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This explains a lot. Happily though, the ache left by the moment’s void, got filled this morning as I hurried down Ninth Avenue. It was not quite eight. Children of many different roots were off to school, folks carrying coffee in cardboard headed toward work or the subway like arrows shot from bows. A few stragglers ardently walked dogs; one old sniffy hound seemed to be leading it’s human who winced as he took careful steps on (perhaps) untreated chilblains caused by a too cold winter. The tale that soothed my void is from my book Fiet’s Vase and Other Stories of Survival, Europe 1939-1945. It’s the story of a once captured English soldier who later became an author and a traveler who lived a long, rich life and died in 2006 at age eighty-six. I invite you to come with me to the rugged Apennine Mountains in Italy, the year is 1943. Witness how the gold dust of kindness flew in the face of cruelty at a moment of great need. Take heart at what’s possible:
He was in the British army and had been smuggled into Italy to blow up an airport. The plan had failed and he’d been captured by the Italian army. The soldier’s name was Eric Newby. and he returned to the mountains and forests of the Apennines twelve years after war’s end with his wife and two children, to find, visit and somehow thank the various men, women and children who’d sheltered, fed and protected him for more than a year after his escape in 1943 from a prisoner-of-war camp outside the village of Pianura Pada, not far from the city of Parma. All who had helped him, and those who had helped Jews and other ‘out- laws,’ had done so at the risk of their own lives.
Over the course of that year, separately and together, a human lifeline had been spontaneously created that sustained Newby’s body and kept his spirit alive. As he later wrote in his memoir Love and Death in the Apennines, all help ‘was given freely at the time, out of kindness of heart.’ The first link in his human lifeline was a tall Italian farmer with a florid face, Signor Merli, who allowed Newby to spend the first night after his escape hidden in his hayloft. He was impressed by the farmer’s large Roman nose. Although he’d managed to acquire an Italian phrase book before escaping from the camp into the countryside, Newby and Merli couldn’t speak to each other. Because Newby had a broken leg and because it was daylight and dangerous, Merli hurriedly helped him up a steep, rickety ladder into the hayloft. He gave him a bottle filled with fresh water and left him. Suffering severe pain in the broken leg, Newby listened to the sound of explosions in the foothills of the Apennines that – he correctly assumed – were being made by the advancing Germans.
When dark, accompanied by a heavy mist, had entirely fallen, Newby was helped into the farmer’s house and the farmer’s small, dark wife fed him pasta and salty cheese, which he washed down with frothing purple wine. As he wolfed down the food, the farmer’s two children studied his unusual uniform and boots. Then he was put to bed on feed sacks in the cowshed. In the morning, an Italian doctor came to look at his leg and arranged to have him taken to hospital. When Newby gestured goodbye to Signor Merli and his family, Signora Merli began to cry He was taken by the dissident doctor to the Ospedale Peracchi near Fontanellato and hidden in a bed in the maternity ward. His helpers had agreed that if he didn’t get his leg set – couldn’t walk, couldn’t run – he didn’t stand a chance of escaping. Cheese, fruit, eggs, cigarettes and civilian clothes were brought to him by women and young girls who arrived out of nowhere on bicycles. Immediately he was visited in the hospital by a slim, blue-eyed young woman named Wanda, a Slovene from a place close to Ljubljana, who had lived in Italy with her father for a long time and obviously was connected to the dissidents who were helping him. She insisted that he learn Italian, which she would teach him. Neither could have imagined at that moment of meeting that they would be reunited after the war and would marry each other. The doctor set his leg in a plaster cast, and while the bone mended, Wanda’s Italian lessons began.
When the Germans discovered Newby at the hospital, he was put under armed guards. After several days a note was left under his lunch plate: ‘Tonight, 22:00, if not, Germany tomorrow, 06:00. Go east 500 metri across fields until you reach a bigger street. Wait there! Don’t worry about clothes and shoes.’ That night, feigning diarrhea, he went back and forth to the bathroom. When the hallway was clear, he climbed down a drainpipe outside the toilet window and hobbled away per the instructions. Waiting at the crossroads was an old car that had the Red Cross symbol painted on its door. Inside sat the doctor who had already helped him, along with a schoolteacher, referred to as ‘Maestro,’ who happened to be Wanda’s father. They drove Newby toward the large outlines of the Apennines, and after a night in the woods near the Po River, he was taken in hand by a large limping man with a scar along his nose. This was Signor Giovanni, who left him in an underground hole with a promise to return. The hole had recently been dug by the gnarled hands of Giovanni and his very old father. It was fortified with sacks and a few provisions that included a blanket, water, cheese, wine and a can into which he could evacuate. All night, rain fell on the makeshift roof and dripped through the air hole until late the next day – the coast was clear and Giovanni and his father came to retrieve him.
His next shelter was two villages farther up, on a mountain- side. It was a stone hut the size of a cowshed that he first saw illuminated by fierce lightning. It belonged to the Zanoni family. Fearing expulsion when Signor Zanoni told him he couldn’t sleep in the hay, his heart sank. But then Zanoni announced that he could sleep in the house in a bed after he finished milking his cow. With relief. Newby was shortly brought there. Zanoni’s house seemed more a cave than a house. The stones glowed red from hanging oil lamps. Zanoni, his wife, their three children and a small and wrinkled aunt who watched him constantly through thick glasses – six people in all – lived in this cavelike residence. Newby was fed potato gnocchi and given red wine to drink, then he was put into the warmest, softest bed in which he’d ever slept – before or since. The knitted vest they gave him smelled strongly of sheep. He fell asleep to the sound of crashing rain and woke to sounds of cows and hens in the yard below. It was September 1943, and the reward for denouncing a fugitive like himself or a Jew or a partisan had just risen to eighteen hundred lire, at a time when a thousand lire meant a comfortable life for a month. The sentence for aiding or abetting anyone of these outlaws was execution.
