War and Survival – A Boy’s Story by Alva de Chiro
War and Survival – A Boy’s Story
The bayonet pierced the soil so close to his hand that he fell backwards. Black boots – the boots of a German soldier – were close to him. In a glance, Biagio took in the grey uniform with its shiny buttons before his eyes moved upwards towards the face. Relief! Oh, such relief, for the face under the steel helmet was smiling. He looked at the soldier a moment longer, judged the smile to be genuine, then quickly grabbed the root of potatoes. Tugged. Thrust them into his bag. Jumped up and ran, like a grey hound chasing the hare. He raced across the _field and onto the road that edged Lake Garda, his feet pounding, the blood pumping in his ears, Then, at last, through the iron gates of the Military College. Not until Biagio was inside those gates could he slow down, begin to breathe more steadily. Moments later he burst into the college kitchen. Six of his friends – all of them hungry and nervously awaiting his return – must be told what had happened.
Biagio and his friends had been abandoned by their teachers several weeks before. Abandoned as soon as it became obvious that the war was not going well. Now they were surviving alone and on their wits. Without help, without adult care.
Until the staff left, the regime at the college had been rigorous; marching every morning at eight o’clock prompt, the strictest of rules insisted upon at table. Should anyone’s elbows intrude upon another student’s space, thin sheets of paper would be placed under the miscreant’s arms, to be held there throughout the meal. I can recall Biagio’s description of his first, tough year at the place, how it forced him to grow up quickly. On January 5th he hung out his socks for La Befana to fill with sweets, for the following day was the Feast of the Epiphany. The older boys poked fun at him. ‘It was your mamma’ they laughed, ‘who put sweets in your socks, Biagio!’
Throughout the region, buildings had now been reduced to piles of bricks, roads had been destroyed. But the Partisans were forming into groups, determined to capture Mussolini, the leader who had led them into destruction and defeat. The boys were aware of Italy’s downfall, for each day a group of them ventured into the town of Garda and, whilst bargaining with street-side food sellers, they would hear snippets of news. Their own position was desperate. They tried to sell whatever pieces of any value they could find in the college in order to buy bread and fruit. But as the days passed, food became scarce, and their hunger increased.
Over time, the boys became separated. Biagio was fortunate – he was offered a home with a local farming family, who were Partisans. Their farm was in the hills above the great Lake Garda, where food was more plentiful. There were seven in the family; parents, grandparents and three children, and gradually Biagio settled down with them, doing jobs on the farm, playing with other boys. But always, at the forefront of his mind, was mamma and his home.
Clandestine meetings were held at the farm, and Biagio overheard a lot of talk about the whereabouts of II Duce – Benito Mussolini. All sorts of plans were being discussed. How would It be best to capture this now hated man and his mistress, Clara Petacci?
Biagio’s thoughts of home during this strange time remained intense. Many years later, he talked to me about how he felt. ‘Every night I thought of home, which seemed such a long way away. A distance that could not be travelled.’ Nevertheless, he grew accustomed to this new life and felt real affection for the family that was protecting and caring for him. He was, to remain a part of that family for several years. ,
As even earlier memories surfaced, he said to me – in a tone of amazement – ‘You know, I was only eight when I waved goodbye to mamma from the college grounds! I did not want to leave her, or my brothers, Carlo, and Piero. Papa was already in the army, and mamma had kept saying, ‘Oh, Biagio, it’s such an honour to go to this wonderful college! It was set up by Mussolini himself! So, it is a great honour for the family – you know your papa is a Blackshirt and a captain in the army, and your Uncle Arduino is a general.’
‘Of course,’ Biagio told me, ‘None of that this meant much to me. All I could think of was that I was in a strange place, that I was not at home. Many times, particularly at night, I thought of all the games I had played with my brothers, and how I had really loved the garden, especially when we picked the cocoons of the mulberry silkworms, and I had tried to get the most. Not a day passed, during those four long years, that I did not think of home. Simple things like going with mamma to choose a hen for soup, Mamma would point to one, the farmer would hand it to her, and she would pull its neck. Then home we would go, and a couple of hours later, when papa had returned from the office, we would be eating home-made tortellini in a delicious chicken soup.
Food used to come into my mind so often! I would think longingly of all the good dishes that mamma used to produce. She was a such a good cook, even though the kitchen was tiny. I would remember her big terra cotta pot; it always fascinated me to see the thick, red sauce simmering away in it; and every single time it smelled wonderful. I used to imagine I had helped, because I had picked the big green leaves of the basil plant that mamma had-grown in the garden. Of course, best of all was eating the pasta, with mamma’s delicious sauce ladled over it and crowned with parmesan. The food I was eating at the farm near Garda was very different from the food of home. The pasta of the North was called bigoli; it was thick, so much thicker than spaghetti, and we ate it with sardines. Another dish was polenta, eaten with a different kind of fish. It all seemed strange, but it was good and plentiful enough and I was very grateful not to be living only on potatoes.’
