By: P.T., STA
Boris Pahor, the internationally-renowned Trieste-born Slovenian writer who wrote about his own experience of Fascism and the suffering in Nazi death camps during World War II, has died at his home in Trieste, aged 108, Radio Slovenija has reported.
Pahor spent his life raising awareness of the dangers of totalitarian regimes the kind of which he had been a victim of himself. He described his experience of being interned in Nazi concentration camps in Necropolis, the award-winning novel that brought him fame across Europe.
Born into a Slovenian family in the multicultural city of Trieste in the Austro-Hungarian Empire on 26 August 1913, a year before the outbreak of World War I, Pahor witnessed the rise of Fascism in Italy as a child.
In 1920 he saw how the Fascists burnt down Narodni Dom (National Hall), the hub of the Slovenian community in the city, which the community would not get back until a hundred years later.
As a young intellectual, he associated with Slovenian anti-Fascist intellectuals and activists in Trieste. In 1940, he was drafted into the Italian army and sent to fight in Libya and was then transferred to Lombardy, where he worked as a military translator in a camp for Yugoslav POWs.
After Italy’s capitulation in 1943, he joined the Slovenian resistance movement. However, in January 1944 he was captured by the Domobranci, and handed over to Germans, who sent him to several different concentration camps.
In Necropolis he revisits the Natzweiler-Struthof camp twenty years after his relocation to Dachau. Following Dachau, he was relocated three more times: to Mittelbau-Dora, Harzungen and finally to Bergen-Belsen, which was liberated in April 1945.
The novel would not bring him international acclaim until after it was translated into Italian as late as 2007, 40 years after it first came out in Slovenian in Italy. It was translated into French as early as 1990.
A committed democrat, Pahor in 1966 founded Zaliv (The Bay), a magazine in which he advocated democratic values against the Yugoslav communist regime.
In 1975 he published an interview with Edvard Kocbek (1904-1981) in which the Slovenian dissident condemned the summary killing of 11,000 Slovenian Domobranci by the Yugoslav authorities immediately after World War II.
Bringing up a taboo topic, the interview earned him a four-year ban to enter Yugoslavia, and it took until after Slovenia gained independence from Yugoslavia that his homeland’s relationship with him eased.
As a result, his work was honoured with the country’s top accolade for artistic achievement, the Prešeren Prize, in 1992, after which he would turn into a moral authority who Slovenians looked up to.
His books, which deal mostly with the Slovenian minority in Italy and his experience of Fascism and war, won him many accolades, including the French Legion of Honour, Austria’s Cross of Honour for Science and Art and several nominations for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
He was decorated by Slovenia’s president of the time, Milan Kučan, in 2000 and had been a full member of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts since 2009. On turning 102 he was named Slovenia’s cultural ambassador.
A committed fighter for the rights of endangered languages and cultures, Pahor always argued that national awareness was vital to the survival of Slovenians in Italy and the survival of the world’s humanity.
When National Hall was returned to the Slovenian community in Trieste in 2020, the presidents of Slovenia and Italy, Borut Pahor and Sergio Mattarella, honoured the writer with the highest state decorations.
Talking with the STA at the time, he called on the Italian authorities to publish a report compiled by historians from both countries on the period between 1880 and 1956, which he believed should found its way into textbooks. He was concerned about a return of Fascism.
In 2009 Pahor declined to accept the Trieste award for his role in culture, suffering under the Nazi occupation and opposition to the Yugoslav communist regime, saying the justification of the award failed to mention his opposition to Italian Fascism.
A year later he also declined the honorary title of a Freeman of Ljubljana, arguing the Slovenian capital had behaved as a stepmother to the western region of Primorska after World War I.
He has been immortalised in several documentaries, including the BBC’s 2019 documentary The Man Who Saw Too Much, which portrayed him as the oldest still living survivor of a Nazi concentration camp. Along with Kocbek, Pahor has a life-size monument in Ljubljana’s Tivoli Park.
Even in his final years, his main mission was to share his memories, of how as a young boy he was robbed of his mother tongue, of his experience of Nazism and other totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, with young people, seeing a hope for a better future in them.
At the time of refugee crisis and a series of terrorist attacks in Europe, he called for dialogue guided by reason as a way to a solution, arguing the only hope for the world was to resist wars, barbarism and desire for dominance and to respect diversity.