Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Departure for the Hereafter and Return

Nuto Revelli
Nuto Revelli (Cuneo, 1919-2004) took part in the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union and survived the winter retreat from the Don. In the fall of 1943, not long after his return to Italy, Revelli became a partisan commander. After the war, he managed an iron-products warehouse and began the research, traveling the length and breadth of his province, for what would ultimately be eight impure books, impure in that they combine anthropology, oral history, sociology, and memoir (not to mention a subtle literary dialogue with the fictional work of his excellent countryman Beppe Fenoglio) but do not fit squarely into any one of these categories. Revelli himself, often called an oral historian, an anthropologist, a sociologist, a writer, invariably protested: by training, as he always reminded his audience, he was a geometra, a land surveyor.

In September 1972, as part of his research for Il mondo dei vinti (The World of the Defeated”; Einaudi, 1977), Revelli takes the testimony of one Bartomoleo Garro. Garro, born in San Benigno, a hamlet in the outskirts of Cuneo, Italy, in 1922, is a peasant and tradesman. In 1945, Garro was a partisan in the Twentieth Brigade. His testimony, from which the excerpt below is taken, is titled I Know the Fascists Who Shot Me:
At ten o’clock on February 2, 1945—it was a Friday morning; it was Candlemas—the service in the San Benigno parish church started. Before the mass the priest had to give the big candle to the penitents and la paiütta, the small candle, to the faithful. I made it to the square in front of the church when the service had already started. In the church there were two hundred people, men, women, and children. While I was outside the church chatting with a few men, I see a motorcycle and sidecar with a Breda machine gun mounted on it. We scatter. I try to get through the door to the church, but the motorcycle stops in front of it and one of the Fascists shouts: “Don’t move, or we’ll shoot.” A truck with twenty armed Fascists shows up. They’re wearing heavy leather jackets, they’re from police headquarters, from the Cuneo police. They are commanded by a lieutenant, Frezza, a short and squat fellow, ’n tupun, a mole, about this tall.
When they came up, the Fascists opened fire on Dutto and a disbanded soldier: by some miracle, Dutto got away, but the soldier, a southerner, was killed.
The Fascists assemble all of us who were on the square in front of the church. Then they go into the church, grab some other young men, and bring them out. They make the women and children stay in the church. Then they go back into the church, call the priest. When the priest comes over, Lieutenant Frezza starts shouting: “You’re in cahoots with the rebels. You warned them of the danger by ringing the bells.” The priest had had the small bell rung not to signal the arrival of the Fascists but, as usual, to signal the start of mass. The priest says to Frezza: “Here we always ring the bell before mass.” “Go back to your place, go back to your church. I respect your vestments and the stole you wear. But these young men are for us to take care of.” Lieutenant Frezza comes over to my group; we’re lined up against the wall now. He asks us for our papers, wants to know where each of us spent the night. He kicks and slaps us.
Among us is a married fellow. Lieutenant Frezza pulls him out of the group. Another fellow has his papers in order; he was born in 1922. He pulls him out of the group. There are sixteen of us left. By my side is Bartolomeo Degiovanni, Trumlinot, born in 1926. “Speak up,” I say to him, “tell him what year you were born.” He answers me: “I don’t have the courage to speak up. The lieutenant is too furious.” So I intervene. “This boy is a youngster,” I say to the lieutenant. “He was born in 1926 and doesn’t have to report for military service yet.” Then Trumlinot takes heart and speaks up. “Lieutenant,” he says, “I don’t have to report yet; I haven’t been called up. As soon as I’m called up I’ll report.” Giorgis and Giacoma were born in 1926, too, and they speak up, step forward. They are safe. There are thirteen of us left, all sons of peasants, all innocent, in front of the firing squad.
