Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Rescued from the Ragman

Einaudi, 2009

L’ultimo fronte (“The Last Front”) is Nuto Revelli’s presentation and selection of letters sent by Italian soldiers who didn’t return from the war. In his introduction to a revised edition of the book, he notes that many of the collections of letters he obtained, most sent by alpini serving in the Soviet Union to farm families in the province of Cuneo, happened to be missing the final letters—that is, those posted around Christmas and New Year’s of 1943, just before the Soviets broke through the Axis lines on the Don and put an effective end to the Italian military postal service. But it is perhaps better to let Revelli tell the tale of these missing letters himself:

It has been twenty years since L’ultimo fronte was first published, and yet, for many people, this book is still living and topical. Just as well that, after the research for La strada del davai, I didn’t say, “Enough about the war.” It was gathering the 200 collections of letters for L’ultimo fronte that I entered the peasant world. Without that precious experience, I would never have written either Il mondo dei vinti or L’anello forte.
In the introduction to the 1970 edition, I assert that, covering the length and breadth of my province, going from one house to the next, I collected 6,000 letters—that is, 80 complete and 120 incomplete collections. I then mention 4,000 other letters, those from “Presenti alle Bandiere,” [a fund that made monetary allocations to the family members of the fallen or missing in action in the Second World War], letters acquired, when they had already been sent off to be pulped, in an altogether unexpected fashion. What I don’t say is that I got them from a Cuneo ragman. I had kept this unsettling detail to myself, because I had thought it would humiliate and offend the family members of the dead and the missing. But I realized, as a member of the “Lvov Commission,” that history is still being abused, and I mean to censor myself no longer, come what may.
Bureaucracy is really an awful monstrosity. Lord only knows who the bureaucrat from Rome who forced all of the families of the dead and the missing to go without their last letters was! This was the blackmail: “Show, by submitting your last letter, that your family member was on a battlefront rather than at home or it will not be possible to create an official file that will enable you to receive a monthly allocation equal to the pay or the salary received by the dead or missing combatant.”
It had taken me a while to realize the last letters were missing. I acquired the collections of letters, photocopied them, then saw about returning the originals—I put a lot into this work. I didn’t have the time to take a close look at the documentation I was acquiring day after day.
I noticed something wasn’t right only when I began the second phase of my work. Comparing the collections of letters from the Eastern Front, I noticed that almost all of them came to an end too soon, around mid-December. And the letters from Christmas and New Year’s? The military postal service of the Alpino Army Corps, and thus of the Cuneense Division, had been operational until early January 1943!
I thought that the family members had withheld the last letters, the most precious ones, and I sought confirmation. But all were sure they had given me every single one of the letters. Then, a woman from Malandrè, in Robilante, remembered she might have had to give the last letter to the police. Another woman told me she might have had to turn it over to city hall. “Could they have ended up at the recruiting office?” I wondered, even though such a destination seemed to me not only highly unlikely but also senseless.
So I turned to Lieutenant Colonel Enzo Chiorando, my close friend, who, after a brief inquiry, located the sixteen sacks containing all of the paperwork for the “Presenti alle Bandiere” in an attic of the military recruiting office. Enclosed with each file was the last letter!
How to deal with the problem? Enzo suggested that I go the official route:
“Ask the recruiting office to return the last letter to all of the families that gave you collections of letters. If your request is turned down, we’ll see what we can do to get around the obstacles.”
My request was turned down:
“These are confidential, untouchable documents meant for the archives in Rome,” I was told.
I took my work up again, but my obsession was to be able to add the last letters to my collections of letters. Enzo went on setting my mind at ease:
“Don’t worry,” he would tell me. “I’m keeping an eye on those letters. We’ll solve the problem sooner or later, you’ll see.”
He calls me one morning:
“Nuto, I have bad news for you. I was on holiday—”
“I know what you’re going to say. Where did the letters end up?”
“They’ve been sent to be pulped. A group of alpini on fatigues showed up to clear out the attic and threw everything onto a truck. That’s all I can tell you.”
I made it at a run to a nearby paper mill, where I was told they bought paper sorted by type and color, not mixed. I had to turn to the ragpickers. I found them, finally, the sixteen sacks, in Cuneo, in the warehouse of the first ragman I turned to. They were still intact. The negotiations went on a long time, as complications and fears emerged. Finally, I closed the deal. Those 4,000 “Presenti alle Bandiere” files didn’t cost me much: 25,000 lire in all.


  1. This is an interesting anecdote. It seems that the last letters may have been held intentionally in order to avoid compensating the families for the unpaid salaries of the dead soldiers. The story shows how history disappears and how evanescent it is.

  2. I posted the anecdote because, though it has a happy ending of sorts, I found it above all horrifying. But there's no indication these families didn't get the payments they were owed.

    A lot of English speakers, even those who have heard that Mussolini made the trains run on time, and maybe even some Italians, are unaware that Mussolini sent a large army to fight alongside the Germans in the Soviet Union. The survivors of this campaign were forgotten, marginalized; Italy preferred to remember the partisans.