Friday, July 8, 2011

A Warm Welcome to Padua for the British Eighth Army

On the Po River
In his book I piccoli maestri, an account of the nearly two years he spent as a partisan (or, for the Germans and the Fascists, a bandit), first on the Asiago Plateau, then in the hills above Vicenza, and finally, as the war wound cruelly down, in Padua, Luigi Meneghello recalls sitting atop a tank and escorting the British Eighth Army into Padua (phrases in italics are in English in the original):
I went in person to welcome the British Eighth Army when it made up its mind to enter Padua. I was on patrol between Santo and Bassanello a little before midnight. Odd scenes were taking place at the roadblocks. All of the passwords were different, and, strictly speaking, we should have been opening fire on each other every thirty meters; only general euphoria, I think, prevented a universal internal massacre. They say euphoria fosters opening fire; but it certainly doesn’t foster good aim.
I had made it past the last roadblock with my detail (Simonetta, with her sub-machine gun, was there, too), and we were walking in the pitch black of the darkened outskirts, on a long, wide road lined by houses and leading south out of Padua. There wasn’t anybody on the road, naturally; we knew the Allies were near, but German units, some yielding, others compact and ferocious, were still going by. This, then, is how a war ends. First, one army leaves, then another one arrives; but this isn’t really the end. The war ends in the minds of the people, in some a little earlier, in others a little later; it’s for this reason that there are still these senseless bursts of fire.
We start hearing the din of large engines coming from down the wide road; it was a compact, intense thing.
“It’s the English,” I say to Simonetta for good luck; and I wondered how likely it was that it was instead the last German column. I decided less than thirty percent.
“Are you sure?” she said.
“Absolutely,” I said.
And she whispered:
“It seems like a dream.”
It did in fact seem literally like a dream. At bottom, we had been waiting for them only two years, but it had seemed long, really long. I have a certain experience of things that seem as if they will never end, and at a certain point you believe they never will end, and then when they end all at once it still seems impossible, and you have the strong impression you’re dreaming.
We were walking in the middle of the road, heading towards the Eighth Army, at least at seventy percent. The noise was getting louder and louder, and we in the middle of the wide road were getting smaller and smaller. You could start to make out, indistinctly, dark shapes of tanks; they were huge. When we were fifty meters away, I stopped the detail; we had two flashlights, and we started signaling. Then Simonetta and I went on a little ways.
How odd life is—the English have come. Welcome. These tanks are our allies. With these great bulges of theirs, with this trim of big hammered-down studs, this clanking, these barrels, they want what we want. Europe is full of these huge allies of ours; how trifling we must look from up on one of those tanks! Packs of ragamuffins; gangs. Bandits. We are still, of course, the most decent thing left in Italy; haven’t foreigners always thought this is a country of bandits?
The first tank stops; on it are an officer and a soldier from the rank and file. I would have liked to say something historic to them.
“Eh, you aren’t Germans, are you?” I said.
Not really,” said the officer.
“Welcome,” I said. “The city is already ours.”
“Can we get on?” said that irresponsible person Simonetta.
But by now the patrol was no longer necessary; you could hear the column piling up behind the first tank for hundreds of meters; the rumble of the motors was magnificent. We went back into the city sitting on the tank and conversing in shouts with the English.
“And who might you be?” asked the officer at one point.
I responded without thinking:
Fucking bandits,” but right away it occurred to me that my response had an implication disrespectful of Simonetta, and I blushed in the dark.
The officer shouted:
I beg your pardon?
And I shouted:
“I said we are the Volunteers for Liberty.”
“Liberty?” shouted the officer, and I said yes and then added:
“And now I’ll sing you a song that’s about you, if you don’t mind.”
Sing away,” he said, and I began:
Sono passati gli anni
sono  passati i mesi
sono passati i giorni
e ze rivà i inglesi.
Simonetta joined in on the refrain. I sing out of tune, but she doesn’t. The din made a muddle of everything.
La nostra patria è il mondo intèr…
solo pensiero – salvar l’umanità!
“What do the lyrics say?” said the officer.
“That the war’s over,” I said.
And then I added:
“And that we’re very interested in the salvation of humanity.”
You a poet?” said the officer.
I put my hands around his ear and shouted in it:
Just a fucking bandit.”
In this way we accompanied the Eighth Army to Padua, and then Simonetta and I went off to sleep, and we left them there in a square.

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