Boris Pahor (2020) Necroplis. Translated by Michael Biggins, introduction by Alan Yentob.

With most of the world in lockdown now is perhaps a good time to spend reading about Boris Pahor in the land of the crematoria. Spare a thought for those in refugee camps and prisons. Necropolis is a story not about them, but about us, common humanity. Pahor writes about his life not in the past, but in the present and also the future, when he’ll be like so many of his comrades.  About the stripping away of citizenship until a person becomes a thing—a number. One object among many. Pahor doesn’t just implicate the Nazis. Or the Italian Fascist Party that sought to eradicate any signs of the Slovak culture in Trieste by burning down The Slovenian National Home and taking away their language and schools, forcing them to integrate, but only as second-class citizens that weren’t to be trusted. Pahor asks questions of us.

He was born an Austrio-Hungarian citizen, a victim of arson and pogroms, without moving his home became an Italian subject. Later he became subject to internment in the Nazi military industrial complex and death camps. The familiar names of Bergen-Belsen, Harzungen, Dachau, and the smaller and relatively unknown Natzweiler-Struthof. But it is here as a post-war-day visitor, a tourist, to the concentration camp located in the Vosges Mountains close to the Alsatian village of Natzwiller in France, near Stasbourgh, but neither French, Italian or German, a former ski resort, transformed into a place of death, like other camps, gallows and crematoria combined that Pahor has his epiphanies.  

Natzweiler-Struthof is a jumping off point for Pahor.  Primo Levi asks the rhetorical question, What is a Man? Pahor lived the answer.

‘Europeans, despite their high-flown phrases, are basically thoughtless and cowardly. They become accustomed to a comfortable existence. And now if they feel shame, they drown it out in an orgy of moralising.’  

Pahor accepts his survival was a fluke, he cannot properly explain. ‘An exception was made for me throughout my life. I am never weighed on the usual scales.’

 An injured finger and gift for languages got him a job inside as a medic. But his education was in humanity.

‘In the necropolises it did not matter what depth you worked in. Barbers shaved death, quartermasters dressed it, medics undressed it, registrars entered the dates of death after serial numbers, and in the end, they all, each of them, were sucked up the huge chimney.’

Pahor’s meditation on his past life and present circumstances is a reaffirmation and warning.

‘At best I could, I give testimony to the living about those who turned into bones before my eyes’.

The hungry days of Nazi night and fog are not in the past, but bleed into the present if we let it. You embrace an evil, when you allow it—like now?  

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