The machine gun is adjusting the elevation; it is making us its target. I have the feeling the volleys won’t hit me, maybe they’ll hit me in the right arm because I’m the last one in the row. Lieutenant Frezza shouts: “You’re all criminals, all bandits. You go out at night and thieve and kill and now you want to be spared.” Then he orders his men to open fire. I hear five bursts, don’t see anyone standing around me anymore. I’m still standing. “I’m alone,” I think. All the others have fallen onto the snow and they are shouting and crying. Lieutenant Frezza orders his men to open fire again; someone with a Sten fires at me. I fall forward; I’ve taken a bullet to the chest. I hear moaning, I hear separate shots from the machine gun. They are the deathblows. Finally, a complete silence. A Fascist shouts: “Lieutenant, this one’s still alive.” When I fell forward I hit my chin; I have blood in my mouth. I try to get up to catch my breath, but when I put out my hands to push myself up I see Frezza near me with the machine gun. I hear a shot—bang—and fall back down. I black out. The lieutenant tried to shoot me in the temple just as I was moving, so the bullet went in beneath my right ear and came out beneath my left ear. I feel people touching me, I hear friendly voices. I hear people saying: “Bring the holy oil.” My poor mother was at mass and knew I was up against the wall. Now that the Fascists have opened the door to the church and taken off, my mother runs out to see the tragedy, too. The poor woman, my face is so bloody she doesn’t recognize me.
Little by little, I come to; I see my mother, who is crying, kiss me. There are some people who say to carry me off, to get me help. But nobody moves. They’re afraid the Fascists will come back; the massacre has left them in shock. I stay there two hours, with two or three of the bravest people by my side. Then a good man, Giovanni Gallo, goes to get na siviera, a ladder to use as a stretcher, and he puts me on it. But no one dares pick up the other end of the stretcher. So Gallo runs to get a handcart, puts me on it, takes me to the Oggero family’s barn right there by the church. I hear people praying, I hear the priest saying: “He going to die any minute now, he’s dying, he’s dying.” I hear people whispering, people saying: “If the Fascists come they’ll burn the house.” Everybody is afraid. I can’t talk. My jaw is fractured and my tongue is burned. But I say to myself: “No, no, I’m not dying.” And I make a sign with a finger. With a finger I say: “No, no, I’m not dying.” I am alive. “Run and get a doctor,” says someone.
Before coming, the doctor from Tarantasca, Vezzosi, wants Lieutenant Frezza’s permission. He calls him, says to him: “One of the victims of the execution in San Benigno is still alive. I’ve been asked to go to his aid. May I treat him?” Lieutenant Frezza says to him: “Go ahead and treat him, heal him. Since the bullets didn’t kill him I’ll come later to see him hang.”
Doctor Vezzosi says I have to be admitted to the hospital right away. But no one dares take me. Finally, a good fellow with a family, Bartolomeo Fantino, Trumlin, puts me on his cart. Ahead of the cart is the old civil guardsman of San Benigno and behind it, on bicycles, are my father and my uncle.
By the time we make it to the Santa Croce Hospital in Cuneo it’s dark; it’s seven o’clock. The doctors look at me, treat me. A Fascist stands guard over me. During the night my chest wound starts bleeding again. I’m losing blood out my back, I’m bleeding to death. The Fascist on guard stops them from giving me a transfusion. They give me oxygen. I come to.
After seventeen days in the hospital, Doctor Delfino and the nuns advise my parents to get me out. They have found out that the Fascists are planning to arrest me. My father turns up at three in the morning. He takes me to the stables of the Tre Muletti Inn, where they cover me with straw. When the curfew is over, they disguise me as a nun; my head is all wrapped in white. They put me on a break, one of the closed ones of the kind the nuns use to go out and collect money. My father sits next to me, and there’s a woman driving the break. We make it past the checkpoint, leave Cuneo.
In San Benigno I keep hidden. Doctor Vezzosi comes to treat my wounds every day. After a month, Doctor Vezzosi and Doctor Toselli have to operate on my jaw because I can’t close my mouth anymore. They strap me down to the kitchen table and operate on me! Then I get a little better, so I spend the days hiding between the stacks of meliàs, of corn, in the country.
I know the Fascists who shot me. I run into some of them on the streets in Cuneo. When I see them I avoid them. One time I ran into the one who was driving the sidecar motorcycle and I insulted him. He wanted to lodge a complaint against me. “I was already sentenced once,” he said to me. “You’re not going to sentence me, too. Be careful, or I’ll get you sent to jail.” Well! After the Liberation the trial of the Fascists from San Benigno lasted four months. Frezza was sentenced to life in prison, but he was released almost immediately. Now, he’s better off than me.[1]

[1] After the Liberation, Bartolomeo Garro reconstructed the massacre of San Benigno in a few pages of notes. He titled these pages “Departure for the Hereafter and Return.”

