Emily in Florence: Visiting the Risiera di San Sabba

    Since I’ve been in Europe, I’ve wanted to visit a concentration camp. I know it sounds depressing, but I felt that because I’m Jewish and have heard about the Holocaust all my life, it was important to see where it happened. My first plan was to visit Dachau during a weekend trip to Munich, but that trip fell through. After some research, I found a site in Italy that could fill this need.

    The Risiera di San Sabba is located in Trieste at the far northeastern tip of Italy, right near the Adriatic Sea. It was originally a rice husking factory that was used as a camp during the Holocaust. Never heard of it? I’m not surprised. During my visit, I learned that only 20,000 people passed through there, claiming 3,000 to 5,000 lives. Now I don’t mean to diminish its significance by saying “only” so many passed through, however, the numbers are smaller than the major camps of which most of us have heard.

    On a Saturday morning I woke up for a 7 a.m. train, and finally arrived in the town of Trieste at around 2 p.m. I took a local bus to the camp, where friendly women gave me directions, using a mix of Italian and hand gestures, as the camp was a fifteen minute walk from the bus stop. Upon arriving at the Risiera, I was greeted by a man who spoke very little English but was eager to help. The Risiera was a free monument, but I purchased a booklet of information for a Euro.

    I started towards the first room, but the man came out holding a VHS with “INGLESE” written on a piece of masking tape. He set me up with the VHS and I began to learn about the Risiera. The video included testimony from prisoners detained there as well as general history. I learned that most of the people in the Risiera were either Italian, Croatian or Slovenian, which makes sense as the city of Trieste is located very close to both Croatia and Slovenia. The camp was used both for executions and for transport, so those lucky enough to escape death at the Risiera often met their end at one of the more famous camps, such as Dachau, Auschwitz or Mauthausen. The camp was small, and this small size made the Risiera unique from the other camps as prisoners were housed less than 50 feet away from the oven used for cremation. After the movie, I sat a bit and thought. I came to the camp alone, and felt a bit scared. The sun had already set and it was cold out, but I supposed one is not supposed to feel comfortable visiting a place like this.

    I walked out of the room and headed for the first “site” at the camp, a medium-sized room known as the “death cell.” This room is where the executions took place at the camp, and testimonies say that bodies awaiting cremation would often be strewn about on the floor when the next prisoner came in. While the executions were taking place, the Nazis would create a lot of noise with barking dogs and wailing sirens to drown out the screams. I walked around the room, ran my hands over the walls and tried to imagine myself in their situation. I feel like that’s the point of visiting a place like this, to try to understand what it was like for the people who suffered here. I tried to put myself in their shoes, but couldn’t really do it. It is too unfathomable for me. Nothing I have experienced in my life could come close to the fear that these people must have felt as they entered this room.

    I decided to move to the next room, a large one with 17 small cells, which were said to have housed up to six prisoners at once. These cells were only about four feet wide and were probably not tall enough for a full-grown man to stand up straight. During the video, I learned that the only light they received was from a small hole in the door, and light only could shine in if the main door and windows were opened. If nothing much was going on that day, the prisoners were allowed a few hours of light, but if there were visitors or executions going on, they lived in darkness. One man in the video commented that lice ran rampant, and he felt as if he was wearing a heavy coat. He commented about the difficulty of the days when they had no light in which to pick off their lice.

    This room affected me the most. I was alone in the room; some leaves on the floor were blowing in the wind, and it felt very real. I walked down the length of the room and back, then had to leave. I wasn’t overcome with sadness, I just really didn’t want to be alone in there any longer. I continued through the camp and looked at the exhibits which housed clothing and belongings left by those incarcerated here. The crematorium originally stood in the center of the complex, but the Germans bombed it to cover up what they had done towards the end of the war, so its location is now marked by a large metal plate.

    I can’t say I learned very much information I didn’t already know on the day I visited the Risiera. I had already learned of the atrocities in both Hebrew school and high school — I knew what happened. But I can say I felt something that day that I hadn’t felt before about the Holocaust. No matter how many pictures I had seen, it just didn’t feel truly real to me until that day. I think that’s why I wanted to go in the first place, not to learn more, but to feel more and try to understand. I can’t say I now know how it felt, now that it is finally clear. But I can say I know more now than I did before, and that’s all I could have hoped for.

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