Thursday, April 11, 2013

Surviving Facism and the war, Gigi di Meo thrives on geniality, good fortune

Wednesday, April 10, 2013
After talking to Mario and Loretta about Fascism a few weeks ago, I am still curious about this era when neighbor opposed neighbor with such intensity that people were persecuted, beaten and even, in a few rare cases, killed. What would it be like to live with the suspicion that your neighbor may be spying on you and be rewarded for turning you in for disloyalty to the party? And how did people treat those Fascist neighbors once the party fell out of favor and then out of power?

Gigi di Meo and Sergio share old memories together.
Knowing that my thirst for information has not been satisfied, Elena and Sergio Seghieri, her father-in-law, take me to meet Gigi di Meo, who lives just down the street. Gigi was born in 1918, which means he will be 95 this year, so he was about 6 years old when Benito Mussolini ascended to his quasi-dictatorship. Gigi says he was too young to remember anything about the early years under Fascism, but he can tell me something about the times before the war.

The first thing I notice about Gigi is that he doesn’t look anything like a man in his 90s. He stands up straight, speaks in a clear voice without a strong dialect, and his face only has the lines and wrinkles of a man in his early 80s. He is agreeable and amiable, and I immediately feel comfortable in his presence. Perhaps his congenial disposition is one of the reasons for his health and longevity. I find out that his name is actually Luigi Incrocci, but he is known as Gigi instead of Luigi. As for di Meo, his father was Bartolomeo, known in short as Meo.

The Fascist fervor in San Salvatore was not nearly as intense as it was in the big cities, Gigi explains.  Here, the people were farmers mainly concerned about their crops. They didn’t receive newspapers in the small communities, and radio broadcasting was still in its infancy. People had to get their news by word of mouth, and thus Fascism was not only slow to arrive but also less violent.

Paul, Gigi, Sergio
During the rise of Fascism, Gigi and his family were more concerned about eking out a living under the mezzadria system, where they farmed land that they didn’t own and had to pay a large portion of their earnings to their padrone. They gave little attention to the politics of the country.  Still, Fascism eventually did have its impact when Mussolini led the country into a disastrous war, and Gigi suffered its effects when he was compelled to join the army.

Mussolini giving the Roman
salute. Hitler, right, later
used this gesture in Germany.
“I remember when they were making speeches without a microphone, when they were wearing the black shirts,” he said. “You had to take your hats off to them and give them the Roman salute. The young people had to attend meetings of pre-military groups, organized to instill loyalty to the country and the party.”

At first, Gigi was bypassed for military service because he was slight of stature and boyish in appearance. I am surprised to hear that military service was not based on actual age but on maturity. Civil servants would conduct physical examinations which entailed measuring chest size and looking at genitalia to determine when a boy was ready to fulfill his military obligations. In 1940, Gigi was sworn in with the class of 1921, though he was chronologically three years older than his fellow inductees. He received his military training while in Alessandria, in northern Italy, and then transferred to France.

“I had good luck,” he said. “I worked in a military warehouse, and I made a good impression on some of the officers. When they needed bakers for bread, I volunteered and became an officers attendant. When I was in France, it looked like I might get sent to Russia, and an officer got on the phone and intervened. He said, ‘I need Incrocci with me. Send another man to take his place.’ So I worked in the ovens baking bread.” Later he was promoted, but he still was not directly involved in any fighting on the front.

I also want to know if he thinks Fascism accomplished anything good for Italy. Not around here, he says. He heard that it helped advance the agriculture in the south, but he didn’t witness any local benefits. However, he also didn’t find it extremely oppressive on a personal level. If one didn’t resist showing respect to the leaders, life in San Salvatore went on much the same as it had before.

He does recall one man returning from an encounter with the Fascists. The man was bent over and yelling with pain because he had been beaten. He also recalls attending party indoctrination courses in Montecarlo conducted by the police, and once he and two other young men were chatting away when an officer walked by. The friends didn’t give proper greetings and salutes to the officer and received blows to the faces for their disrespect. Mostly, though, all he heard about Fascist brutality were stories that had been passed on to him through many other mouths, and he couldn’t really confirm them.

Gradually, the people got fed up with the war and the Fascist party. His parents would listen to radio broadcasts by the British to find out what was really going on in the world, and by 1943, for the first time, Gigi heard people openly speak against Mussolini. He was still in France when Italy quit the war, and Gigi and other Italians were rounded up in a courtyard by the Germans. Only a few German soldiers were detaining hundreds of Italians, but the few who tried to flee were shot with machine guns. He had been given civilian clothing by someone in the community so he wouldn’t be readily identified as a soldier.

“Somebody was praying for me,” he said. “I had no documents, but because I was working in the warehouse, I had in my suitcase two or three bottles of cognac. I had cartons of American cigarettes and also packets of torrone (an Italian sweet). I only had a medical certificate, really it was nothing, but when the Germans asked who in the group had medical certificates, I went forward.

“One of the German soldiers spoke Italian, and he called me out of the line and asked what I had in my suitcase. They opened it up and took all the stuff. Because of all this, I was out of the line and never had to show any documents. It was the cognac that saved me! They were taking time dividing up my things, so I asked if I could go now. They released me into the countryside.”

He found villagers who advised him how to avoid detection and make it back to Italy. The Germans had not had enough time yet to tighten their grip on the transportation systems, so Gigi made his way in the dark to a train station and made it to Genova by train, and from there to Pisa. The train was stopped by the Nazis and Fascists in Carrarra, but because he was in civilian clothes, he escaped arrest.

Pisa is still 47 kilometers from San Salvatore, but he got lucky again when he saw a doctor in Pisa that his father knew. The doctor had a car and took Gigi as far as Lucca. From there, a friend loaned him a bicycle and he returned home, although he did have to ride back to Lucca with two bikes so he could return the borrowed one.

Gigi knows he was extremely lucky to have escaped harm so many times. Twice he was appointed as an officer’s attendant instead of a soldier, and then his good health was preserved by the cognac. He still remembers the tears and pleading of a friend under German custody in France: “He called out ‘Incrocci, don’t leave me. Don’t let me down. Don’t let me stay here alone.’ But we had no money . . . ehh. . . mamma mia . . . it was a problem.”

Although Gigi’s family was not well acquainted with the families of Fascist leaders, he does remember that after the war, people made lists of the Fascists names and put them on large posters around the town, similar to the way people now post signs when someone has passed away. The shame of having people know that one’s family sided with the disgraced party seems to Gigi to have been sufficient punishment. He does recall one Fascist family that moved to Argentina, but that was more for financial reasons. The changes in the mezzadria system affected the family’s income level and they sold their land.

After the war, the country became a republic and the labor unions gained strength. These changes forced the wealthy landowners to pay their tenant farmers a higher percentage. No longer able to reap sufficient profits to thrive, the landowners began selling off portions of their estates, and Gigi benefited from this because was able to buy land. He built his own house in 1962, when the flower farming business was still thriving. All the houses around him were built around the same time.

Gigi overcame the harsh times of the war and Fascism with good fortune and a good nature, and this same combination seems to be serving him well in his old age.

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