Mass killings in 1945 Trieste still a source of controversy Communist-Fascist clash resonates 5 decades later

April 20, 1997|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

TRIESTE, Italy -- The cavernous pits and gorges scattered throughout the hills above this port city hold dark secrets from the twilight days of World War II, secrets that still disturb Italy and its Balkan neighbors.

The pits, covered with tons of debris, are believed to hold hundreds, perhaps thousands, of corpses. The bodies are those of Italians and Yugoslavs who opposed the Yugoslav Communist takeover of the city in May 1945, along with scores of captured Germans. But attempts to investigate have gone nowhere.

"It is impossible to consider exhuming the bodies," said a University of Trieste historian, Gianpaolo Valdevit. "It's just too controversial, too painful. This is a chapter of the war people in the city are not ready to reopen."

Members of the Slav minority in Trieste, who often deny that the killings took place, and the old Italian Communists, who see the massacres as an embarrassment, have been able to block any investigation. The Italian right wing, which says that 20,000 Italians were killed here -- a figure most scholars dismiss as greatly inflated -- is reluctant to see its figures dismissed by any exhumations.

In May 1945, Tito's Communist Partisans in Yugoslavia, after a bitter guerrilla war against the German and Croatian Fascists, pursued the retreating forces toward Italy. The Partisan army's 40-day occupation of Trieste and hunt for German soldiers, Italian and Croatian Fascists and suspected opponents of communism nearly led to a clash with Allied forces. In June, the Yugoslavs withdrew to the hinterlands.

For the next nine years, Trieste was under a British and U.S. military government. It was handed back to Italy in 1954. Today the city has 230,000 people, many of them from Italian families forced out of Yugoslavia after the war. The Italian right-wing National Alliance party, which received 24 percent of the vote in Trieste's last elections, cites the massacres and the expulsions to fan sentiment against the city's ethnic Slav minority, who make up about 30 percent of the population.

Most of them, Slovene-speaking Italians, teach their children in local Slovene schools about the Fascist repression, when their language was banned and Slavs were purged from government jobs. Samo Pahor, a local Slovene leader, said, "The stories about the Partisan massacres of Italians are not true."

Trieste in May 1945 was a chaotic city filled with cornered German, Croatian and Italian soldiers who continued to fight despite Italy's capitulation in 1943. Scores of accused Fascists were paraded daily by the Partisans through the cobblestone streets to Yugoslav military courts. Most were quickly condemned to death and shot, or thrown alive into gorges and pits.

Many Slovenes in Trieste at the time, ecstatic at the downfall of Italian Fascism, greeted the Partisans as liberators and assisted in manhunts by the Yugoslav secret police.

During the occupation, at least 3,500 residents of Trieste, along with an unknown number of Yugoslavs, Italians and Germans who washed up there, were killed and thrown into the fissures, or foibes, of the Carso mountain range, the eastern end of the Italian Alps. Thousands more were deported, and many perished in Yugoslav detention camps.

Pub Date: 4/20/97

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