I really don’t know why I haven’t sat down and written about last week’s commemoration at Montebuono. I have done literally nothing but talk about it ever since the event, but I’ve struggled to find a way to describe it coherently .
Just in case you have no idea what I am talking about, I suggest that you read this blog post, describing the story of eight young American soldiers, shot by the SS at a local monastery in April 1944. Along with the local expat and Italian communities, we have spent the last couple of months helping to plan a ceremony to commemorate the 75th anniversary of this event, as well as trying to find relatives of the eight, and fund raising for a new commemoration plaque to be erected on the site of the tragedy. This excellent news article describes the day far better than I could ever hope to, but I would still like to record my feelings about having been involved (in a very small way) in something of which we are both very, very proud.
Unusually for me, at this point, I find myself lost for words. So I think that I’ll focus on the extraordinary people that I met over the weekend, and the stories that they told me.
Before the service, as we all waited to be served an enormous breakfast in the town hall, an elderly gentleman called Tomasso introduced himself to me, and we chatted the normal, every day small talk that one does in these parts: how many olive trees we have, the fly, the frost from last year etc etc. I then asked him how he came to be at the ceremony. “Because I met the soldiers” he told me. He then went on to describe the evening when, as a ten year old boy, the soldiers knocked on his front door in the centre of the village. He talked about being utterly terrified (the Germans were singing and drinking in the osteria next door), and helping his equally terrified father to give them some food. After the shooting, his father was one of the villagers who helped to give the soldiers a decent burial. Tomasso was devastated to discover that these were the same soldiers he had given bread to, as his father recognised the ring that one of them was wearing.
We were transported up to the ceremony in a procession of four wheel drive vehicles. The walk from the village takes an hour, and the track is incredibly steep. During the ceremony, I stood next to Nello, and then translated as he told his story to our dear friend Jim after the ceremony. As a 13 year old boy, Nello was one of the villagers who buried the soldiers. He told us about the shock at seeing seven bodies in a row on the ground, and an eighth, who was apart from the group, and appeared to have been shot as he attempted to escape. Every year, Nello climbs the mountain, to say a prayer for those soldiers at the place where they died. The picture (top right, above) shows Tomasso telling his story at the post ceremony lunch, with Nello listening on.
Over lunch I got talking to Janet, the historian who had researched the story. I had rather assumed that atrocities like this had been very common (on both sides) as the war started to come to a close, but apparently this was not the case at all. Indeed, Janet is only aware of one other similar event. Our poor guys were discovered not by regular soldiers, but by the SS, and of course, this event took place a matter of weeks after “The Great Escape” from Stalag Luft III, after which Hitler apparently sanctioned executions, rather than trials for escapees. But still, Janet had no explanation for why these particular soldiers were executed on the spot. And so I introduced Janet to Nello.
The final character who I met over the weekend was 98 year old British veteran, and long time Italian resident, Harry Schindler. Harry had arrived on Friday evening, wearing a “Bollocks to Brexit” badge, and regaled us all with the tale of how he had come to take the British government to court over the disenfranchisement of British expats in the recent referendum. But holding the government to account is just a hobby for Harry. His real job is keeping the war alive in people’s memories, and doing whatever he can to prevent a third world war. Saturday morning, minus the badge, but wearing his own medals, Harry was bounced up the side of a mountain in a four by four with the rest of us for twenty, stomach lurching minutes. He then remained on his feet, bolt upright for the hour long service. During lunch, he delivered a ten minute long speech, in Italian, which had several people close to tears.
Here, you can watch Harry explain why his war is not over.
The families of eight young American men, who lived and died here, should know that their ancestors were looked after by the residents of Montebuono – in life and in death. They are still remembered and cherished. They played their part in liberating Italy from a dark period in history. Tomorrow is Liberation Day here in Italy, and I feel that I have a much greater understanding of what that means now. And for that I have Tomasso, Nello, and Harry to thank. And, of course, eight American soldiers.
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