PartFour

MyMother's Autobiography

 

Gorizia

I WAS BORN inGorizia, a small town in northern Italy on the border with Yugoslavia- or what used to be Yugoslavia. My mother was born there in 1904,when it was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I was told bymy mother that Gorizia was the scene of many hard battles as it wasfront line area during the 1914&endash;18 war. While my grandfatherwas called up in the Austrian forces, his two sons [or morelikely, brothers] escaped to Italy to fight with the Italianforces; they were caught at the border and shot as deserters. Duringone of the many battles, my grandmother was hit by fragments ofshrapnel in the abdomen. She was seriously injured although the babyshe was holding - my only surviving uncle - escaped unhurt. Betweenthe breaks in the battle she was taken to hospital in Ljubljana[then called Laibach] where she died several weeks laterlonely and unknown. Food was very short during the latter part of thewar and my grandfather sent many parcels of food for her long aftershe died because they kept his hopes alive by requesting food parcelsfor which she had no further need, it was a matter of life or deathfor many people. It was found much later that the local newspapershad reported the death of an Italian woman who had continuouslycalled the name of Rina up until the moment of her death; Rina was mymother's name. Her family were never able to trace her grave; she wasburied as an unknown person.

My mother and herbrother were brought up by her elder sister and in 1923 she met myfather who was doing his military service in Gorizia; they were bothnineteen and they fell very much in love. Their courtship was notsmooth for several reasons, the most serious being the fact that mypaternal grandfather did not agree with the marriage. He did notthink that my mother's family was good enough for my father. They dideventually manage to get married three months before my birth in1927, but my father had to give up all his inheritance in exchangefor the permission to marry my mother. My father was a very cleverand resourceful person, and he worked hard and in 1938 he held a goodposition with the Banco di Sicilia; he was the youngest vice-director[deputy manager]. We had a very nice house and life was verycomfortable; the future looked very bright and we were happy. I wasthe eldest of three sisters and one brother - the youngest. We haddone a great deal of travelling from Gorizia to Trieste, where mysister Silvana was born. From Trieste my father was transferred toCatania, in Sicily, where my sister Luciana was born, followed by mybrother Sergio.

Mamma, NonnoGiulio, Nonna Caterina and Silvana

A first radio inPalermo

Luciana, Liliana,Sergio and Silvana in Palermo

Liliana, Silvana,Nonna Caterina, Sergio and Luciana

Nonna's brotherAngelo, Nonna, Liliana and Luciana in Sicily

Nonno, Nonna withSergio, Angelo, Silvana and Liliana in Palermo

 

In November 1938 anevent took place that was to change and to interrupt our lives out ofall recognition. The racial laws were passed and I found out that myfather was Jewish, whatever it meant, and as such was pensioned offby the Bank and a very serious period in our life was set in motion.I remember well the night of the 11th of November 1938. It was earlyevening and it was nearly dark, I was sitting on the balcony in thetwilight enjoying the mild evening air. I do not know what made mekeep quiet when I heard my mother and father whispering quietly,unaware of my presence; I realised that my father was crying. I couldnot believe what I was hearing. I listened with horror to my fathertelling my mother that he no longer had a position at the Bank as hehad been sacked because he was Jewish. My parents had to explain tous children what this meant. A good friend of my father's sent him toAlbania as the manager of a large building consortium. He helped uswith the expenses and our new life. My father left immediately and wefollowed six months later after selling all our belongings andleaving all our friends and relations behind. It was very hard tostart life all over again but we were all young and we soon adjustedto the new life, new country, new language and new customs. As I saidbefore, my father was a clever and resourceful man and after a veryshort time he was offered a position as manager with the Banca diNapoli. From Tirana [Tiranë], the capital of Albania, wemoved to Sarandë or Porto Edda as the Italians called it afterEdda Ciano, Mussolini's daughter, married to Count Ciano who waslater shot as a traitor during the Republic ofSalò.

InAlbania

The Bank ofNaples in Tirana

Lola thePomeranian

New developmentin Tirana

In September 1939war was declared and a new more dangerous period of our lives began.We were in Sarandë at declaration of war; the first thing thathappened was my first bomb. Sarandë is not far from Corfu acrossthe sea; on a fine day one can see the windows glistening in thesunshine. Our house was right at the top of the town, backing on themountains. We were outside when we heard the sound of an engine; welooked and we spotted an aeroplane fairly high above us. We thoughtit was an Italian one looking for somewhere to land; all at once Iheard a strange whining sound, my mother grabbed me by my arm andpushed me to the floor; there was a terrific explosion and we werevery shocked. Later the firemen came to see if we were unharmedbecause of the bomb that exploded right at the back of our house. Wewere saved by my mother's instinct or maybe distant memories of warin Gorizia and the sound of falling shells.

