Our Flag tells another story of liberation

Massey News – 

The discovery was gold, despite the horror of the subject.

Massey University Professor of War Studies Glyn Harper noticed something while visiting the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC in 2010 as a Fulbright Senior Scholar. It led him to a surprising revelation about New Zealand’s role in the liberation of inmates from a World War II Nazi death camp in Italy.

Teaching a history paper on World War II this year was the catalyst to write about his discovery.

In an article published in the latest Listener magazine, Professor Harper described the untold story behind the presence of a New Zealand flag among the liberation flags collection. The New Zealand flag is placed “at the extreme edge of the collection,” and is “almost invisible,” he said.

Its presence, however, represents the significant role New Zealand troops played in the liberation of San Sabba, Trieste, the location of Italy’s only concentration camp.

Gruesome murders

Our Flag tells- New Zealand Flag in San SabbaKnown as the Risiera di San Sabba, in reference to the building’s former use as a rice mill, it was established in Trieste in October 1943 by SS General Odilo Globocnik.

San Sabba was primarily a transit camp, housing inmates for short periods before deporting them to the larger camps of Buchenwald, Dachau and Auschwitz.

An estimated 25,000 people were deported from San Sabba and a further 5000 were murdered on site, Professor Harper says.

Gas vans were the primary murder weapon, “with SS guards playing loud music to drown out the screams. Inmates were also beaten to death or shot at a nearby firing range.”

Testimonies from San Sabba survivors, which he quotes in the article, include that of Carlos Skrinjar, who recalls, “The cries of men and women lasted up to three or even four hours. When one cry ceased, another followed it. This happened night after night. Near my cell there was a young curly-haired 18-year-old boy. I can’t remember his name. His hair turned grey with fear in three days.”

New Zealand troops

Our Flag tells-Professor Glyn HarperIn April 1945 around 20,000 troops from the Second New Zealand Division spearheaded a move into Trieste, where Yugoslav partisans were fighting. Before they arrived, San Sabba’s remaining inmates were released and the Germans destroyed the crematorium and much of the camp to conceal their crimes.

The New Zealand soldiers were unaware of their role in liberating those imprisoned in San Sabba, but their arrival and capture of the city certainly saved lives, Professor Harper said.

The Risiera di San Sabba opened as a memorial museum in 1975, and receives 100,000 visitors a year.

“New Zealand visitors can take pride in the part New Zealand played in bringing down an empire of evil. The liberation of Trieste and the destruction of San Sabba does mark who we are, what we believed in and what we stood for. These things have not changed,” Professor Harper said.

His discovery, albeit in a museum where many New Zealanders will have visited and possibly seen the liberation flag collection, highlights that there are still hidden war stories to be told. The significance of the event should see New Zealand’s role at San Sabba added to our future war histories, he said.

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