As Biagio told me of his feelings of nostalgia and his longing for home, I felt his pain. It was hard to imagine that he was only eight years old when his life took such a dramatic turn, and I thought how devastating It would have been if that had happened to me, in England, never had I experienced foreign soldiers marching down our street. I can remember what I was doing when I was eight – walking to Junior School with my friends, playing hopscotch, two balls and skipping, and although the country was at war, we never went hungry. Mum would make stews and pies, she pickled eggs, and sometimes even made mint sweets. I can remember hearing the sirens, putting on my dressing gown and going to a shelter Grandad’s garden. It all seemed quite exciting! My Dad was away in London – he was a Scots Guard. But I never felt afraid; I had my mother and grandparents; I went to school, played games, never saw anything terrifying. The clearest war memory I have is seeing a German plane coming down in a field near us. It happened when the war was nearly over and I ran over the fields, with lots of other children, to see where the plane had landed. We were told that the pilot had lost his way and run’ out of fuel. So here he was, surrounded by children and soon by two policemen, who took him away. We all had a go at sitting in the ‘plane and were late for school.
What a contrast to Biagio’s memories. On April 28th, 1945, when he was thirteen years old, Biagio accompanied his adoptive family to the Piazza Lorretto in Milan. The most hated man in Italy had been captured by the Partisans, in the small village of Dongo, perched in the hills above lake Garda. Today, the very spot where he was seized is marked by a brass plate.
Recalling that day, Biagio told me, ‘I’ll never forget the scene in Milan, it will stay in my mind forever. There they were, Mussolini and Petacci, along with some others, hanging upside down from a metal girder in the piazza. The piazza was crowded, and a woman standing next to me shot four bullets into the chest of Mussolini. She was shouting “that’s for my three sons and husband!” I felt so frightened and longed to be safe at home.’
And Biagio had another deep worry. ‘I kept thinking about papa,’ he said, ‘for I knew he had gone away to fight in Ethiopia. I was desperately hoping he was safe and hadn’t been captured, because if he had, then what would mamma do? What would we all do? I had not had any letters from mamma telling me how they were going on and so knew nothing about papa. All l knew was that Italy had lost the war and that’ all the roads and houses had been bombed. I was praying our house was still safe. I’d kept sending letters home with the Red Cross, who came round to help us, but never had a reply.’
After their journey to Milan, Biagio went back with the family to Garda, but now more than’ ever he longed to return to his home in Caserta. And finally, he had a stroke of luck! As he was busy with his usual jobs at the farm, a lorry pulled up on the hillside just nearby. It was loaded with watermelons. Immediately, the sight of the huge, green fruit brought to him a picture of home, where the fields were full of them. Farmers would build mountains of melons at the side’ of the roads, so that anyone could stop-and buy. He remembered how mamma would cut a melon into bright pink, appetising slices and how when you ate one the juice would run down your chin. At this moment, the farmer’s wife was buying melons from the lorry driver and the two of them were chatting. In an instant, Biagio recognised his Neapolitan accent. And Naples lay just twelve miles from Caserta.
He rushed up to them. After much discussion and explanation, it was agreed that he could pack his few belongings and return home in the lorry. The home he had left five years ago. For his new family, especially his adoptive mother, the sudden departure must surely have been a wrench. Biagio had been with them for a long time. He had come as a frightened, ‘hungry child and was now not far from being a young man.
The journey was to be long and uncomfortable. The worn tyres of the rickety lorry sank into every pothole as it chugged along roads strewn with bricks and mortar. But I can imagine that no discomforts worried him in the least. Biagio was going home.
More than ten years were to pass, before Biagio described his homecoming to me: But his voice still wavered as he relived those moments.
‘When I entered Piazza Vanvltelli,’ he recounted, ‘where I had spent hours playing on my bike and at football, and saw La Scuola Materna, which I had attended when I was six, I knew I was really, really home. And there was Franco’s coffee bar, where papa spent many hours, smoking a cigarette under the balcony, so mamma would not see him. And it had not changed. But the moment I pushed open the big, heavy wooden doors leading to the courtyard, I felt so weak. I thought I will never climb up all those marble steps to my house, to mamma. To Mamma Mia. But my heart was thudding with happiness.
As I arrived at the top floor I saw mamma’s plants, the big green basil leaves and the
rosemary. I pushed the door open, went along the corridor and there they were – mamma, Carlo, and Piero. As they looked towards the door and saw me, mamma screamed out ‘Biagio! Mio Biagio!’ She ran over and hugged me, crying, ‘Look! I am in black – in mourning for my Biagio.’ Carlo and Piero had also rushed across, and I felt their arms, too, around me.
Mamma told Carlo to fetch our neighbours and soon the house was full. I was asked-to tell my ‘story time and time again. Food had been quickly prepared and I realised I was hungry, that first plate of spaghetti, covered in mamma’s rich sauce, was the-very best! Time and again she hugged me, time and again she said, ‘I shall go to Mass every day for the rest of, my life, because you are alive, and I thought you were dead’
In the weeks that followed, I told of my adventures many times. Sometimes I managed to make people laugh, but always it ended with mamma crying. ‘I sent you to the college,’ she would say, ‘because it was an honour – only special boys could go. I did not know that’ everything was going to end like this.’ I had asked, of course, about papa, and was told that he was a prisoner of war in England. He had been captured by the British in Ethiopia and shipped to a place called Skipton. ‘But he will come back to us one day,’ mamma kept saying.
For Biagio, life now began to return to some normality. He went to school and eventually studied Book-Keeping, but the remains of the war were all around them and food was scarce. Red Cross parcels would sometimes arrive containing groceries. ‘But it was when a letter arrived from England – from papa -that there was real excitement. Papa was alive! Biagio and his brothers gathered round mamma as she read’ the letter to them, telling of papa’s work at the Johnson and Johnson factory in the small Yorkshire village of Gargrave. ‘If the sun shines, all the English are so happy,’ the letter told them. ‘They shout holiday, holiday!’
Biagio wanted to help with the family’s income, so when the owner of a large firm in
England travelled to Italy, advertising for young men between the ages of twenty-one and forty to go to work in England, he applied. He passed his medical and soon afterwards, with a group of other men from Caserta and its surrounding towns; he was on a train, travelling through Italy, Switzerland, and France. They crossed the Channel and arrived in England then onwards to Chesterfield.
Accommodation was provided, but the work was hard and dusty. They were surrounded by the noise and fumes of the Coalite factory, where smokeless fuel was produced. This town of Chesterfield was no Caserta! Industry, not agriculture, dominated at the time and of course – to these young men of southern Italy – the climate seemed raw and bleak. It came as a real shock, but since a ‘home’, food and transportation to work were all provided, it had to be tried out. I believe that those tough years of his childhood must have given Biagio a strong outlook on life. Despite the unhealthy conditions, he was determined to fulfil the terms of his contract, which were to complete four years of service. After this period, he would be allowed to search for alternative employment, and this he did.
After those four, tough years Biagio was relieved to leave the smoke and smells of Coalite. He gained employment at a variety of places and – most important of all! – he met me at a weekly dance. At that time, he could say only a few words in English, but one of those was ‘dance?’ And I did indeed agree to dance with this handsome young man, little knowing we were to marry four years later.
Conversing with me (or do I perhaps mean listening to me?) paid dividends, for Biagio’s mastery of the language it progressed at a great rate, as did his employment. He became a rent collector for the Council, and later an arrears officer. Before long he was an official interpreter for the Chesterfield police and a teacher of Italian to would-be holidaymakers at night-school, Meanwhile, I completed my teacher training course at a London College.
And the rest, as they say, is history! We married in October 1959. None of Biagio’s relatives came to the wedding, but his mother sent two sprigs of orange blossom for him and his best man to wear (which he found preferable to sporting a large carnation framed by greenery, as per English tradition.) To me she sent a gold brooch of the de Chiro family crest, to wear on my wedding dress. At this point I had yet to meet my in-laws. I did not speak the language and nor was I skilled in Italian cuisine. Gosh, those things had to be remedied! And eventually they were.
It was in 1961 and with our baby son, Emilio, that we made our first journey by car to Caserta. Exactly one thousand and two hundred miles – quite a journey. My in-laws were welcoming, but there was a problem – I could not talk to them. Without Biagio translating for us, we relied on smiles and gestures. Despite this, I was tutored in the art of Italian of cooking, for my mother-in-law was a superb cook and she found in me an enthusiastic pupil.
As time passed, and we travelled to Caserta every year, I learned not only to speak Italian fluently but to produce a tasty lasagne. Being able to converse with my in-laws made such a difference. We established a close, loving relationship and Biagio was so happy and proud that I had opened my arms to his beloved family and country. Carlo was born some years later and as he and Emilio grew up; they both embraced the Italian way of life. As did I.
Of course, it was now possible for mamma and papa, Biagio’s parents, to visit us in England. On one such occasion, papa asked if we could drive to Gargrave, in Yorkshire, where had been held as a prisoner of war. As soon as we approached the place, he recognised the scenery of that pretty Yorkshire village. I am sure he must have experienced a strange mixture of emotions at that point. He told us he had the name and address of the English man whom the prisoners addressed as Boss, so we searched for this house and found it – a grey, stone cottage with a well-kept garden. A knock at the door, and a rather elderly man appeared, looking most surprised! He was immediately recognised by papa. Biagio explained why we were standing on his doorstep, but for a moment the man showed no recognition. Then, all of a sudden, he said, ‘Ohl Ask you father – did he wear knee-high leather boots?’ The answer was Yes! Those were the boots he was wearing when he was captured in Ethiopia, those were the boots he wore at the camp. We were all invited in and served with tea and cakes. The two men met and talked once again – in friendship, and under such very different circumstances. An unforgettable afternoon.
Biagio died in 2001. We had been married for forty-one years, during which time he had embraced England and the English way of life (if not our unpredictable weather!) England had become his home. They say, though, that home is where the heart is, and I always knew a part of his heart lay in Italy. And I can say, in honesty, that this is also true for me.
Alva de Chiro.