About Trieste (and my father)

I came to know Trieste in response to a challenge from my fellow writers.  While working on a memoir, they stopped me one day and asked, “You’ve written about your own experience and your experience with your children, but you’ve hardly mentioned your father.  You didn’t show up to the challenges of fatherhood as a blank slate.  How did he shape you?”


My initial response was “He had nothing to do with it.”

A lot of eyebrows went up.  “There’s a lot of charge in that statement,” someone said.  And I knew what that meant.

To understand my father’s history, I had to learn a few things about Trieste.  From 2006 through 2013, I spent a total of 6 months there.  I interviewed my father, documenting his life and quizzing him about our family.  He had already completed a family tree with one branch going back to the 17th century.  I talked with his friends.  I roamed the city.  I sharpened my Italian skills so I could read history and at least make an attempt at Triestine fiction and poetry in their original language.

My father was born in Trieste in 1925 and lived there until he left in 1954 to get an MBA at Syracuse University.  Like the city, he is multi-lingual and multi-cultural.  How many people have had three significant long-term romantic relationships with three women in three different languages?

Trieste bears both the blessing and the curse of being a border city at the confluence of Latin, Slavic and Germanic cultures.  For the past 100 years, it’s been the rope in a tug of war that, depending on the year, meant Italy vs. Austria, Italy vs. Germany or Italy vs. Yugoslavia.  My grandfather Umberto lived his whole life in Trieste, and during that time it was ruled or administered by six different nations:  The Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Kingdom of Italy, the German Third Reich, Yugoslavia, US and British occupation forces, and, most recently — you never know — the Republic of Italy.

Trieste is a provincial capital in the northeast corner of today’s Italy, on the border with Slovenia, about an hour and a half by car east of Venice.  It sits on the Adriatic Sea, just below the southern edge of a massive karst formation that rises 1,500 feet from the Gulf of Trieste and extends north into Slovenia.

Trieste today is a cosmopolitan city with a long history of international commerce, multi-culturalism and religious tolerance. Long the primary port of the Austro-Hungarian Empire — and before World War I, the largest port by tonnage in Europe — it has now been a magnet for retirees, boasting the best quality of life of any city in Italy.

My father’s life there included tough times.  Born in 1925, he grew up in a family comfortable financially but nonetheless affected by the worldwide economic depression of the early 1930s and further restricted by League of Nations sanctions imposed for Mussolini’s military adventures.   In 1940, Italy entered World War II on the side of Germany and, woefully under-equipped, suffered multiple disasters.  In September, 1943, the Italian government collapsed and most of northern Italy, including Trieste, was taken over by German troops.  Trieste was officially annexed to the Third Reich.

Things got even worse.  When Slovenian Partisans set off a bomb in downtown Trieste, killing five German soldiers, the Nazis seized and hung 50 civilians as a reprisal.  These men, women, and teenage boys and girls were strung up from the eaves of a building in downtown Trieste.  That building was on my father’s regular walk to school.

Unbeknownst to Trieste, the Nazis also established the only extermination facility in Italy, in a converted rice processing plant near the shipyards. Over the next two years, they proceeded to wipe out what was left of Trieste’s Jewish community, along with thousands of Gypsies, political prisoners, resistance fighters and other suspicious persons thrown in.

As the war drew to an end, my father, a college student exempted from military service due to an ulcer but otherwise okay, faced increasing danger of being conscripted by the Germans as they prepared to leave Trieste.  My grandfather’s relationship with a German banker helped my father escape, sitting on a box in the back of a truck driven by two German couriers from Trieste to Milan.  Because all the bridges across the rivers were out, a trip that today would take five hours took two days.  Lucky for my father, the weather was cloudy, so Allied war planes, which were strafing anything that moved, couldn’t operate.  He was lucky a second way: the truck wasn’t stopped by Partisans, or he would have been executed as a suspected Nazi.

When the war ended, my father saw Mussolini’s body hanging from a  gas station awning  in Milan’s Piazzale Loretto.  When my father returned to Trieste near the end of June, 1945, he found it occupied by British and American soldiers.  They had just taken over from Yugoslav army and Partisan units who had hoped to claim Trieste for Yugoslavia.  But the so-called temporary border essentially divided the city, and Trieste became the southern end of the Iron Curtain.  Cut off from its traditional territories and hanging off the end of a sliver of land connecting to the rest of Italy, Trieste nearly collapsed economically.  While the city’s status was debated at the highest levels of global politics, it took nine years to get a final settlement, an outcome that left the city partitioned and none of its residents satisfied.

That was 1954.  My father was 29.  He escaped thanks to winning an American scholarship to business school, earning his MBA at Syracuse, then joining Sperry Univac, one of the pioneers of the early computer industry.  While attending a training program in Philadelphia, he met my mother.

Dad and me, San Giusto Castle, Trieste, April 2008

Those 29 years in Trieste shaped my father in ways that in turn shaped me.  It took a while to dig all those influences out, but the process resulted in a reconciliation of sorts.  My father left us in California when I was 15 and moved back to Europe, where he lives to this day (in Switzerland now, after long stays in Vienna and Trieste).  Until I began this investigation, I hardly knew him.

I didn’t always like what I learned, but I came to understand him, forgive him and even appreciate some of his good points.

One outcome of all the time I’ve spent in Trieste was that two women, longtime friends of my father’s, appointed themselves my second and third mothers, respectively.  Yes, I was thrilled.  My father was an only child and had only one cousin.  These women dramatically extended my family.  I feel lucky.  And I thank my father for giving me lots of good excuses to spend time in a wonderful city (recently rated by Lonely Planet as one of the world’s unsung treasures).