Thank You Elsa for Your Trieste Story

Note: With the anniversary of VE Day approaching, remember those who fought in WW II.

Several years ago I took my dad to an army reunion in St. Louis. Attending were the men serving Trieste (Italy) following WW II. With the September passing of my father, I discovered this yet-to-be-posted essay.

For those that don’t know, Trieste was part of Italy during WW II. Before that, it was Austria-Hungary’s only port. Besides, as a pivotal port city at the northern tip of the Adriatic Sea, Trieste’s history is filled with conflict.

After Mussolini’s regime fell, Nazi Germany quickly moved in.  As the war was winding down, Tito’s Communistic Yugoslavian forces were engaging the Nazis in their pursuit of Trieste. With all this in mind, Trieste contained partisans Fascists, Nazis, Communists, and many native Italians who inconspicuously worked above ground for one of the sides, yet were ready for a return to normalcy.

Eventually, the Allies pushed into Trieste. Winston Churchill stated in a March 1946 speech,

From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.”

Trieste was again at a pivot point in history: the start of the Cold War.

WW II ends with Trieste as a free territory divided into zones patrolled by the Allies and the Yugoslavs. This time period is where my life begins. My dad had re-enlisted into the Army and was assigned to Trieste. During this time he met my mother, they eventually married and I was born.

In 1954, the land is divided between Italy and Yugoslavia. I last visited Trieste in 1964 as part of a family vacation.

During that weekend in St. Louis I met many of the soldiers protecting Trieste. Remarkably, many of them also married Triestine women – some knew my mother (who died in 1987).

This is where I met Elsa Spencer: a gracious woman full of both American and Italian pride. When first introduced, she was signing a copy of her book to a friend. Given the title – Good-Bye Trieste – it caught my eye. Dad bought a copy, thus I spent time reading with anticipation.

Good-Bye Trieste is her story about life. It starts with a young Triestine school girl consumed by Fascism, which served as the focal point for her family history.  As the war continues, she experiences bombings, being shot at, public hangings, executions, family trauma, and eventually discovering (on her own) Fascism’s deceit.

The war ended, but her roller-coaster life continued. Eventually, she married an American soldier, and then came to the U.S. and started a new life. As I was reading, I suddenly realized not only was she telling her story, but also the story for the similar Italian women who met and married American soldiers. Oh my God – she’s also telling Mom’s story.

There’s much I didn’t know (or possibly understood) about my mother. Suddenly, 21 years after her passing, I was drawn and touched to her life through Elsa because I could relate too many of her stories. Other women in attendance confirmed the thoughts.

Good-Bye Trieste is an easy and enchanting read. It’s also an important read for anyone who grew up as I did with an Italian mother who came to America during the 1950s as a military wife. But I can’t stop there because anyone who lived in a multicultural home can relate to Elsa’s story.

So to Elsa I want to say “Thank you.” Thank you for your gracious personality. Thank you for sharing your story to help me understand Mom’s story. Thank you for giving me a better understanding of my birthplace. Thank you for renewing my tie to the region and my birthplace.

My last visit was long ago for a variety of reasons. So Elsa, because of you, I can now say, Hello Trieste – I look forward to visiting again; hopefully sooner than later. Meanwhile, I can enjoy these videos and the distant memories.

Photo courtesy of Monocle

50 thoughts on “Thank You Elsa for Your Trieste Story

    • Nonnie,
      Trieste is both interesting and picturesque … and the Italian-Slovenian border is a short distance from city center. As a port city, it has a history of being fought over. It was the only port city for Austria-Hungary. From world history class (many moons ago), do you recall the shooting of Archduke Ferdinand as one of the events sparking WW I? Interestingly, he had a palace in Trieste. What a beautiful place …. Castello Miramare. Here’s Google Images. Thanks again as I always appreciate your visits.

