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.”

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