Monday, October 26, 2020

Some rare acts of compassion allowed some to survive the Eccidio

Part 5 in a series on the Slaughter in the Swamp of Fucecchio

Among the grim and gruesome stories told in the aftermath of the massacre of civilians in the Padule di Fucecchio, a few encouraging instances of compassion did occur.

Silvano Cipollini, who was 10 years old during the slaughter, was fortunate to be living in a house with his grandfather, aunts and uncles and a handful of other displaced persons. A bomb had struck his own house, forcing the family to move into a neighbor’s home, Casa Simoni. In early August, two German officers appeared and asked to be hosted in the house as well.

“My nonno, who was the head of our family, could not refuse—and that was our salvation,” Cipollini related in an interview in Orizzonti di Lamporecchio, published in 2013. “I remember these two officials were always looking out the window with their binoculars, and they would give orders to the soldiers to scour the area to the left or to the right, searching for partisans that were not there.”

After 20 days of this, the German officers warned the Italian inhabitants of the house on the evening of August 22 to hide themselves well the next morning. “I remember these words,” Cipollini said, “They said, ‘Tomorrow everyone in the house. If not, KAPUT!’ ”



Using a boat and a huge pile of hay, the Italians fashioned a tunnel to hide in and then closed up the entrance.

“At dawn, we heard the first shots,” Cipollini said. “The Germans shot two people on the street, and we heard the victims cry out and ask for help, but none of us had the courage to leave the hiding place for fear of being killed. After about a half an hour, the shouts stopped, but the shots continued.”

During the seven or more hours that the Italians remained in hiding, Germans soldiers were often both outside and inside the house, but the two officers did not give them away.

“Fear and anguish reigned during those interminable minutes,” Cipollini said. “We worried that the bullets shot into surrounding houses would penetrate our hiding place.”

They also had to listen to soldiers reporting on the execution of civilians at other houses, places where they knew that other family members were living. At one such report, Cipollini’s grandfather became so enraged that he grabbed his hunting rifle and tried to force his way out to seek revenge on the Germans. He was restrained by the others, who reminded him that the two officers who were protecting them were among those outside.

Shortly after noon, noting that the shooting has ceased several hours before, Cipollini and the others exited and witnessed the aftermath of the massacre. Dead bodies were in and around every other house. The German officers, whose names he does not know, left around 6 p.m. “Those were the last Germans I saw,” he said, because Allied soldiers soon advanced into the area and the Germans retreated.

Alberto Pratolini

In another part of the Padule, inhabitants at Casa Silvestri had been slaughtered indiscriminately. Soldiers entered and ordered the inhabitants outside and told them to stand in a line. Those who ran were shot before they could escape. Alberto Pratolini was just over a year and a half old, and his mother Bruna clutched him tightly and followed the soldiers’ orders. By chance, Bruna and Alberto lined up on the left side of the door, while the others lined up on the right. The soldiers opened fire, but Bruna and Alberto were miraculously spared, perhaps because they were covered by a German who had unknowingly planted himself in front of them. Among those killed was Alberto's two-year-old friend, Antonio, who survived the gunshots but crawled out from under his dead mother and cried loudly. A soldier dispatched him with a hard blow to the head with a rifle butt. 

When the soldiers left, Bruna went in the house and rendered aid to those inside who were wounded but still alive. In an account published by the ProLoco Carmignano, author Barbara Prosperi relates that the survivors made their way to a home occupied by German soldiers and, remarkably, Bruna charged in and hurled herself at them, shouting, “Assassins!” She demanded to know why they had so ferociously attacked defenseless civilians. One of them coldly replied: “Partisans kaput Germans, German kaput partisans.” Bruna, out of her mind with anguish, pointed at the children and women who had survived with her and shouted, “Are these the partisans?” In the heat of the moment, she grabbed the man and began to shake him, tearing his shirt.

Bruna Fagni

Prospero writes: “Faced with that reaction, the soldier hesitated, and the woman promptly seized that moment to beg for mercy for the people who had remained alive: ‘Save us, please, save us!’ she begged him, continuing to hold Alberto against her chest. The military man said, ‘I am good ... I Austrian. But if my officer orders me to kill you, I must do it; otherwise he will kill me.’ However, the Austrian soldier conferred with three other men and led the desperate survivors to a rear exit. He pointed them to a path that led to the farmhouse of Baroness Banchieri, considered a safe zone because the German command was based there.

“In the midst of so much cruelty, that soldier stood out for a compassionate gesture that saved the life not only of Bruna and her loved ones but of several other people who, following the young woman’s lead, were rescued, transferred to the farm and thus made definitively safe.”

Earlier that morning, the kindness of another soldier had saved Bruna’s 13-year-old brother Bruno, who had been sent into the Padule on horseback to carry food to Bruna’s husband and other men who were hiding deeper in the swamp. Unaware that a slaughter was taking place, Bruno encountered a German patrol. By a stroke of good fortune, the commander knew Bruno and his family, and he warned the boy to turn around. When Bruno hesitated, the officer raced up to the horse and, looking at Bruno with haunted eyes, shouted at him to go home and not be seen again, kicking the beast to cause it to run.