Despite the war lifewas not terrible during this period; I was growing up; I had my firstboyfriend; I and my sisters and brother were young enough to make thebest of our situation. Sarandë is not far from the Greek borderand we were there when Italian troops invaded Greece; as the dayspassed we noticed that the sound of gun fire became louder andlouder. We soon found out the reason: the Italians troops were beingpushed back towards our town My father had been away for several daysinspecting different branches of the Bank all over the country. Afterseveral days it became apparent that our troops were retreating andwe would have to leave our homes soon or be taken by the advancingenemy. We could not wait for my father and we prepared toleave.

Something serioushappened to aggravate our situation. My brother developed a very highfever and the doctor would not authorise his travelling. In the endmyself and my two other sisters left Sarandë with the family ofmy father's cashier. There were twelve of us including six children.We started the long journey by bus, or should I say by poultrytransporter, in the early hours of the Monday morning, and I and mysisters did not know when we would see my mother and my brotheragain. It was a very uncomfortable and dangerous journey across awild country with very few decent roads and always under threat fromaeroplanes and hostile locals. We stopped the night in Valona[Vlorë?], a port on the Albanian coast, and we were soonunder attack from Allied planes which were bombing Italian ships inthe port; the lady who was in charge of us was terrified and did notknow where to turn. During one of the raids, very near our hoteI, shehid under the bed from the threat of the bombs.

It took us nearly aweek to reach Tirana where my mother had arrived two days earlier.She and my brother were the last civilians to leave Sarandë; sheleft with General Zannini, commander of the Italian troops in thearea. On our arrival in Tirana we were taken to a big hotel where wewere allowed to sleep on mattresses lined on the entrance floor. Andthere is where my father found us: tired, frightened, dirty andforlorn. After this we were given a house near the airport where westayed for several months.

It was becoming hardfor us Italians in Albania. We were losing our war and the Germans inthe area did not treat us as allies, more like enemies. Our house wasdamaged twice while we lived near the airport. We could not get anyessential food and even the bread was rationed and did not last verylong: it was made with maize flour and became rock hard very quickly.Any food available was for the Germans and the Albanians. During mystay in Albania I had learned to speak the language pretty well; Iused this knowledge to go the Ministry of Supplies and obtain couponsto buy coffee, sugar and other scarce facilities I told the Ministerwho interviewed me that I was a refugee from Koritza[Korçë], a town where we had lived for a period.It is surprising how hunger and need sharpens the intellect!Eventually it became impossible to stay in the house because we werebombed (or nearly bombed) time after time. Every day, and severaltimes per day, Allied planes passed over Tirana on the way toGermany, Hungary, Poland and other countries in the Axis. We couldnot find fuel to cook with and we could only use a primus stove. Oneday, after a raid on the airport, my mother and I decided to try andtake some of the petrol which was left after the bombing. The Germansoldiers had abandoned the airport and we managed to roll a drum ofpetrol along the tarmac; we were very absorbed in our task and wecould not hear any sound because of the loud noise of metal on roughtarmac. Suddenly, I do not know why, I looked up. Dozens of FlyingFortresses were above us and we had not heard them. My mother and Ileft the barrel and ran for cover as fast as we could. It is a pitywe did not check our times, we would have beaten the mile record longbefore Bannister! The next time the airport was bombed, we were in ashelter that my father had improvised in our cellar; we could hearthe sound of bombs, and what sounded like machine-gun fire. We stayeddown for a while longer until an Albanian soldier came down in thecellar to see if there was anybody alive. What we took for machinegun fire, was the sound of wood burning. We only managed to rescue afew of our belongings and leave the house. After that we were housedin a big block of flats with all the other Italians still in Tirana.It was much nearer the centre and we felt less exposed andafraid.

