In the spring of 2015, my cousin’s wife accidentally found in an old chest of drawers some things which belonged to my maternal grandfather. These items refer to the period of time in which he fought in the World War II. The following image, for example, shows the document with which the Italian government gave him a commemorative medal for the battles he fought in Eastern Africa.
My mother was also not aware of the existence of these things. From the emotional standpoint, the most precious objects are the letters that my grandfather wrote to my grandmother. By reading them, my mother was able to know a side of her father she was completely unaware of.
The first letter is dated February 27th, 1935. The last one is dated February 3rd, 1945. While fighting, my grandfather used to write on a regular basis until the month of August 1943. After the letter he wrote in Tirana (Albania) on August 29th, 1943, the correspondence interrupted. It started again on December 8th, but he didn’t use a regular letter in this case. The message my grandfather sent on December 8th, 1943 is, in fact, a postal card dispatched from the prisoner-of-war camp in which he was imprisoned after he was deported to Germany as an Italian military internee (IMI), the Stammlager XI-A which was near the city of Magdeburg.
Surprisingly, even though the general conditions in which my grandfather and his inmates were extreme, in principle they still had some rights. In the previous postcard, for instance, my grandfather tells my grandmother that she is allowed to send him a 5 kg parcel. As the most terrible enemy they had to fight during the imprisonment was the hunger, he asks to send him foodstuffs.
The previous images show a sort of paycheck my grandfather received in the February of 1945. During the imprisonment, in fact, the IMI’s were forced to work for the German Reich but they were paid for that. However, I don’t know if and what they actually could buy with the money they received.
The affair of the IMI’s is probably one of the least known of the WWII and it is one of the numerous consequences of the armistice that Italy signed with the Allies on September 8th, 1943.
This is one of the saddest pages of the history of my country. Even today, we Italians have the reputation of being unreliable people because facts of the past like the armistice which was seen as a betrayal by our allies. The consequences of the armistice were dramatic. In Italy, it gave rise to a civil war. For the soldiers who were fighting at the side of the German troops—in Italy or abroad—, everything changed overnight. They found themselves in the position to choose to keep fighting with the German army or against it. In those terrible days, the Italian army collapsed. The situation was so chaotic that the military hierarchy practically didn’t exist anymore. Every soldier was alone with his conscience and had to make a choice according to his values, his courage, and his heart. They could remain loyal to the new Italian Fascist government (known as the Italian Social Republic, RSI) and keep fighting on the side of the German Reich. In case they refused to do so, they didn’t know what fate would come to them.
Even today, on the basis of their own political beliefs, many dare to judge and to criticize those men. Of course, the left-wing people claim that the right choice was to refuse, while the right-wing people say the opposite. This is a still-bleeding wound, even though more than 80 years have been since then. I just don’t understand how we can consider judging the people who had to face such a dramatic situation. We who never knew what the war is, who grew up in the comfortable post-war Western society, who never knew what it meant to put our own lives at risk every day, every hour, every minute. How can we divide those people into good and bad? I think that everybody should just remain silent in front of these facts as a mark of respect.
Back to the facts which followed September 8th, different fates happened to the Italian soldiers who refused to fight on the order of the German army. Some of them were killed but most of them (more than 650,000) were captured and deported to several lagers built by the Reich. My grandfather was one of them. Technically speaking, they were identified as Italian Military Internees (IMI). As they were not recognized as regular prisoners of war (PoWs), they were not allowed to be assisted by the International Red Cross. Hitler decided to create this particular type of prisoner to give them an “exemplary punishment”.
The discovery of my grandfather’s personal effects pushed my mother to dig into his past to unveil a part of his life which she didn’t even know, although he survived the war. I did my best to help her.
Firstly, we got in touch with a couple of associations which helped us to retrieve very important information. They are the following:
- Associazione Nazionale Reduci dalla Prigionia, dall’Internamento, dalla Guerra di Liberazione e loro familiari (ANRP)
- Associazione Nazionale Ex Internati (ANEI)
They informed us about the existence of two historical archives in Germany where we could find relevant information:
However, they told us that the Reich burnt the documents held in the lagers at the end of the war, therefore the probability to actually find useful information is relatively low. We could also try to search in the archive of the Italian Army but, if any, this information would not be related to the period of the imprisonment. For these reasons, we temporarily set aside the idea to search these archives.
Additionally, we came to know another important thing. In 2006, the Italian state enacted a law which establishes a Medal of Honor for the IMI’s. This is a specific acknowledgment of the sacrifice of these people who bravely refused to obey the Nazis and paid the price for their choice. Thanks to the personal effects I mentioned at the beginning of this post, we were able to prove my grandfather was an IMI. As such, we officially forwarded the request to the dedicated government commission in order to give him the Medal of Honor. The request was accepted and my mother received the medal on his behalf from the local authorities representing the State, during an official ceremony in January 2016.
Another remarkable project performed by the ANEI is the creation of the Museo Nazionale dell’Internamento (National Museum of Internment) in Padua. It reconstructs the history of the IMI’s and it collects many objects which belonged to the Italian soldiers who were deported in Germany. In the spring of 2017, I drove my mother to visit this museum. Of course, the goal of such places is to honor the memory of the people who lived these dramatic experiences and to make everybody aware of the facts of the past that nobody wants to happen again. This museum—along with many other places like the Holocaust memorials—address the young people in particular because they are born when these facts occurred a long time ago. Anyway, I believe that if everybody visited such places from time to time, the world would probably be a better place. Seeing with one’s own eyes these places tunes the yardstick by which we measure and judge the problems of our lives and helps us to give them the proper weight.
The following are some of the pictures I took in the museum.
The first part of the museum describes the historical context in which the World War II broke out and summarizes the main event of the armed conflict.
Several panels are devoted to the end of the war and the armistice which led to the deportation of the IMI’s.
The rest of the museum is the most touching part. It is a collection of items, witnesses, and pictures describing the life of the prisoners.
Some of the items that impressed me the most are the clandestine radios which the prisoners were able to build with the simple things they could find in the camp, such as the graphite of the pencils or the small silver sheet included in the packets of cigarettes. They used these radios to tap the communications of the fighting armies in order to understand the developments of the war.
As Electronics Engineer, I’m stunned by the ingenuity of the Engineers who were able to do that, in spite of the conditions in which they had to operate. To be honest, after reading these words, I have felt a little bit ashamed to use the same title as them …
The following image shows the identifying signs used by the Nazis to categorize the prisoners. Although the idea of classifying the human beings on basis such as the religion or the race (assuming it exists …) seems disgusting to us, it was implemented with cold surgical precision. These colored tags were usually stuck to the prisoners’ clothes.
For instance, the jacket shown in the following picture bears the red triangle to indicate a political prisoner, namely Mr. Luigi Bozzato who survived the war.
The mail service played a major role to keep the morale of the prisoners up, as it was the only link with their families. However, most of the letters and the parcels sent from Italy were never delivered.
Of course, the Italian Social Republic blamed the IMI’s of being cowards. The following document shows an excerpt taken from an article published by the newspaper “La Voce di Gorizia” in December of 1943. The author says that the IMI’s are “bastards, profiteers, and speculators”.
The underlying light blue box bears a passage of a letter written by the captain Giuseppe De Toni addressed to his brother. De Toni was imprisoned in the lager of Hammerstein and this letter, written in April 1944, is a sort of answer to the accusation reported by the newspaper. Unfortunately, I haven’t mastered the English language to translate all of it with due linguistic accuracy. I just translate some significant sentences:
We don’t want to stay here, as somebody alludes, for cowardice, to hide. We are all ex fighters, many are decorated, many volounteered.
We are not still here hoping for a Russian and Anglo-American victory.
We didn’t say no for a profit, neither for obstinacy, but only for consistency, for a principle of dignity, of honor, of justice. We are men, we want to be men.
In the back of the museum, a coach takes place. This is the same kind of coach used to move the prisoners from Italy to Germany, although it had been manufactured to carry the cattle. The Nazis used to cram from forty-five to sixty people inside it. It took four to fifteen days to get to Germany. The prisoners traveled for consecutive days without being able to leave the coach because it was hermetically closed. No food, no water.
Besides the physical museum in Padua, the ANRP is creating a sort of digital museum. It is a huge on-line database archiving the digital copies of the documents which witness the dramatic story of the IMI’s. Letters, diaries, ID cards, etc. are being stored. If I inherit the documents belonged to my grandfather, I think I’ll write in my will to give them to this archive. As Italian citizens, I believe we have the moral obligation to ensure that the memory of such events is kept alive.
In conclusion, neither I nor my mother ever had the chance to ask my grandfather why he refused to obey the Nazis. Anyway, I want to think he just genuinely thought that the right answer to give at that very moment was NO!
Notes about the featured image
It is the form with which the Nazis repeatedly asked the IMI’s to join the nascent army of the RSI in order to fight alongside the German Reich again.