Last week, I (Jeanette, not Carlotta), had the honor and opportunity to accompany a group of travellers from California to trace events of the Italian campaign of the allied forces in World War II as they fought for control of the country after the King of Italy had signed the armistice agreement with the allies then fled first to Brindisi and then left Italy for Portugal. Over the years, after living in a land which survived years of modern warfare on their home soil, I've collected many stories from people who lived during this tragic time and were willing to share them. To give more meaning this year to that long awaited day of April 25, 1945, I feel that it is befitting to share some of these accounts. They were dark times, but I strongly feel that we must remember to really appreciate the value of peace, of diplomacy, of giving a value to human life. I share these stories which were passed on to me as an oral history and write them down here as they were told to me.
What are We Fighting For?
With the announcement on September 8, 1943 that the King of Savoy had signed the Armisitice with the allies and fled to Brindisi, the people of Italy were already starved and strained from the tolls of the war since they entered as part of the Axis with Germany and Japan back in October of 1941, Italy and it's people were now in German occupied territory.
According to my father in law, Oberdan, now 101 years old, he knew on that day he would not fare well as an Italian soldier stationed in Bologna, so he immediately donned his civilian clothes disposed of his uniform and made his way back to Cortona by hitchhiking and walking. His fear was being stopped and captured to be shipped to prisoner and concentration camps in the north.
Oberdan grew up in San Martino, a small village below the hill of Cortona, his family (especially his mother) wanted to insure him a good education and position in the community and sent him to study in the seminary in Cortona. After he ran away twice, to return home on foot, they gave up on that dream. In the thirties the family was fairly well off with land, but there were few jobs to be had. So Oberdan enrolled in the army and participated in the Libyan campaign in the calvary division. When war was declared he was 25 and had returned to civilian life. He was working as a postal clerk when he was recalled to arms. He was considered an "older" veteran soldier and sent to Bologna to work with the military post.
My mother in law Margherita had grown up in Cortona and met Oberdan while working together at the post office there before the war. In the days following the armistice she saw the post office invaded by german soldiers, a bomb planted and the telegraph destroyed to avoid any communications going out. The postal workers were sent home - she returned to the family farm where she lived with her in-laws in San Martino to wait and hope for Oberdan's safe return.
The family farm was large and had orchards, gardens. They raised chickens, ducks, geese, pigs, a few cows and cattle, and horses. When the war began, the Germans had taken over the farm to become their cooking kitchens. The food supplies were prepared then sent to the soldiers fighting afield, many in Montecassino. In times of peace, the running and managment of a subsistance farm in the tuscan countryside was very different than the way that the german soldiers managed the resources. A single pig was utilized by the italians from head to tail, quite literally using everything but the squeal. In these times of war, Margherita remembered the great hunger suffered by the family and tenent farmers as animals were quickly slaughtered and only the prime cuts used by the germans whilst the rest which could have fed many, were discarded to rot, no one dared to take them back after they'd been seized by the soldiers.
My husband Luciano's grandmother, Pia, was not one who was to take this all in stride. One day exasperated as two of her chickens were being carried off, one in each beefy hand of an enormous German soldier, she sprang upon him from the back her hands gripping his neck crying " And what are we supposed to eat ? La merda?!" Pia was a small woman who did not stand 5 feet tall and her protest was met with amusement by the soldier and his companions as he walked away with his spoils and Nonna Pia clinging to his back. And so she plotted a more subtle revenge.
I lived with my in-laws for 5 years, I was shocked one day as Margherita pulled out a large tin box, as she looked for a good strong spoon to feed the dogs with. The box was filled with stainless steel cutlery all with engraved eagles clutching swastikas on the handles. Nonna Pia had decided that if they were to take her goods, she would collect her own payment and when she had a chance would pilfer their cutlery.
When Oberdan made it home from Bologna a little less than a week after the armistice, the county was now under the martial law of their former allies. It was ordered that all citizens surrender their arms and as penalty for any German life loss to attack by the indigenous people, 10 Italian lives would be taken (woman and children included). Oberdan's youngest brother Betto, who was 17 at the time had been sent with a sack of weapons to be hidden in the mountains to avoid the sequester. The loss of weapons meant a loss of a means of procuring food by hunting, they were too precious to surrender. While on his way, sack slung over his shoulder, he was stopped by a German patrol. Overcome with panic Betto, drew out the pistol he had been given to protect himself and shot one of the soldiers, wounding him, and fled for the hills leaving the precious sack behind.
In the middle of the night, shortly after Betto's escape, my in-laws and all their family were dragged out of bed and out of their house. For Margherita, time seemed endless as they were questioned about the shooting incident. They looked over Oberdan, there was some resemblence but obviously, Betto was much younger. Margherita was sure they would all die that night- but unlike many others, they were spared.
So many had followed Mussolini into believing that they would create a great Empire again, become that great power. Subsidies handed out to agricultural families and prizes for the birth of more children eased poverty and won him much popularity. Promises that government would be efficient and trains would run on time, a model of modern efficiency in architecture and organization appealed to the fantasy of a powerful future. They had been lulled into believing that joining the war axis with the Germans was the best choice, They had an up-close view of the strength of their neighbors over the border and had been promised a quick victory. Now they were a hungry, occupied nation, fearing for their lives and hoping for the arrival of liberation.
Oberdan's father, Agosto, reserved wine in his cellar for the English who he hoped would come to save them.