Newby’s next shelter was several hours by foot through the woods, higher in the mountains. His shelterers were a thin, erect farmer, Signor Luigi, who always wore a hat; his wife, Agata, who had a booming voice and was missing a tooth; their daughters, Rita, thin and dour, and Dolores, Amazonian and lusty; a plowboy, Armando; and a ferocious dog named Nero. These mountain people spoke a mountain dialect. Despite the risk, the arrangement was that Newby would be fed and sheltered at Pian del Sotto – as the place was called – in exchange for field work. Since he would be working outside most of the day, a story would be circulated that he was deaf and dumb, a bombed-out fisherman originally from Genoa.
The next link in Newby’s chain of helpers – albeit an accidental protector – was encountered after Newby had spent a sun- drenched autumn Sunday gathering mushrooms near a cliff that was about five or six thousand feet above the valley. He was lying on a spot of soft underbrush soaking up the afternoon heat and had let the lazy sounds of bees, insects, sheep bells and even a tolling church bell in the valley lull him to sleep. When he opened his eyes, a German officer – armed, in uniform – was towering above him. His name was Oberleutnant Frick. Flat on his back, Newby was frozen to the spot on which he lay. He was shirtless, bootless, sockiess, weaponless. He thought about the choices available at that instant – murder, combat. One quick shove might send the German tumbling off the high cliff behind him. Or? Or? Or he could act the part of the Italian deaf-mute. However, he couldn’t will himself into action, he simply lay where he was, frozen. He realized that the German was also frozen. After a decisive moment, rather than fight to the death, the two soldiers continued doing nothing, continued staring at each other. Then Newby noticed the butterfly net that Frick was toting and the moment of jeopardy dissolved and they began to converse.
This German was a professor of entomology from Gottingen who was in Italy lecturing on Renaissance painting and architecture to soldiers who were engaged in destroying these very things. Newby and Frick drank a beer from Munich together. They discussed the war, the impending German defeat. Before leaving Frick told him, ‘Do not be afraid. I will not tell anyone that I have met you. I am anxious to collect specimens … specimens with wings.’ Strange as it felt, Newby shook the hand that was offered and – still seated, agape – watched Frick, the sworn enemy, take off across a field, his net lunging at a butterfly unseen to him.
Forced by the tightening German noose to move again, Newby next met Abramo, a huge man with mottled skin and a viselike handshake, a shepherd who lived even higher in the mountains to the west of Pian del Sotto, among gray cloudbanks, with flocks of black and dun-colored sheep and dogs in an area peppered with dwarf beech trees. Abramo’s hut smelled of sheep, was less than ten feet square. Abramo gave Newby grappa to drink, polenta, hare stew flavored with mushrooms, herbs and giblet gravy to eat. The stay here lasted only a few days. Next – because it was becoming too dangerous for him to be sheltered in anyone’s house at all, six male members of the community built a secret house for him. A lean man with a sharp nose named Francesco was in charge. A very old man named Bartolomeo and four others, including Francesco’s boy Pierino, and a mule climbed very high into the mountains together and worked all day When the outside of the makeshift house/cave was finished, the helpers stacked wood inside and created a chimney in the cliff wall. Late in the day, the wives of the men appeared at the building site loaded down with backpacks filled with cheese and rice, bread, salt and acorn coffee purchased at exorbitant prices – which none could afford – on the black market. And of course they’d brought wine. A password – ‘Brindisi’ – was agreed upon. Gathering their tools, the Italians wished him luck and led the donkey down the mountainside, disappearing quickly.
Entirely alone, Newby undraped the sacking that covered the entrance. He climbed behind the tangled beech tree roots and stepped inside his cave home. Once inside he let the sacking fall back behind the roots, rendering the door to his refuge entirely in- visible. While inside he could hear the hoot of forest owls through the long, lonely winter months he spent based at this refuge in solitude except for visits from the children or grandmothers of his shelterers, bringing him food – eggs, sausage, but more often bread, milk and soup. ‘Almost always they came when it was just growing light; but I was always awake … Then they would hand me the pot – and after I had handed back the pot, I would receive words of encouragement, and usually, in answer to my question, they would say that there was niente di nuovo – no news. This meant in the comune rather than the world, although they sometimes would add – dabbing their eyes – that there was still no news of the boys in Russia, whose grandmothers some of them were, and then they would go back down the hill, very black and respectable, with the pot concealed in a black bag made of American cloth.’
So he remained when fierce rain, then blizzards, came to the mountains, when bombs began to fall on Genoa. One day the son of one of the protectors arrived in an anxious state. He told Newby that he must leave in less than an hour, that the milìzia was coming for him that very night. He took rice and other supplies and was guided to a rendezvous with a boy – Alfredo, slim, shy, whose lips were blue from cold – who led him safely around frozen waterfalls, iced gorges, through a night of wailing winds, to the hut of a family of charcoal burners whose faces were dusted black from charcoal. There he was given bracing grappa and the warmth of a hot fire. From this refuge he was led by a boy to a barn where an almost blind man, Amadeo, awaited them, as well as a small girl carrying a crock of hot soup. While Newby ate, Amadeo told him, ‘I, too, will give you food and shelter for as long as you wish to stay here.’
The chain of human kindness held firm during his time in the mountains.