By the timeSeptember 1943 arrived we were used to bombs, attacks by partisans,ill-treatment by the Albanians and shortage of food of all kinds. Thewar was not going well for the Axis. My father showed us how to use agun in case of need and we kept a few hand grenades in the house forself defence. The Albanians had many partisans; some pro-German andmany more communist-inspired. Although they were very wild they werequite brave in their way. No day passed without some attacks onGerman troops which, in return, brought dreadful reprisals on thepopulation. It was a common sight to go to the vegetable market andbe greeted by the sight of one or more hanged in the square. Thefirst time I saw one I was shocked and very upset; after a while itbecame a part of every day life. One day my father's cashier at thebank was arrested by the Germans for some indiscretion; I went withmy mother to the German command to plead for his release. I don'tknow why but my mother mentioned that our name was originally German;it was Schiff which in German means 'ship.' To this the officer incharge looked puzzled and said, 'Ja, eine Juden Name,' and we werevery quick to say good-bye and disappear from view. We were verycareful, after this incident, not to mention again our 'German'name.

On the 8th ofSeptember, 1943, Italy, under General Badoglio, signed the armisticewith the Allies, against the Germans' will. We were treated muchworse both by our ex-Allies and the Albanians. No warning was givento the commanders in different areas of the war; the troops inAlbania and Greece found themselves in the middle of a foreigncountry surrounded by hostile ex-allies and occupied ex-friends. Noorders were issued by Badoglio and several divisions of the Italianarmies found themselves in a dreadful situation. Some surrendered tothe Germans; some fought and were decimated by our ex-allies.Mussolini had been imprisoned and Fascism in Italy was declaredfinished. Badoglio appeared to be the saviour of Italy, many thinkthat he caused much more bloodshed and destruction in our country.The carnage of our troops by the Germans continued and the JuliaDivision, the elite of Italian alpine troops, was decimated andtreated as labour workers.

Soon after thearmistice there began an even more fearsome period in our lives andeach day was worse than the previous. There was no food available forus, the bombing increased, there were more attacks on Italiannationals and there were more executions in Tirana's market square.Death became a way of life and we were not shocked by the continualviolence around us. We were young, my sisters and my brother, and wedid not fully appreciate what was happening all around us. We used togo roller skating in a building which had been a Fascist ministry andwas now abandoned; it had gorgeous marble floors and they were anideal skating surface. Most days we went in the afternoons to playthere. One afternoon I thought I could see more people going andcoming around the area and I said to my sisters and brother that wewould better go home earlier; I set off for what was only about fiveminutes' walk from the building. Luciana and Sergio said that theywould follow after trying a new pattern they had learned on theskates.

I had hardly reachedthe building when I heard the sound of shooting; I ran to the window(we were on the fourth floor) to see if my sister and brother hadfollowed me, I could only see a great deal of armed men swarming allover the area and there appeared to be two different bands as theywere exchanging fire; I found out later that a group of Communistpartisans had infiltrated the German lines and they been attacked bypro-German partisans. I was trembling and I was told off by my motherfor not waiting for the others. While I watched I saw a young mandressed in a light-coloured jacket running and being pursued by aGerman on a sidecar; he was running toward our building and he wasgetting near; suddenly the German aimed his machine gun at theretreating man and I heard the rat-tat-tat of the machine gun. A redpattern appeared on his whitish jacket. He kept on running and heseemed to reach the entrance of the flats. By this time thereappeared several armed men and many soldiers. There was a greatcommotion as they entered the building in search of the injured man;every apartment was searched and when a door was not answered it wassmashed down. All the men found on the premises were collected andput in the courtyard. By the time they reached our door my mother hadbecome hysterical when they arrested my father, after searching ourflat and finding nothing. The man was not found; he had disappearedas if by magic. Unfortunately, the troops and their followers wereincensed and lined all the Italian men in the courtyard andthreatened to execute them all in reprisal. All the women were cryingand begging the soldiers to release the men; we were very sure thatthis was the end. Suddenly a group of German officers burst on thescene and I recognised an officer who was stationed near our home andto whom I had spoken twice in French. He came from Alsace-Lorraineand was not very much in agreement with Nazi ideas. Anyway, he wasour saviour because he gave orders to release the hostages and leaveus alone. We could not believe our good fortune and thanked him andhis men for saving us. It may sound like a far-fetched story but itis the truth and the truth can often be stranger than fiction. Wenever found out what happened to the injured partisan; somebody inour building must have given shelter somewhere where nobody couldfind him. I hope he survived but the person that hid him endangeredthe lives of nearly a hundred people. Thank God he was not found! Themorning after this I went to do the usual shopping to the marketsquare; it was covered by hundreds of bodies lined out in rows. Thered [Communist] partisans had all been taken and killed andtheir bodies were left for everybody to see and think about notdefying the Germans; there must have been at least one hundred menstretched out on the pavements and square.