In 1947, Bruna offered her testimony at the trials of German soldiers in Padova and Firenze. She died in 2015 at age 101. Alberto became a bank manager and was 74 years old when he told his story to Prosperi in 2017.

Despite his tender age during the slaughter, Alberto still has haunting memories. “I remember exactly the point at which we met with my brother Alfredo. I still see him running towards us along the road that led from the Silvestri farmhouse to the Banchieri farm. As soon as we were reunited, I told him: ‘Tato Edo ... anto 'anghe ... tutti 'otti,’ (brother Alfredo, Antonio bloody, everyone broken) a sign that despite my 20 months, I had understood very well what had happened.

Casa Silvestri still stands, but it is now abandoned.

“Then I was left with a fear of uniforms. Alfredo at the age of eighteen made his entrance to the Military Academy of Modena. Every time he came home with his outfit, it was a torment to me. Even today it is enough for me to see a simple traffic policeman to feel a feeling of unease.”

Another act of both compassion and wisdom came from the unlikely source of Silvano Cipollini’s grandfather—the same man who in his rage had wanted to rush out and kill the German soldiers with his hunting rifle. Cipollini explained that some of the local Italians had collaborated with the Nazis, and Cipollini’s uncles and friends wanted to avenge themselves on the traitors once the Germans had left.

“Fortunately, my grandfather confronted his sons and the others with wisdom and resolutely convinced them to desist,” Cipollini said. “He told them, ‘Now that we are free, we must not respond with violence to violence. The death of our dear ones weighs heavily on my heart as well, but I don’t want you to stain your consciences as have those barbarians.’ ”

Go back to the beginning of the series

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Will our grandchildren have any idea what it means to be Italian-American?

Those of us who grew up in strong Italian American families and communities soon came to appreciate the special strengths of our ethnic identity. Mostly, it was the closeness of our nuclear and extended families, but our uniqueness also encompassed fantastic food, a strong work ethic and a host of other admirable traits. We had good reason to exhibit pride in our Italian origins—and we still do!

But do our children understand this? Well, how about our grandchildren and great grandchildren, who may only have a small percentage of Italian blood and have no chance of meeting their ancestors who actually lived in Italy? That’s the topic that writer Jim Pantaleo recently discussed on his Facebook page, and he has given me permission to reprint his insightful observations here.

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There’s an old Country song called “Don’t Get Above Your Raising.” It means no matter how successful you are, never forget where and who you came from.

Jim (center) and his sons.
For Italian-Americans, with each passing generation, that gets harder. My children are lucky enough to have known their grandparents, but not their great grandparents…the first in our family to come from Italy. Their memory will be even further removed from my grandchildren. Each new generation will know less about those who came from the old country and the traditions they brought with them, many of which we struggle to keep alive even today.

It’s so ironic that the greatest wish of those first immigrants was that their children would assimilate, become Americanized, so that their chances for a better life here might be improved. Many never spoke Italian at home in an effort to speed up that transition. The good news is that they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. That is also the bad news because of the price that had to be paid. Pretty soon, Italian-American became American-Italian, with the Italian part losing ground fast.

I am encouraged by my kids’ interest in their ancestry and country of origin. Internet research has made family tree tracing easier. We need to support this curiosity. Tell them about their roots, the towns and villages our ancestors came from. Take better care of old family photos. Write down what you can remember about that immigrant generation and what their lives were like. I am proud to be an American, but the first time I stepped off a plane in Rome, I felt the tug of my Italian ancestry too.

Maybe we can’t stop the fading of our Italian culture in America, but we can slow it down. We need to honor that immigrant generation by keeping alive the traditions they left behind.

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Jim Pantaleo is the author of SPALDEEN DREAMS: A Boy Comes of Age in 1950's Brooklyn, available on Amazon.


Friday, October 9, 2020

What is the magical allure and enchantment of Italian hilltop cities?

When Lucy and I considered where we’d like to live if or when we decided to move to Italy, one criterion always ended up in our list of priorities. It had to be a hilltop village.

Of course, there were also practical considerations: It had to be near a train station. It should not be too remote, requiring hours of driving on narrow roads. It should not be too touristy but should be near some attractive large cities that our guests would want to visit. But practicalities aside, we wanted to live in a small to medium sized hilltop village, something Italy has in abundance.

Montecarlo
Montecarlo, our personal favorite! Our house is between the trees inside the city walls on the right.


Numerous books, photo essays and web pages have been dedicated to the best Italian hilltop cities. Some travel groups offer special tours that only go to hilltop villages. Lists of the top 10, 20 or 50 cities are published. What is about these locations that is so appealing, so mesmerizing?

Tour guru Rick Steves believes it has to do with a healthy and joyful lifestyle: “Built on hilltops for defensive purposes in ancient and medieval times, the lofty perches of Tuscany’s hill towns today seem to protect them only from the modern world. After the hustle and bustle of urban Italy, it can be a joy to downshift to a more peaceful pace. With a surprising diversity of scenic lanes, abbeys, and wineries, the Tuscan countryside is a fine place to abandon your itinerary and just slow down.”

