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Holocaust chronicler Boris Pahor dies at 108

Christine Lehnen
May 31, 2022

The Slovenian novelist and concentration camp survivor Boris Pahor bore witness to the atrocities of the 20th century until the age of 108.

Slovenien writer Boris Pahor wearing a cap and glasses.
Boris Pahor, author from Trieste, survived different concentration campsImage: Matic Stojs/Photoshot/picture alliance

He knew three enemies: fascism, communist dictatorship and capitalism. Boris Pahor wrote in protest against dictatorship, whether that of money, Mussolini, Hitler or Stalin. In his long life, spanning almost the entire 20th century, the writer and concentration camp survivor had countless opportunities to do so.

Boris Pahor was born on August 26, 1913 in the city of Trieste, which at that time still belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father was a civil employee in the administration of the cosmopolitan city.

Being a citizen of the world was something that Pahor felt was "a matter of course" even in his old age, as he told the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in an interview in 2014.

Aerial view of Trieste, Italy.
Trieste is a cosmopolitan port city in northern Italy with a diverse historyImage: Juergen Feichter/Eibner/imago images

His relatives were members of the Slovenian minority in Trieste, which was annexed by Italy in 1918 after the collapse of the Danubian Monarchy. In 1922, the fascist Benito Mussolini came to power in Italy. Trieste was "Italianized" by the fascists, minorities were suppressed, and Pahor's father had to eke out a living as a street vendor.

In his book "Flowers for a Leper" (2004), Pahor bears witness to the terror of the Italian fascists against the Slovenian minority in Trieste, whose story he devoted himself to once again in "Piazza Oberdan" (2006).

On a death march from Bergen-Belsen

In 1940, the Italian army recruited Boris Pahor and sent him to Libya. There he managed to complete a secondary education degree.

After the collapse of fascist Italy, Pahor returned to Trieste. Beginning in 1943, during World War II, he fought in the resistance against the German occupiers and the Italian fascists allied with them.

In January 1944, he was arrested by the Domobrancen militia, which collaborated with the SS, and deported to the Dachau concentration camp. He survived another four Nazi concentration camps, namely Natzweiler-Struthof, Dora-Mittelbau, Harzungen and Bergen-Belsen, from where he was sent on a death march. With him was the famous French writer Stephane Hessel.

Concentration camp doctor Fritz Klein, who performed experiments on prisoners at Bergen-Belsen, is standing in a large pit of corpses.
In this photo, concentration camp doctor Fritz Klein, who performed experiments on prisoners at Bergen-Belsen, is standing in a large pit of corpsesImage: akg-images/picture-alliance

Pahor recorded his 15-month struggle for survival in the camps in the book "Necropolis" (1967), which secured his place among the great authors of his time, including: Imre Kertesz, Primo Levi and Ruth Klüger.

Recalling history

After his release, Pahor traveled to Paris to recover from tuberculosis.

His second most important work, "A Difficult Spring" (1978), is based on his Paris experiences. In it, a Slovenian concentration camp survivor tries to find his way back to life. The affection of a French nurse aids him in this journey. The book centers around how it is possible to live, speak and remember with people who did not experience the camps.

After his time in Paris, Pahor returned to Trieste. His first post-war publications made him popular and famous in Slovenia, which was a constituent republic of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia after the end of World War II. As a critic of communism, he came into conflict with the Yugoslav authorities on several occasions, and for three years he was banned from entering Slovenia because of his anti-totalitarian statements.

His home remained the cosmopolitan city of Trieste. From 1953 until his early retirement in 1975, he taught literature at a Slovenian high school and wrote many of his most important books.

It was not until the 1990s that he was also translated into German, English and French, and then became known to audiences in the West and advanced to become one of the candidates for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Pahor also opposed the 'dictatorship of capital'

Until his old age, Boris Pahor campaigned tirelessly against dictatorships and totalitarianism. He denounced "the forgetting of history" in Europe, especially in Italy, and in the same 2014 interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, he accused public authorities in Italy of doing next to nothing to keep alive the memory of the atrocities committed by the fascists. Almost no one knows about the six or seven concentration camps in and around Ljubljana under Italian fascist rule, Pahor said.

In the last years of his life, he was also increasingly concerned about the "dictatorship of capital" that had become apparent in the context of the banking and financial crises of 2007 and 2008 — but also about the passing of eyewitnesses from the 20th century.

"One can conveniently start rewriting history when there is no one left to contradict the authority of an eyewitness," Pahor likewise said to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. "I have not forgotten what was done to the human spirit and human bodies in the 20th century."

Speaking on Slovenian television in one of his last public appearances, he also reiterated the importance of remembering: "I wanted to testify and explain what I experienced so that others can learn how and what can happen."

Boris Pahor passed away in Trieste on May 30, 2022, at the remarkable age of 108. He leaves behind a literary oeuvre as comprehensive as it is poetic, which will retain its testimony both in the Slovene language and in translation.

Slovenian President Borut Pahor, who shares his surname with the deceased, paid tribute to him as "the conscience of Slovenia, Europe and the world. A man who demanded for himself the freedom to think differently and demanded the same freedom for others." Italy's President Sergio Mattarella paid tribute to Pahor as a "witness and victim of war atrocities, excessive nationalism and totalitarian ideologies."

This article was originally written in German.