After all theseepisodes my father and mother decided to book a passage on the nextship to Italy. We were due to leave on the 14th of November, 1944 andwe sold all our possessions and obtained some gold currency, the onlything that would be worth something anywhere and was easy to carry.Naturally, they took advantage of the situation and gave us very poorprices for our goods.

We were all readywhen the wife of my father's cashier was taken ill with nerves; hercondition was bad and my parents decided to let them go in our placeand wait for the next sailing. The ship was within reach of theItalian coast when it was sunk by British submarines; my father'scashier was one of only three survivors who swam to the shore. Onceagain we had cheated death and lived to fight another day. I can onlyremember that we could not go on another boat because all seacrossings were stopped after this disaster and we had to resignourselves to remaining in Tirana indefinitely.

Things became worseand worse all the time and food became in even shorter supply. Wewere treated very badly both by the Germans and the Albanians. We hadto use our wits to survive and I, being the eldest, had to do allkinds of crafty and dishonest things to help us. My father was thebank manager at the Banco di Napoli and he did not know that hiseldest daughter was at the Ministry of Supplies (a few doors up thestreet) claiming to be a refugee from Koritza and asking for foodcoupons and obtaining them. I do not know to this day how I managedto convince them that I was Albanian and from Koritza! Time passedand, at last, in January 1944 we were repatriated by the Germans. Weleft Tirana by truck one cold morning in January and the last sightof the square in Tirana will forever be in my memory: the last thingI saw, was the body of a young Albanian partisan hanging by his neckin the main square of Tirana. I remember his face, his blackenedtongue hanging out of his mouth and the white shroud in which he wasenveloped.

It was a verystrenuous and hazardous journey; it lasted for two full weeks. Westarted the journey by lorry with three German guards with us. Onreaching the border between Albania and Yugoslavia we met withthousands of Italian troops who had been taken prisoner by theGermans after the signing of the armistice. The majority were membersof the crack Julia division of Alpine troops. They were in a pitifulcondition both mentally and physically. They were clearing the snowin sub-zero temperatures and they were begging for bread. We managedto throw some bread which often landed in snow and slush but theyretrieved it and ate it all ravenously. They shouted messages, but wewere not allowed to stop. One of the guards must have felt somecompassion because he threw some cigarettes and some food. Wecontinued our journey on a train which we boarded on the border. Itwas a very long train and we shared it with hundreds of soldiers whowere going to Budapest. They travelled in the carriages, we had tomanage in the animal trucks. We were very crowded and only had strawto sleep on. It was a very cold winter as we travelled through thebarren areas of Montenegro, to Hungary, Austria and eventuallyfinishing our journey in Venice on the morning of 19th January,1944.

We had been throughBudapest - we stopped the night in Buda - where we were treated verywell by the Hungarians who fed us on goulash, rich milk and rum.While we were stopped for several hours in Buda we saw hundreds ofAllied bombers flying over, probably on their way to Germany. Wetrembled with fear because several hundred German soldiers weretravelling in our train and could be seen shaving and eating outsidethe carriages. The only good I remember about that journey is thewonderful behaviour of all the Hungarians.

As we entered thestation in Venice the air-raid alarm was going and the station wasdeserted. We were disappointed: we had hoped to receive a pleasantwelcome after all we had been through. We felt neglected and forlorn,and very, very tired.

Eventually we weretaken off the train and directed to different queues, for foodcoupons, refreshments, and travel tickets for the train to Gorizia,where Zia Maria, my mother's eldest sister, was waiting to welcomeus.

We were met atGorizia by my aunt and her children: Livia, the eldest, who was aboutmy age, Ada and Attilio. We had never met before, but we soon becamevery friendly and managed to make the best of a bad time. I cannotnow remember the details of the house and where we slept, but I wellremember that our bedroom window faced the garden to the rear of thehouse.

 

In Gorizia,1945

The Garden ofRemembrance before the War

Cousin Ada,Liliana, Luciana and Sergio in the Garden of Remembrance towards theend of the war, when Gorizia formed part of the Reich.

Silvana andLiliana

We struggled forseveral months always thinking that we had still no news of my fatherwhom we had left behind in Tirana. We prayed every night for his safereturn and worried about his position as a 'Jew.' Conditions werevery harsh in Gorizia during the winter of 1944 and the lack of newswas having a very depressing effect on my mother; we were too youngto be of much help.