Lucchio, which has great views from a crumbling castle just above the old town.


While I must say that hilltop villages in other regions are just as attractive as those in Tuscany, we did select a Tuscan hill town, Montecarlo, which is less than an hour from Lucca, Montecatini, Pisa, Firenze and the coastal city of Viareggio. It has been everything we hoped for and more.

I’m currently reading Stumbling Through Italy, by Niall Allsop, in which he describes his travels to various regions in bell’Italia over a period of years. He wrote a paragraph about arriving in the Sicilian village of Caltabellotta that struck a chord with me and is worthy of sharing:

Caltabellotta 

“(The city) was a spectacular view in itself, but from the top there were amazing panoramas in every direction. And I suppose that’s why we visit these lofty towns, many of which, when you get there are basically the same—a castle, a cathedral, a few churches, small squares, big squares, blind alleyways, stepped alleyways, bars, a few shops. It’s for the view. Not just the view from the top but the many vistas that are part of the climb. And when you get there, the reward is not just looking down on the lesser hills or the distant sea—it’s recognizing where you’ve been, it’s marveling at the stilted road that brought you here, it’s catching a glimpse of where you’re staying, its wondering what’s in that field or beside that house, it’s pointing to where you’re going next, it’s knowing that, soon, you’ll be that speck down there.”

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

"Only Our Destiny" provides valuable insights into wartime Italy

For those interested in life in Italy before and during World War II, Only Our Destiny, by A.G. Russo, is an entertaining and informative choice.

This historical novel, published in 2020, focuses on an impoverished family from the fictional town of Punto Roccioso, a small seaside town south of Napoli. 
Along the way, the story covers many important aspects of those troubled times, including the ravages of the Spanish Flu, the dictatorship of Benito Mussolini and his black shirt thugs, the unfortunate lives of men drafted into a woefully unprepared and inadequately supplied military, living in a British prisoner of war camp, food shortages, persecution of Jewish Italians, the struggle for control between Fascists and the Camorra, discrimination against Southern Italians and the rise of the partigiani—the underground resistance fighters who harassed the occupying German army.

Raffaela struggles to survive and feed her ten children without help from her estranged and abusive husband Giuseppe, who abandons her for another woman and embraces Fascism. When Mussolini brings Italy into the war on Hitler’s side, the suffering Southern Italians are further devastated—harassed by Fascists and the occupying German army. Raffaela’s oldest children, Geno and Luisa, help her hold the family together and find enough food to survive. They befriend the family of a wealthy Jewish doctor who has been unfairly exiled to Southern Italy, and this leads to both trouble and romance for Geno and Luisa.

The saga also touches on the struggles of Italian Americans, as Raffaela’s young uncle Corrado moves to New York’s Little Italy to seek the American dream. Facing hardship and prejudice, he and friends manage to build a business, only to have it ripped from them when Corrado is confined to an internment camp for Italians. Their courage and the ability to rebuild are a testament to the resilience of the many immigrants who left their homeland with little else but a dream and established and molded America in the process.

The character development and evolution of relationships between central figures is strong enough to keep interest high, especially for readers with an interest in Italian society and the realities of wartimes. The book could have been helped by stronger editing, though, which would have improved sentence structure and punctuation and eliminated some repetition and needless sentences. The book also suffers from some typographical and factual errors and some mistranslations into Italian. Salerno is often misspelled as Solerno. The Italian word che is several times misspelled as que and the word for yes () is consistently missing the accent over the i. The Gothic Line is incorrectly referred to as being located south of Rome.

Overall, these minor shortcomings are more than recompensed by the entertaining storyline and valuable historical insights. Don’t expect this to be an entirely uplifting and cheerful tale, though. These were dark times that brought hardships, misery and death—but inspiration can be found in the courage of Raffaela and her family, who sacrifice and work together persistently in an attempt to survive and hopefully thrive.

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Update: I was recently contacted by A.G. Russo, who wrote:

Thank you for the review. I just made changes to the errors you pointed out. All four of my grandparents and my mother were Italian immigrants. My father, also of course, was Italian, and born in Hell’s Kitchen in New York. I spoke Italian as a child when we lived with my grandparents but have since lost most of it, except for the swear words. (The last thing to go.) We spent almost three months in Italy last year and I made contact with family on both sides. I still communicate with two of my Italian cousins and I’m tracing my genealogy. We also went to England on a previous trip because my granduncle went there instead of America and we met that family.

Some incidents in the book were told to me by my uncles, but I have no way of knowing if they’re true or exaggerated family lore, so I had to consider them fiction for the sake of the book. But I will say both my grandfathers and grandmothers were very much ‘of their time.’ I have Italian American friends who were stunned reading the book and had no idea what it took for their families to come to America and thrive. Judging from the reviews, most people, even those who are not Italian Americans, are surprised as well. 

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Author’s note: I have also reviewed several other worthwhile books that provide nonfictional accounts of wartime Italy, including: