San Sabba, Opincina & Gesuiti
Displaced Persons Camps - Trieste
During the Second World War, Trieste had been under German occupation and a concentration camp with a crematorium was built in a rice factory in the suburb of San Sabba.
In 1947 Trieste was declared an independent city state under the protection of the United Nations.
In 1950 Clare McMurray was sent to Trieste - 'to sort things out' under a combined World Council of Churches and the World's YMCA/YWCA mission. The flood of refugees arriving daily and the state of the refugee camps was out of control.
When Clare arrived in1950 there were three main camps Opincina, San Sabba and Gesuiti. Many of the refugees were artists. Clare organised welfare as well as concerts, exhibitions and trade fares where the artists work was for sale, bringing in some income for these refugees. Images of these paintings and handcrafts (brought to Australia by Clare) are presented in this section.
Clare married while working in these camps in Trieste (Clare Wositzky), departing in September 1951 to start a family.
All the barracks were packed full with men, women, children, singles, marrieds, all mixed up together living in rows and rows of beds and bunks. The overcrowding was such that we had to put up marquees – but these were not suitable in winter.
The babies weren’t in separate barracks and every day, new refugees might come into the barrack. There was no preparation to receive the new refugees, no quarantine, no disinfection, no medical examination, and so there was danger all the time of infectious diseases.
In the whole camp serving about 800 people, there were only 2 washrooms, one for men, one for women and children, three toilets and 3 showers. Just imagine these three wash-basins had to serve 300 women, 100 children and 100 babies.
There was no warm water, the boiler was broken and nobody in Administration thought it necessary to repair it. In these same basins, the women had to wash nappies and clothes. The baby kitchen was about 4 yards by 1 yard, with one stove and here all the mothers came – 100 of them – to prepare the babies feeds.
San Sabba had been previously a rice factory and in war a Nazi slave labour camp. In the courtyard was a monument to the memory of 30,000 Jews who had been burnt there.
There were three floors – on each floor very large halls 50x30 which were divided up with plaster board into small cubicles about 2 or 3 yards square. It was a maze of cubicles with windows for the few cabins along the outside walls. The cubicles in the centre had no daylight and they lived all the time by electric light.
One large hall on the ground floor was not divided up – this was used as a dining room, theatre, church, ironing room, waiting room – a general purposes hall.
It was not possible to put in stoves in this camp because of fire danger, and even in the dead of winter the only stove was in the large dining room.
The third camp Gesuiti had previously been a prison housing 200 people, now there were 500 single men. There were beds in the cells, in the corridors – in the dungeons and in the attics. The morale here was very low. They weren’t allowed to work and so they lay the whole day on their beds.
The first job was to provide a school. We started off with 2 classes – 30 pupils – held in the open air – refugee teachers being employed. This was alright in summer but in winter we had to make some other arrangements – besides our numbers were growing!
I was fortunate in getting the use of a Slovene school in Trieste every afternoon so our school opened with six classes. A year later there were 400 children attending this school.
In Opincina camp where there were so many young children under 6 years, the need was for a Nursery. After much talk I was given a barrack and this was all nicely set up and 50 children attended. The mothers were very pleased as at least the children could have a play room and could be in a warm dry room instead of the stuffy barracks. However, a week later the Nursery school was filled with beds! And so it went on, I could never be sure of room or not.
In winter the people couldn’t live in tents and then a new camp was built of wooden barracks by the refugees themselves and at least welfare got under way. We were given a large new barrack as a Nursery school and the refugee artists decorated the walls with fairy tale scenes, made toys, hung gay curtains and we opened with 100 children and eight teachers in charge.
Then we got another barrack for a church and this was used by all denominations – Roman Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox. Before this church services had been held out of doors or in the dining room.