One night I wasawakened by a noise at the window and I was very scared, thinkingabout burglars and Tito's partisans. My mother was quite calm andsaid, 'Don't worry, it's daddy.' I will never know how she knew, shejust ran to the window, opened it, and cried for joy as she held myfather in a long embrace.

Within a few weeksmy father arranged for our move to Milan where he had found aposition through contacts, and also an apartment in the centre ofMilan. We were sorry to say goodbye to Zia Maria and all our otherrelations in Gorizia and we arrived in Milan on a cold, wet, winterevening during an air raid. We sat at the corner of Via Meravigli onour suitcases, while my father went to find the owner of the flat tocollect the keys. We really looked what we were: refugees; dirty,tired and bewildered. People stared at us and turned to look again.We felt very, very sorry for ourselves and rather worried about whatwas to come.

I do not remembermuch about this period of my life because in the continuous turmoilonly odd incidents come to mind.

On the night of ourarrival Milan was bombed with incendiary bombs which caused manydeaths and much destruction. Later we moved to Cusano-Milanino, whichis where we lived when the Germans surrendered.

Milanino, as mymother prepared to leave for a new life inEngland.

Life was very hardin many ways. We were very short of money because my father had noofficial llpposition, but managed to find a post as 'capo ufficio' atthe 'Associazione Spiriti,' an organisation which dealt withdistilling molasses and marketing the derivatives. I do not reallyunderstand what it was, I only know that it was something to do withdistilling alcohol.

While we were inMilanino I could not go to school and my father managed to find aposition for me in the same office. I was, of all things, Germaninterpreter and typist, of a kind. I used a massive Underwoodtypewriter which I found hard to operate. I do not know how I managedto translate some of the business letters; once I even asked astrange German soldier to help me out.

Liliana, agedsixteen

It was hard work toogoing from Milanino to the centre of Milan, a long journey which tooka minimum of one and a half hours every day. many times there werebig delays due to air raids and subsequent power cuts. I remember oneevening, on returning home from work we were stranded for over onehour in a tram. We could not leave because there was a power cut dueto an air raid and we could not open the automatic doors. It wasrather frightening being trapped in the dark with planes bombingMilan, and the smell of passengers' bodies and other odours becameoverpowering during the time we were trapped. Another evening whiletravelling on the tram to Milanino there was an air raid, and we hadto leave the tram and jump into the ditches at the side of the roadwhile the bombs fell all around us.

In Milanino weshared the villa with a very coarse couple. They lived on the firstfloor and we had the ground floor. The house had been allocated to usby the council because we were refugees. Food was very short and youhad to use your brain and keep your wits to manage to survive. We hadsoup made with carrots and rice, with very little seasoning, we hadit so often that we became sick of it. My mother tried to keep thebest for my father, and he was completely unaware of our privations,I think. I know that my sister Luciana went on my father's bicycle tosteal some potatoes from a field about two kilometres from our house.The farmer caught her and she ran away, leaving the bike behind. Wehad to make up a very credible story for my father, who was veryupset at the loss of his lovely, aluminium bike.

As the end of thewar approached conditions became worse every day, and the Germanswere aware that the end was very near. On the evening of April 21st,1944 we were returning home from the office. We had heard the soundof gunfire all through the day but we did not know what had beenhappening. As we approached the station where the tram started wefound chaos and great confusion. We were told that the partisans hadtaken over Milan, and the Germans had surrendered, or in some caseswaited for the arrival of the Allies because they feared reprisalsand executions. We had to walk the two or three miles from PortaVolta to Cusano-Milanino. It was a terrifying journey as the armedpartisans prodded and pushed the crowds along the way. We were keptaway from the side of the road, where there were ditches. I soonrealised the reason for this. I looked once and saw that there weredozens of bodies in the ditches. I did not try to look again andconcentrated on walking and keeping out of trouble. I was veryfortunate; I was carrying in my pocket membership of the FascistRepublic of Salò. If they had found it I doubt that I wouldhave survived. They did not ask too many questions.

Several days passedbefore the Allies arrived and many atrocities were committed by thepartisans in that period. In the grounds of a primary school I saw acrowd watching the execution of a captured Fascist. They stood himagainst a wall and gave a machine gun to a child of about ten whosefather had been killed by the Fascists and told him to shoot. It tookseveral rounds to kill the man. The boy did not have much idea of howto use the gun. Several Germans who would not surrender were killedin this period.


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