domenica 9 aprile 2017

The Real Price of War

I thank Carlotta and Daisy again for conceding a place on their blog for me to continue to recount the experiences shared with me by survivors  of WWII on Italian soil.

As mentioned in my previous blog entry, after the armistice day of September 8, 1943, the Italian people were left an occupied nation under the martial law of their former allies, the Germans and without the leadership of their king who has taken refuge in the Allied nations controlled areas of Brindisi. Food was scarse, especially in the cities. City dwellers who had the possibility  sent their children to country relatives, with hope that it would be safer from bombings and they would escape starvation. From September 8, 1943 they waited to be liberated. While they waited,  the German forces in Italy now struggled to fight a war against the allies and at the same time control a vast occupied area.  The Germans gave orders for all Italians to hand in their arms and made a  declaration that 10 Italians would be executed for every German life loss to partisan rebellion. The Allies struggled to capture the peninsola as well. Although their landings in Sicily and Salerno were quite rapid and successful, the landings in Anzio and Nettuno proved to be a bit more difficult. Especially challenging was the capture of the Benedictine monastary of Montecassino which had become the stopping point northward  . Bombings by the Allies to target railways, suspected German headquarters and other strategic points became common and extensive. Around Montecassino entire villages are reduced to rubble. Cortona escaped this level of destruction, and the reasons given are fascinating.

View of Cortona from Camucia, foreground area is that of the railway station


There are some who say that Cortona, although on the top of the hill, was not bombed because it was not of any strategic importance ; by the time the Allies had pushed that far north the Germans were already retreating. This is not to say that the area was spared bombing. The Allies strived to disrupt transportation lines and roads and the train station in Camucia was bombed at least twice. The grandparents of a colleague of mine who lived by the station rebuilt their house from the rubble only to have it  again destroyed- leaving them the task of rebuilding once more.

Statue of Santa Margherita
Others claim that orders had been given one day to bomb the upper part of the city by the fortress on a morning that a cold fog was shrouding the city at the planned time of attack. A Brit expat I knew, Martin Attwood,  claims that the British pilot given the mission to bomb the city was about to drop his warheads on the city when suddenly the fog lifted and he saw the beauty of the architecture below him, which made him decide to continue flying further into the wooded side of the mountain and release his load there. Supposedly this story was brought back to the city post war when Martin met the pilot during a post war visit to the city as a tourist. He wanted to see upclose the city he had decided not to bomb.

There are other versions of this story that credit the patron Santa Margherita with an appearance or at least with causing the miracle which caused the fog to abruptly rise, but I did not have the fortune of collecting this story first hand so I will leave it at that.

Placard on the first pillar of the cathedral describing the strange event of July 3, 1944.


There is a well documented testimony of intervention by the patron saint which is engraved on a stone affixed to the outer wall of the town Duomo (cathedral).    The inscription describes an event during a bombing on the morning of July 3, 1944.when a large mass was launched by an explosion toward the façade of the church. According to witnesses as the boulder fell into the line of the vision of the statue of the saint facing the church it shattered in to many small stones which rained down into the clearing in front saving the building from serious damage.



Santa Margherita watching over the Piazza del Duomo

Besides the intervening hand of Cortona's patron saint, there are figures in the local clergy at the time who were credited with insuring the safety for the city. Many of the German officers who were assigned to Italy were men of privileged background. Many had studied abroad and many in religious based institutions. Many of them were familiar with the historical treasures to be found in Italy. The officer assigned to Cortona knew the "Annunciation" a 1436 painting by Fra' Angelico very well. It is a painting which is considered to be a  pivotal piece in western art history bridging medieval and renaissance  painting styles.  During the years that Cortona was under the command of this officer, it is said that there were negotiations made between the parish priest and the officer. The officer admired this painting very much and  would have very much liked to somehow acquire it. The priest was coy and used it like a carrot to guarantee a bit more leniency in enforcing the martial law and a promise that should time come for them to pull out of the city they would do so without resistance that would cause tragedy.
Altar piece "The Annuciation" by Fra'Angelico 1436 in the collection of the Museo Diocesano
This is not to say that the people of Cortona escaped the violence  of war at the hands of the German soldiers. The threat of 10 civilian lives for every German soldier killed by Italians hung over their heads. In the mountain community of Falzano above Cortona, at the end of June 1944, the partisans had attacked some of the German patrols in the area. In retaliation twelve random Italians, including women and children were captured and imprisoned in a barn which was then set on fire. The next morning the solidiers returned to the smoldering scene and finished off the survivors with their guns. One adolescent boy was sheltered from the fire by a fallen beam and survived by playing dead amongst the bodies. Badly burned, he survived and has re-told the take if his misadventure at  war crime hearings and most recently at ceremonies to remember the martyrs.