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Davai Road

In La strada del davai (Einaudi, 1966) Nuto Revelli takes the testimony of forty veterans of the Italian campaign in the Soviet Union. Giuseppe Castellino, born in 1916, a peasant with a third-grade education, fought in the western Alps, in Italy's Balkan campaign, and on the Don, where, in January 1943, not far from Valuyki, he was taken prisoner. In November 1945, after two years in a prison camp in Central Asia, he is finally nearing his home in Roccadebaldi, a small village in the province of Cuneo.
In Turin, at the garrison mess hall, they refuse us a meal. They want the vouchers. I still have an image of the Madonna the priest gave me in Milan and three apples. I offer the orderly the image, but he’s not all that interested in it; he wants the voucher.
We sit there for a long time. The orderly yawns; he wants to go to bed. We haven't eaten; we're not sleepy. A major pretends not to see us, not to hear us. He goes on reading his paper undisturbed.
“Good grief,” I say, “so many bombs killed so many good people. At least one of them could have landed here.”
The major finally looks at me. “Where are you coming from?” he says to me.
“I know. But where from?”
“Have you eaten?”
“No, we don't have vouchers.”
Then he tells the orderly to bring us something to eat. Vegetable soup, a few noodles with a little rice, beans, stuff of no substance, for rearing, not for fattening.
In the morning the mess hall closes. We wait in the lobby for the first train.
On the trip people ask where we are coming from. But I’m already stuffed, and I say only: “You hardly need to ask. Just look at us.”
A long transfer in Fossano because the bridge over the Stura is destroyed. I get off on my own. But then I can’t get back on the train. Battista Basso, the cowherd who winters in Crava, helps me. He pulls me up, while the train waits for me.
I get off in Magliano. It’s November 4. I set my rucksack down by the tracks, sit down on it. Then I go to wash my face. Finally, I go back to sit down on my rucksack, and I stay there a long time.
Gallo, the railway hand, takes a good look at me. “Ma ses Castlin?” he says to me. “Castlin,” I say to him. “T’lü seti che l’è spusase tua sorela?” [“But are you Castellino?” “Castellino.” “You know your sister got married?”] I keep quiet; I don’t say anything else.
An hour later the stationmaster comes to talk to me. He wants me to call the car rental man Dogliani. But I don’t want to.
My rucksack is empty, but heavy. The stationmaster keeps it in left luggage, gives me a receipt. “Send for it later,” he says to me.
I start walking. First stage, two hundred meters, to the Canetta farmstead. There I stop. Second stage, three hundred meters, to the Carleveri church. I have only one thought in mind: what will I find at home?
I have trouble walking. I run into my uncle who is on his way to Morozzo by bike. I raise a hand, stop him. “Ciao barba,” [Hello, Uncle] I say to him. Then I go quiet, out of breath, so weak I am. He has gotten fat. Then the watchman Giulio comes up and stops to talk.
I set out again, alone. I run into a villager, who goes with me for a while. “They said Candela is dead, then that he’s alive,” he tells me several times. I listen; I know the story; I don’t want to say anything either about the dead or about the living. I say only: “Sarà pru, sarà pru.” [So it is, so it is]
At the Pasquero tavern I go in like a wretch. “I have no money,” I say first thing. “Am I not capable of giving you something?” replies the innkeeper, and he offers me a vermouth.
I drink, and the innkeeper sees my feathers are drooping, the way it is with sick hens. Then he takes out my glass, moves it to one side the way you do with TB patients.
I set out for home again. I go by a young fellow from my village. His back is turned to me; he’s putting an edge on his sickle. “You need a hand?” I say to him. Silence. I ask again, this time louder. But he keeps working. I call him by name: “Lorenzo.” Finally, he recognizes my voice, takes me to his house, gives me a glass of wine, a cigarette. So I start coughing; I vomit. Lorenzo goes to let my family know, my mother, my father, my brother, who was in Russia with the Fourth Baggage Train and who made it through the retreat.
Day after day of confusion follows. People come from everywhere; the courtyard looks like a bicycle depot. Everyone wants to know, but after half an hour I have no more strength. They ask me: “How was it there?” and I say only: “Look at me.” The nights are long; I never sleep. The night of the eighth, the eve of the feast of the Madonna, my father promises me a special dinner, a bell pepper stew and polenta, for the next day.
I go to the garden to pick the peppers; I eat a lot of them raw while I am picking them. That way, my stomach swells like a balloon, just the way it did in the camps in Russia.
Al Ninot,” I say to myself then, “I’m an old hand, I know how to save my skin.” I struggle back in; I stretch out on the table, throw up.
When my mother comes up I’m more dead than alive. But then it’s all over.
I’m idle for days and days, watching everybody else working. I gain a kilo a day. A month later I can’t see the tips of my shoes. But I have no strength. Finally, I deflate.
You can’t be in the country and not do anything. So, little by little, out of necessity, I start working again. But the fever torments me.
The war. I’ll go to the bridge over the Stura, which is high, sooner than go through my war again. If my wife gives birth to a son I’ll strangle him sooner than have him live like me. We have a “government,” an unjust society. I can’t work; I’m more dead than alive. I have a War Cross that doesn’t do me any good. I’m unfit for work for two years. But no war pension.
I don’t want to hear of the Germans; they have little to do with me. I’d like to take our people who want communism to Russia to eat a little of the “quota” bread; they’ll teach them there.
The few of us from Russia are in bad shape. TB or chronic disease. The men who are in fairly good health have another weakness; they’re alcoholics.
Injections keep me on my feet. Chronic nephritis, a contracted kidney, malaria, palpitations that send me running off and my wife who shouts: “Ma cos’eti, cos’eti,” [What’s wrong? What’s wrong?] and I feel myself dying. That’s what war is.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Back in Italy

