 1943 after the Italian armistice the Nazis took over control of Northern and central Italy. They immediately began to inflict their brutal regime on the Italians and others unfortunate enough to fall under their control. Within weeks they had commandeered an old rice factory on the outskirts of Trieste and converted first into a barracks and then shortly afterwards a detention camp. It was to become a brutal place of torture and execution.
Trieste’s proximity to Slovenia and the extensive partisan activity in southern Slovenia and Croatia meant that huge numbers of captured and suspected Slovenian partisans were brought there. In addition it was used for Italian partisans, “deserters” Italian soldiers who had laid down their arms, Jews, Political prisoners, Anti Fascists, and anyone suspected or being a threat to the Nazi regime. By the time Triste was liberated by the Yugoslavian army on May 1st 1945 an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 people had been murdered in Risiera di San Saba. Their bodies burned in a specially built crematorium added onto the factory for that single purpose in April 1944.
The victims were mostly members of the Resistance (Italians, Slovenians and Croats), hostages captured during the round-ups and civilians arrested because they were suspected of collaborating with the partisans. Many of them were transferred from the city prisons of Coroneo or the Gestapo and SIPOSD (Sicherheitspolizei-Sicherheitsdienst) command in Piazza Oberdan, many were brought there directly from where they had been captured.
The SS and the Ukrainian soldiers working under them were in charge of the killings, and used various means of doing so: hanging, firing squad, gas emissions, bludgeoning. The executions generally took place at night; from the depositions given during the trials of former Guards after the war it emerged that the SS set the dogs loose and played loud music in the camp to cover the cries of the prisoners.
What is certain is that around 25 Jews were killed at the camp because they were considered unable to face deportation, or because they were accused of breaching the regulations.
The Jewish Italians
Prior to 1938 the Jewish population of Italy was numbered at 40,000. Most of these were concentrated in the capital, Rome, and also the other northern cities primarily Venice, Trieste, Florence, Ferrara and Turin. The oppression of Italian Jews began in September 1938 with the enactment of Racial Laws of segregation by the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini. As a result the Jewish population of Italy were deprived of civil rights and prevented from holding certain positions in Government and other prominent positions in society. However, despite this, Italy and later the Italian occupation zones in Greece, France and Yugoslavia remined places of relative safety for local Jews and Jewish refugees who had made their way to Italy from other parts of Europe. As a result the number of Jews in Italy increased during the war by just over 10%. It is estimated 44,500 Jews were living in Italy prior to the armistice. This changed in September 1943, when German forces occupied the country, installed the puppet state of the Italian Social Republic and immediately began persecuting and deporting the Jews found in the parts of Italy under their control. there. In the nineteen months of German occupation, from September 1943 to May 1945, twenty percent of Italy’s pre-war Jewish population were killed by the Nazis.
Of the estimated 44,500 Jews living in Italy before September 1943, approximately 10,000 were murdered immediately or deported to Poland. Arrested Jews were taken to the transit camps at Borgo San Dalmazzo (in Piedmont about 5 miles south of the city of Cuneo), Fossolini (near Modena in Emilia-Romagna) and the largest Bolzano in South Tyrol, and from there to Auschwitz. Jews detained in Eastern Italy and Slovenia were held at Risiera di San Saba. Altogether, by the end of the war, almost 8,600 Jews from Italy and Italian-controlled areas in France and Greece were deported to Auschwitz; all but 1,000 were murdered. Only 506 were sent to other camps (Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Ravensbrück, and Flossenbürg) as hostages or political prisoners. Among them were a few hundred Jews from Libya, an Italian colony before the war, who had been deported to mainland Italy in 1942, and were sent to Bergen-Belsen. In all 7,680 were murdered, mainly in Auschwitz. A further 300 Jews were shot or died of other causes in transit camps in Italy. Nearly 37,000 survived by fleeing to areas not under German control or hidden with the assistance of their Italian friends and neighbours. Unfortunately in the hunt and roundup of Italian Jews some Italian police and the Fascist militia played an integral role as the Germans’ accessories.