Renato Mariotti, Cortonese survivor of Mauthausen (1922-2015)
Another haunting testimony was documented for future generations from a Cortonese survivor of the Mauthausen concentration camp, Renato Mariotti. The 8th of September 1943 was for most, a great day of confusion, thought to signify the end of the war. Renato was a sailor and in the middle of the sea near Yugoslavia. The crew decided to plot a course home to Italy and docked at Fano from where Mariotti then travelled on foot to Arezzo then home to Cortona. When he arrived home, he discovered that he was considered to be a deserter and summoned to the Carabinieri station. He was told that he would have to report back to the Navy. He asked to be given the chance to report on his own and left for Florence to meet with his brother Francesco and find a way for them to escape together. They were both arrested in Florence by the SS, and subsequently transferred to the death camp in Austria. Francesco upon arrival understood exactly where they were and what his fate would be. Renato miraculously survived in the camps for 14 months and lived to return to Cortona. Only now, after his passing have I listened to the interviews he left behind detailing the horrors he experienced, and 70 years later his incredule recounting of the extreme acts of cruelty which could be inflicted by one human being against another. Before I knew of his past I had seen and cordially greeted this man in the square. I always found him to be gentle and kind, never suspecting the hell he had endured. A hell he chose out of love for his brother. Renato's  documents would have allowed him to be released in Florence by the SS, but he asked to stay and accompany his brother in his fate.


The other day, my good friend Lyndall Passerini, widow of the Count Lorenzo Passerini, came to visit and we discussed the memories her husband had shared about the times of occupied Cortona. The Palazzone is the imposing 15th century castle built by the Cardinal Silvio Passerini and residence to the noble family. It was at the time of the war inhabited by the dowager countess and first occupied by the Italian troops, then the Germans and ultimately Indian soldiers from the British troops during the period of the war.
View of Palazzone from the road below it

According to accounts of her husband, the Contessa was able to command  the "guests" that there was to be silence after 10 pm and that the chickens belonging to the 14 or so families in residence at the palace were not to be disturbed, Her wishes were mostly respected up until the end of the German occupation. As the German soldiers prepared for their retreat they attempted to requisition as many oxcarts from the farmers as they could to load them up with supplies of cheeses and wine, meats and oil as they escaped. Though previously respectful of their surroundings, some of the soldiers, perhaps those who recognized their value, lopped off the sculpted heads from the Etruscan funerary urns in the courtyard of the palace to take home as souvenirs in their packs.

 What they did not know is that the  great white Chianina oxen are trained to pull the carts in teams, one always on the right and one always on the left. In order to hinder their escape, the farmers consigned their ox and carts as ordered but with the oxen hooked up the wrong way. The poor beasts took a beating but were unable to move forward and we are told that out of frustration and revenge a small child was thrown out a window of the palazzo.

There were 43 Cortonese who lost there lives at the hands of their former allies during the occupation. Too many for sure but, fewer than some of their more unfortunate neighbors.

In Montelpulciano  where the partisan movement was especially strong they remember over 50 martyrs hanged from the walls in retaliation for attacks on German soldiers.

View of the war scarred posterior of the Duomo of Pienza


While working in Pienza as a tour director our group stayed in a hotel next to the Carabinieri station which had an eagle carved on the façade. I realized after time that it was the remains of the symbol of the Nazi movement and that the swastika had been removed from the eagles claws  after the war  and the building taken over by the Carabinieri. I also learned the story of Elisa Ciolfi. The allies knew that Pienza had an important German headquarters and therefore, the town was a frequent target of bombings. If one goes to visit it today, the entrance to the city has a new gate and upon entering it, there are new buildings within the old city. The cathedral façade still shows the scars and pock marks left behind by gunfire and schrapnel.  But Elisa's story is that which remains deeply embedded in my mind as the tragic price of a war.During an air raid, Elisa Ciolfi was with a friend who had a bedridden, infirm daughter . The two women heard the sirens but  could not move the girl to shelter. To reassure and comfort her friend, Elisa told her not to worry they would wait together for the air raid alarms to end. Unfortunately it ended their lives. The street next to my hotel was called Via Elisa Ciolfi and the location of the houses that were bombed.

 In Civitella della Valdichiana and the surrounding farming area one of the most terrifying massacres of civilians at the hands of German soldiers took place. 244 lives were taken in 1 day, the 29th of June 1944 in retaliation for the death of 4 German soldiers on the 18th of June at the hands of partisans. Unable to get the local people to collaborate and single out the culprits, the order was given that Sunday morning for three squads to enter homes and shoot on sight. During the celebration of mass at the Cathedral of Civitella, troops broke into the church and killed 155 people, including the parish priest.

As the 25th of April Liberation Day holiday grows nearer, I want to remember what the true meaning of that day was for the people who lived it. These were the dark days that proceeded it. They were days that left one to wonder where and if humanity existed and if the world could ever be the same again.












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