Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Nida Giusti endured hardships of World War II with courage, dignity, and finally, grace for her oppressors

Lucy and I just had a remarkable conversation with a 97-year-old Italian great grandmother who is sharp as a tack. I am always interested in hearing stories about what life was like in Italy during World War II. This wasn’t just a war against other countries, but it also pitted neighbor against neighbor—and then when peace came, some “enemies” were still right next door, and the families had to forget their differences.

Nida Maria Francesca Giusti in her home in San Salvatore
For the most part, the Italians adjusted quite well. Nida Giusti, born Feb. 16, 1918, is old enough to remember the rise and fall of Fascism, the de facto dictatorship of Benito Mussolini, Italy’s ill-fated entrance into the war on the side of Germany and finally its withdrawal from the war and subsequent changing of loyalties.

Nida’s shiny gray hair, ready smile and lively manner of expressing herself made us forget her age. Lucy and I regretted that we couldn’t always understand her witty comments, which made her family break out laughing several times. We laughed, too, but more out of pleasure for seeing how her family enjoyed her sense of humor.

Her family moved several times during her younger years, working the fields of other families as contadini, landless peasant farmers. Before the war, Nida remembers living in Pescaglia and Borgo a Mozzano in the Garfagnana region, and San Ginese di Compito in Capannori. She also worked as a house servant for a wealthy family in Lucca around the time the war started. She recalls that one of the sons of the family sided with the Fascists, and he was later imprisoned and executed, most likely by Italian partisans.

Me, Nida and Elena, who translated our conversation. Photo by Lucy.
Life under Fascism “era brutto,” she said—it was ugly. “My father in law had ten children, and they were not going to the Fascist youth meetings. The commander called him in and threatened him if he didn’t enroll his children immediately. Everybody had to salute and say, ‘Viva Il Duce,’ and they had to parade every Saturday.” The war possibly cost Nida the life of her first child. She was living at Borgo a Mozzano in 1942, but because the area was under bombardment, the midwife wouldn’t risk coming. Instead Nida had to walk about 20 miles to San Genese, and her child died before birth. Another son was born in 1944, just before the war ended.

In 1943, the family moved to San Piero in Campo, near Pescia, to escape the heavy fighting and poor conditions in Borgo a Mozzano as the war escalated. During bombing raids in Pescia, they found a bunker to hide in under the railroad tracks, and they would take hay down with them to make beds. The Germans had their headquarters nearby, but for the most part, the soldiers let the Italian women and children manage their farms in peace. The men, though, had to remain hidden during daylight in the wine cellars or in the hills above Pescia, because they could be taken as prisoners of war or pressed into service at work camps. One man tried to hide by dressing like a woman. It worked for a few days, but when he was discovered, he was executed. Four of her brothers-in-law were taken away as prisoners, but her husband managed to stay free. In 1945, all four imprisoned men returned, and the family threw a party to celebrate.

The farmers also did their best to hide their animals from the soldiers, but that didn’t always work. The Germans would come and take what they needed to feed themselves. While she remembers fearing and resenting the soldiers, she also recalls their human sides.

“From time to time, they were kind,” she said. “We would be sitting out under a mulberry tree mending our clothes,” she said, “and the German soldiers would come up and sit down and try to talk. We were afraid, but then they would point at the children to let us know that they also had wives and children.”

In the end, she said she no longer feels bitterness against the Italians who sided with Mussolini or even the German soldiers who imposed their harsh rule on the country. I asked if she still felt rancor, and she laughed. “Everything passes,” she said. “At the time, we tried to hide our suffering from the children. But now it’s passed. It was war. It was war. We hope we don’t have any more.”
Nida with her extended family at the celebration at San Piero in Campo after the war. Nida is holding one of her children, middle row.

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