After being captured by Fascist Militia in December 1943 hiding in the mountains with a Partisan group, Turin Jew, Primo Levi found himself sent to one these detention camps. “ As a Jew I was sent to Fossoli near Modena, where a vast detention camp, originally meant for English and American prisoners of war, collected all the numerous categories of people, not approved of by the new born Fascist Republic. At the moment of my arrival , that is, at the end of January 1944, there were about 150 Italian Jews in the camp, but within a few weeks their number rose to over six hundred” (Primo Levi p. 20). Levi was one of a batch of 650 Jewish Italians sent by train from Carpi to Auschwitz in February 1944.
In 1938 Trieste there was a large Jewish population of about 6,000 and they were very prominent in the city’s economy. In 1912 the Great Synagogue of Trieste was opened, replacing a number of smaller ones in the city. It was built under Austrian rule, between 1908 and 1912, and was located on the Via S. Francesco D’Assisi, close to the city centre. The synagogue was closed in 1942 following an attack by a Fascist mob who desecrated it. During the Nazi occupation, it was used as a storehouse for works of art and books seized from the Jewish houses. The ritual silvers of the Community were preserved from the plunder thanks to a clever hiding place inside the very building. As soon as the war finished the synagogue went back into operation.
When the Nazis arrived in Trieste in September 1943 about half the Jewish population, being aware of what was in store, had left. However on October 19th 1943 the first round up of Jews began in the city. This was followed in January 29th 1944 by a second one this one targeting the sick and elderly in old people’s homes. Most of these unfortunate Jews were taken first to Risiera di San Saba, where they were kept before being put on trains for Poland. Most never returned. Following this Risiera di San Saba continued to utilised as a holding centre for Jews captured in small numbers in various roundups and arrests. Once there was a sufficient number a train was organised to take them to the death camps.
Polictical Prisoners and Partisans.
Political prisoners, mainly leftist Italians and anti fascists were arrested and sent to Risiera di San Saba to be executed or held until they were eventually murdered. Captured resistance fighters and partisans from all over northern Italy and parts of Slovenia and Croatia were first interrogated and tortured in the Gestapo HQ and SIPOSD (Sicherheitspolizei-Sicherheitsdienst) command in Piazza Oberdan. Afterwards they were transferred to Risiera di San Saba to be executed or deported to camps.
In April 1945 as Yugoslavian partisans approached Trieste from the south. The New Zealand 2nd Division was rapidly approaching from the west, having taken Padua on April 28th, crossing the Isonzo on May 1st 1945. the camp was evacuated. The crematorium was blown up and the guards fled. The remaining German troops and their Chetnik irregulars gradually retreated inside the Castle of San Giusto and refused to surrender to the Yugoslavs who finally rolled into Trieste on May 1st 1945. The New Zealanders arrived the following day and the Germans and Chetniks surrendered to them. Despite the presence of the New Zealanders the Yugoslavs held full control of the city until June 12th 1945, a period known in Italian historiography as the “forty days of Trieste”. During this period, hundreds of local Italians and anti-Communist Slovenes were arrested by the Yugoslav authorities, and many of them were never seen again, most were taken away and shot on the Karst Plateau outside the city and their bodies dropped into ravines. British Field Marshall Alexander condemned the Yugoslav military occupation and the atrocities that were occurring. After an agreement between the Yugoslav leader Josip Tito and Field Marshal Alexander, the Yugoslav forces withdrew from Trieste, which came under a joint British-U.S. military administration.
In immediate aftermath of the War Risiera di San Saba lay half destroyed. However in the 1950s it was utilised once again. This time as a temporary transit camp for, mainly, ethnic Italian refugees who had been expelled from or were fleeing Yugoslavia. Today it is a museum situated not too far from Trieste city centre at 1 Via Rio Primario, Trieste, 34148. It can easily reached by a bus from the Piazza Goldini in the city centre.
Refs: If This Is A Man -Primo Levi – Penguin Books 1979;