Tuesday, August 28, 2012


Trieste as I saw it a few years ago was a quiet European city far from the standard tourist itinerary. A main attraction of Trieste is called Miramar: the castle of Maximillian of Austria, built in the mid-19th century. Compared to Tuscan hill towns, Sicily’s Greek ruins, and Roman splendor it’s not much. I found it very stuffy in its Victorian way!

During the first years of the twentieth century, Trieste was a very different type of place – the major port of the Austrian Empire, bustling with ship-building and related industries, international trans-shipping and trade, insurance companies, and more: it was a commercial and cultural hub.

Miramar Castle, Trieste

The Trieste of 100 years ago is one of the cities of Eastern Europe that I find intriguing, and I’ve begun reading about it in my ongoing study of Jewish secular culture of the past. Its history resonates with similarities to Odessa (a free port, with many ethnic and language groups attracted by the freedom) and influences from Vienna, both of which I read about earlier this year.

Politically a lot was going on in Trieste as well: the 75% of the population who were Italian, especially, had nationalist Italian sentiments, and socialism attracted others. Italian opera and plays were popular, and a variety of newspapers reflected political and intellectual trends in Italy. Numerous civil servants of the Empire used German as their main language, but in the street and culturally, Italian predominated.

James Joyce offers the most famous Jewish connection with Trieste – in fact, he’s surely the most famous person who lived there during those glorious years. He arrived there almost at random in 1904 with his life partner Nora Barnacle (eventually his wife, but not then). After a false start in a nearby town, Joyce settled into a job teaching English at the Berlitz school and sometimes freelance; he stayed until Trieste became a battleground in World War I. He became fluent in standard Italian and the local Italian of Trieste, and wrote reviews and other types of essays for one of the papers, as well as giving public lectures about Ireland and other subjects. The nationalists identified with the Irish independence struggle as Joyce described it.

Joyce’s students were typical of the white-collar middle class of Trieste. They wanted to learn English mainly for advancement in their jobs in international business. Trieste was growing as new rail lines were being built to connect new cities in Austria, and as the port was being expanded; languages beyond the native German, Italian, Greek, and Slavic were needed.

Among Joyce’s contacts and students were many Jews, including a newspaper owner and other prominent intellectuals. Interested in the ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity of this port city, Joyce often attended various religious services (although remaining a strictly lapsed and anti-cult Catholic). He seems to have been partial to one of the Eastern Catholic services.

Attending a synagogue service once, he recognized many of his students – though quite a few of his Jewish associates and students were themselves lapsed from religious practice. Something like 1200 of the 5500 Jews in Trieste at the time were “without confession,” which could mean they weren’t practicing or that they had intermarried with non-Jews. The Jewish community counted them and found them a matter for concern (as Jewish communities have been doing ever since).

Joyce’s closest friend among the local community in Trieste was his student Italo Svevo. At the time they met, Svevo needed to learn English because of his work as a manager for a supplier to the ship-building industry. Privately, Svevo was also an author – unrecognized and unappreciated. Joyce was not much more successful yet either. They read each other’s work, discussed their efforts, and mutually supported one another. Eventually, Joyce became a highly successful author, and was able to arrange for much wider distribution, reviews, and translations of Svevo’s work, but at the beginning they were much closer to equals.

Svevo was one of the lapsed Jews that the community worried about. He had been raised as a Jew in a complicated, partially Jewish family, but married a Catholic in a civil ceremony, and eventually converted to Catholicism. Joyce, being fascinated by all things Jewish, used Svevo as one of many sources and inspirations while writing Ulysses. In an interchange between Stanislaus Joyce (brother of James who lived with the family in Trieste), and Svevo, it is said that Svevo asked Stanislaus for some secrets or unknown facts about Irishmen – claiming he wanted to be even with James Joyce who constantly asked him about the Jews.

I try to imagine Trieste as Joyce and Nora saw it before the Great War: coffee shops, restaurants, well-dressed, ambitious affluent people in the street, much building and development of infrastructure and industry. They lived downtown where there was lots of activity, as well as the school where Joyce worked. They loved to take walks, including to Miriamar whose gardens were open to the public.

Despite being surrounded by prosperity, the Joyces struggled to make ends meet; after her second child was born in a charity ward, Nora received a cash gift because they were so poor. They struggled to support their two children, and often begged or demanded money from friends and relatives. Svevo once referred to Joyce as “a leech” but he seemed good natured and in fact was very generous towards him with loans and gifts of money.

Among the many appealing features of the city, Trieste was full of activity and trade with the Levant and the West and with people traveling. Joyce’s strong sense of himself as an exile and themes of exile in his work are often (I mean really often) discussed – I wonder how his sense of exile was influenced by the many travelers and emigrants, especially by the opening in 1904, about the time he arrived, of direct emigrant service from the port of Trieste to New York for the masses of people leaving the Austrian Empire and Eastern Europe.

A few other emigrants leaving Trieste from Central and Eastern Europe were Zionists departing for Jaffa via Alexandria – though many more would have traveled through Odessa, because the fare was half as much and the voyage was direct. Some of the Jews of Trieste were committed to helping these emigrants in transit, though most of them were quite content with their Triestine lives, not interested themselves in making Aliah.

All this ended with World War I; the city, important as it was, was directly affected. Joyce’s brother Stanislaus was interned in a camp for four years for possibly unjust political reasons. Joyce and Nora left with their children.

After the War, the Joyce family briefly returned to Trieste. The Italian nationalists had what they always wanted: they were now part of Italy. But it didn’t turn out the way they had hoped, because the importance of being the sole port of the Austrian Empire was lost, and the city quickly became a backwater. Further, the post war era was a time of shortages and desperation – Joyce couldn’t afford any decent clothing, and did not find even the low level of employment he had before the war. They left for Paris and Zurich, and Trieste continued to decline.

Things went even worse for the Jews, who lost their opportunities and often their livlihood, were persecuted mildly by the Fascists, and then exterminated by Hitler.

I will discuss my sources for this in a future blog post, as well as going into more detail about the Jews of Trieste.

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