Living with intent, social engagement, learning, growing, giving
Eric Newby was captured in the sea off the coast from Catania after failing to find his submarine after a special mission to sabotage German aircraft in 1942. He was imprisoned in the camp of an elite Italian cavalry in Rome before being transferred to an orphanage turned into a POW camp in the Italian village of Fontanellato in Emilia Romagna:
Tormenting us all, reminding us constantly of something for which we felt that we would give up everything we had for one more chance to experience, something we ourselves talked about all the time, was the passionate desire to be free; but what did we mean by freedom? I thought I knew, and so did everyone else; but it meant so many different things to so many of us.
We were, in fact, as near to being really free as anyone can be. We were relieved of almost every sort of mundane pre-occupation that had afflicted us in the outside world. We had no money and were relieved of the necessity of making any. We had no decisions to make about anything, even about what we ate. We were certainly much more free than many of us would ever be again, either during the war or after it. And as prisoners we did not even suffer the disapprobation of society as we would have done if we had been locked up in our own country. To our own people we appeared as objects worthy of sympathy.
When the Allieds foolishly announced their armistice with Italy (Italy’s surrender), the German forces quickly took control of the centre of Italy and the Italian guards walked away from the camp before the German advance reached the village. The British rushed out and hid in the countryside, except Newby who had just broken his ankle and was taken to the neighbouring hospital, run by nuns. He was helped by anti-fascists and was given intensive Italian lessons then helped to escape the hospital 2 weeks later when the Germans were coming to get him. He was moved from farm to farm at great risk to the farmers, who would be shot if caught helping him.
A lovely family let him stay in their bed:
The bed was high and white and ghostly- looking in the light of the single candle, and there was a great hump in the middle of it that looked very strange to me.
“It’s the priest (the prete),” said Signor Zanoni. “You’ll be warm enough when he gets out of it.” What he said sounded obscene on the lips of a man like this, but then his wife peeled back the sheet and blankets for a moment, long enough to remove from it a strange contrivance, something that I had never seen before, or heard of – an iron pot full of hot coals from the fire on a wooden base with a framework of laths over it to stop the bedding coming in contact with the pot and catching fire. This was the priest, a dangerous apparatus which, in its time, they told me later had burned down many houses.
Newby worked on a stony farm on the high plateau, far from the village, in return for safety, meals and a bed. He spent his days clearing boulders from fields. The signora of the house had a tremendously loud voice and would wake everyone by bellowing at them, one at a time before dawn:
I only know that it was always still dark outside when Agata used to climb up to the landing below my room and shriek up the shaft of the staircase to my room like a banshee EEENNNRIIICO! E L’OOORA! (IT IS THE HOUR) which never failed to make me leap from my bed in terror, believing that the Germans had come, the milizia were at the door, the house was on fire… or that all these things which I feared most had happened at once.
This made me smile:
When Armando talked to the bullocks, which he did constantly, telling them to stop or start or turn or simply urging them on, and at the same time walloping them with a long stick, for he was rather a brutal boy, the air was filled with his cries… The only thing that ever changed were the oaths – what were known as bestemmia – he interjected between these exhortations, most of them involving defiling in various disagreeable ways of the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost, the Virgin and the Host, or all of them together… Armando’s bestemmia was more varied than that of his counterparts in Australia where I had been in the year before the war, sitting astride their tractors ploughing their thousand-acre fields, monotonously chanting the only oath they knew, “fuck, fuck, fuck!”
I’ve spent a lot of time with Australian farmers with a larger variety of oaths than those that Newby mentioned!
Amazingly, in the 2 weeks that Newby spent in the hospital in Fontanellato, he fell in love! Wanda was born in Slovenia in the Hapsburg Empire and her family were deported to Italy. She was fluent in Italian and spoke some English so she traded language lessons with Newby every day for those two weeks, partly to improve her English but mostly to prepare him for life in the Apennines after the Italian Armistice. Wanda was incredibly brave and strong and the book ends with an epilogue featuring Newby returning 12 years later to visit the villagers and farmers that kept him alive, with Wanda and their two children!
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. Newby wrote with compassion about the Italian villagers and farmers who went without to ensure that he always had a warm, dry place to sleep and enough to eat. From an ethnographic perspective it is fascinating to read about farming and cultural practices in remote locations in the Apennines. It’s a great book and I enjoyed it more than A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush.
Have you read any accounts of escaped POWs that you can recommend to me? Can you recommend any of Newby’s other books? I haven’t watched the film of Love and War in the Apennines. Have you seen it? Was it good?