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  1. The Italian campaign is one of the more “forgotten” fronts in World War 2. Everyone knows the date of the Normandy invasion – 6 June 1944. Few realise that Rome was liberated less than 2 days before, late on the 4th. Italy was an international battlefield – the Axis forces consisted of German and Italian forces, while the Allied side saw US, British, French, Polish, Canadian, and I believe a few others. The fight was supposed to be “a quick thrust through the soft underbelly of Europe” as described by Churchill. Instead, it turned into a long, grinding campaign, far bloodier than Western Europe, and saw one of the lowest points of Allied military strategy – the destruction of the abbey at Monte Cassino. The fighting lasted from 1943 until the end of the war not even interrupted by the eruption of Mt. Etna. While often overlooked, it was a key theatre, if not for accomplishment, then simply for the sacrifice of civilian and soldier alike, as war tore its’ way through ancient towns and villages.
    And I’m glad you could find such a connection with your mother, Frank. I’ve known many sons of soldiers with foreign born mothers, who never clearly understood the history and traditions of their moms. You were fortunate indeed to find the story, not only of an area so steeped in history, but to find the story of a lady spawned by that region, and by that very history. A wonderful story, and a great bit of closure as we approach the 67th anniversary of the end of World War 2 in Europe.

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    • John,
      I knew you would appreciate the story. Because of the connections, the book drew me in, and then, the connection with my mother’s life hit me. I don’t know if I mentioned it in the post, but my mother and the author knew each other. Thanks for additions as well!

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  2. Frank, this is a remarkable and touching story. I am sure you “welled-up” with emotion as you wrote it. Thank you for sharing. And John, thank you as I did not know than piece of the story.
    Dr. Ed

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    • Dr. Ed,
      Glad you appreciated this. Interesting, I wrote the majority of this post several years ago, but sat on it (for whatever reason). Between your recent visit & John’s VE Day reminder several days ago, I decided I should go forth with the post. Thanks for visiting. I’ll contact you if/when I post on the Italian-American topic in the future. Thanks for visiting and commenting.

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    • Dr. Ed – You are more than welcome, sir. As I stated earlier, I’m always interested in learning more about World War 2, and about the soldiers who fought it on both sides. Any time I can share my learning about WW2, I’m more than happy. If you have any questions, please feel free to post them here, or pass them to Frank and he can pass them to me. And thanks for sharing your life with us!

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  3. “So Elsa, because of you, I can now say, Hello Trieste – I look forward to visiting again; hopefully sooner than later. Meanwhile, I can enjoy these videos and the distant memories.”

    AH Frank, what a lovely statement and ALSO this post that was written from that great heart of yours. I thoroughly enjoyed it, I do have a weak spot for these beautifully written posts.

    Makes me think of someone else that I deeply admire, who possesses the similar writing style!

    MAGNIFIQUE! My friend!

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    • Meesh,
      Many thanks my Canadian friend. Glad I was able to touch your day. I do look forward to my next trip there as it has been so long … and it will come. Hope you saw the videos as they saw its beauty. Thanks for visiting!

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  4. A bit of irony here. On this day that we remember the end of World War 2 in Europe, the last combat veteran of the First World War has died. Claude Stanley Choules died in a Western Australia nursing home on Thursday at the age of 110. Our last touchstone with “The Great War” has passed, and so too has this tremendous conflict. It is now no longer a living person’s memory – it is now at least one generation removed from direct experience.
    As we remember those who fought, and especially those who died, in the flames of war that burned throughout Europe from 1939-1945, we need to take a moment and remember, too, those who fought and died in the horrific conflict that did so much to spawn World War 2.
    And on a happier note, we can also take solace (and tequila) in celebrating Cinco de Mayo. Buenos tardes, todos mi amigos, y feliz Cinco de Mayo! Adios! 😀
    (See Mom? All those high-school Spanish classes weren’t a total loss! 😉 )

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  5. John, I have written a story of my trip in my youth to an abandoned WWII bunker, and it was published last Victory Day in our paper, The Providence Journal(ProJo) You may want to check it. I am sure you will have some informative comments thereof.