On 17 March 1943, at half past five in the morning, Nuto Revelli's troop train pulls into the station in Tarvisio, Italy. Behind him are six months of fighting in the Soviet Union, the catastrophic winter retreat from the Don. In a cafe in Udine, Revelli, in bad shape after the long ordeal, catches sight of himself and laments that only his boots say that he is perhaps an officer.

But Revelli is one of the lucky ones. The Cuneense, the Alpini division that recruits from his home province of Cuneo, has been annihilated, its men killed in combat, frozen to death, or taken prisoner and sent to PoW camps from which few will ever return. The local Fascists have the division parade through the streets of the city of Cuneo. Revelli and his parents, who live in an apartment overlooking the parade route, close their shutters, unable to bear the farce: shirkers from the rear, from the baggage train, officials from the home front, green recruits, some with their mules, posing as members of the annihilated division.

As an officer, Revelli, as the local Fascist officials are quick to let him know, has not yet discharged his duty to the Nation:
Third reminder from the Fascist federation. Until today I have held out to avoid scenes. But my father insists and I promise to do as he wishes.
I know what to expect. The high-ranking shirkers have by now instructed the few survivors of the Russian front. I'm the last one. To me, too, they'll say a good Italian shouldn't talk with enthusiasm about the Russian people and with hatred about the Germans...
At the local Fascist headquarters, Sclocchini, a poor little fellow "unfit for service" talked to me about patriotism, about slandering the German armed forces, about the sympathy of the home front.
I asked the Fascist official, the Fascist shirkers, not to bother me. I paid my share in this damned war, I more than paid for my Fascist youth camps. The lies, the patriotic rhetoric: they nauseate me. Let the Fascists from the home front go see the Germans up close. Let them get to know the Germans the way we got to know them on the Russian front. There's still time. Today, the Fascists should be at least at Belgorod, on the front line, to stop the "red hordes." Instead, they're in Cuneo, holed up like marmots.
My voice quavered a little as I spoke. Then I slammed the door behind me.