Downwind of Nazism

Russell Valentino

In the town of Gorizia, just north-east of Trieste, I visited a museum that's housed in the local synagogue and is devoted to the memory of the Jewish community of Gorizia. There is no Jewish community of Gorizia, not for the past 40 years. But there are people who work at the synagogue, care for the memory of the place and people who once worshiped there, and provide a place for those of us who might care about them to visit:⟨=1 The museum holds some works by Carlo Michelstaedter, a brilliant Hapsburg-era philosopher, who shot himself in 1910, after having completed a book entitled Persuasion and Rhetoric (English translation by Cinzia Sartini Blum, David Depew, and me --

I've had a long fascination with this man and his work, and learning more about where he came from was my main reason for visiting. But as I was there, I couldn't help but wonder about the maintenance of such a place, the responsibility that some people take on in preserving, sometimes restoring, and in general caring for memories that are not really theirs. I suppose I compare this to the preservation of memory among exile and refugee groups -- this area is full of them -- which tend to be rather strictly confined to themselves. That morning in a cafe called La viecia batana in Rovinj, which is where my poet used to sit in the evenings to compose his verse, I met friends Toma Longinovic, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison ( and Ellen Elias Bursac, who just finished work as the deputy head of the English translation unit at the UN's war crimes tribunal in The Hague (

The UN didn't like people mentioning Ellen's work before, but now that she's taken early retirement, talking about it is no longer an issue. I was thrilled to learn that she's writing a book about the translation process at the tribunal and how it worked together with the legal and political sides of prosecuting war criminals from the 1990s conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. Both the process and what she has to say about it are fascinating, with the ever contestable nature of the source (what happened, who did what, who said what, who heard who say what and when) at its core. This is a book to watch for. We also had a chance to discuss Ellen's translation of a novel entitled Sunshine by Dasa Drndic, which will be published by Maclehose Press in the UK ( in 2011. (Internal memo: Dwight, um, I mean Sarah, please write to them for an advance review copy.)

Here's a description from last year's Frankfurt Book Fair brochure: Haya Tedeschi sits alone, an old woman, in Gorizia, north-eastern Italy, surrounded by a basket of photographs and newspaper clippings researching the Nazis. She waits to be reunited, sixty-two years on, with her long-lost son who was fathered by a Nazi officer and stolen from her by the German authorities during the War. The novel presents Haya's studies of her Catholicized Jewish family's experiences during the two world wars, foregrounding the massacres of Italian Jews in the concentration camps of Trieste. Biographies of SS guards, testimony from the Nuremberg war crimes trials, and interviews from second generation Jews gradually reveal the horror of the Nazi occupation of northern Italy. Sunshine explores the tragedy of a people torn apart by an oppressor's ideology in extraordinarily powerful language. It is a novel that attempts to bring justice to the victims of the past while also providing a moving story for contemporary readers. (end summary)

The concentration camp she writes about was a converted rise factory, La Risiera di San Sabba ( As we were talking, Ellen wondered about the heritage of Nazism in Europe, which is at the story's core, but which she takes as a symbolic assertion of the book, or at least a question it leaves us with, about how we deal with the fact that, in a way, we are all a little like Haya Tedeschi, trying to come to terms with our own placement in a history constructed largely through responses to Nazism.