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  6. How touching stories… I can understand now much better, dear Frank. She really did a great book, I am impressed so much. “Good-Bye Trieste” I remember this title but I don’t remember did I read it… sounds to me much more as a film name but probably my mind makes me confused. I will add this book to my list too. I wish to read. I hope and wish you to visit Trieste… And to say Hello to her… How meaningful and how deeply hits. Thank you dear Frank, war in any case brings so many tears and changes to our life… I hate… There are so many stories from those years… Human world should be walking in peace now and in future… This is where we reached in our life… I can’t think and imagine another WW… With my love, nia

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    • Nia,
      The author has lived in the US for sometime. I met her several years ago, and yes – she knew my mother back then. The story was personal for both the author and me – but for different reasons – and probably the reason I enjoyed it so much. Glad you enjoyed this post and thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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  7. Wonderful post, Frank. I am glad you sent me back to it. I found Trieste a beautiful city, and it’s history fascinating. I think I’m going to be finding that book, too!

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  8. Great Find. I’m going to look for this book. I was born in Trieste and grew up as a street urchin among the rubble left over from WW 2. My aunt was an American Military Bride and followed her new husband to Kentucky. Not too many good Italian Trattoria in Louisville in 1954.
    I came to Canada with my parents in 1956 at the age of 10.
    I love my adopted country, Canada and Toronto but if Tony Bennet left his heart in San Francisco , I left mine in Trieste.
    I go back as a Tourist any chnace I get..

    Joseph (Pino) Schillaci

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    • Pino,
      Welcome first-time commenter, and MANY thanks for sharing your story. I haven’t seen Trieste since 1964, and I know I need to return. Besides, my wife wants to see it. Great meeting a fellow Triestene.

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  9. You better go back soon. You will not recognize it since 1964
    It’s a beautiful enchanting city with its many secrets and mysteries.
    I left as a muletto in 1956 and went back for the first time in 1970.
    Now I try to go every 2 years and discover something new every time I go
    there.
    Mark Nassutti of Seattle is writing a book on post-war Trieste.

    Like

    • Rose,
      It is beautiful. Although my memory is faint, I rely on the videos. Next time you go to that area, take some time to visit.

      Her story was very interesting … well, considering the setting, I met the author, and then linked my mother to the story.

      Like

  10. Iris, an aunt of mine did the same thing (my family is from a smaller city near Trieste). She married an enemy soldier as well and after the war they moved in Dearborn Heights in Detroit, since he is a retired ford egineer.
    Never understood why they decided to move away from Italy anyway while they could have settled here and have everything, Probably in those years living in “America” was seen as some sort of “living on Mars” thing some kind of mith if you get what I mean! I’ve been there in Detroit a couple of times, they were happy nevertheless. You know, love is a crazy thing, and should never be criticized.
    I decided to move in Trieste 15 years ago and I still feel I’m the happiest people on our planet. During whole summer I go to work with my scooter so that in the afternoon I can get out of the traffic in a blink so at 17 o’c. I’m already soaked wet at the sea . For free. YAY!
    Come in Trieste! We are strange people, we blame everything and everyone, a Trieste citizen will ALWAYS have at least one problem, in any case. It’s pretty funny to see turists or foreigners worrying about locals being angry (or apparently rude) with them. While it’s never true. it’s the complete opposite. It’s just the common behaviour. Everybody here complains about everything. But there is not much to complain about, really. Moving a Trieste citizen out of the city is like removing a kid out of a playground…. This nonsense makes me laugh everyday, especially when I realize that now I do the same. HA!

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    • Riki,
      Thank you so much for your perspective and the story of your aunt. Interestingly, there was a group of Triestine women who married American soldiers who would get together each year.

      Believe me, I want to return sooner rather than later, but realistically, I think the trip would be at least 3 years away. Thanks for the behavior notes. 😉

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  12. I should look for a copy of the book. After visiting and with my interest in history and WWII I bet I would love it. It’s a wonderful city and yet it’s history was turbulent.

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