Monday, 26 April 2010
This year I couldn't make it to the Commonwealth cemetery on Anzac Day because of other obligations. Instead I remembered the soldiers with local people who were keen to share their memories of the friendly and helpful young men from New Zealand. "Kiwis, we called them", said one. As I heard their stories I was very proud to be a Kiwi too.
Saturday saw me talking with a friend who remembers well the war in Roccasecca. Her large home was one of three owned by the family and taken over by the Germans to house a whole troop. While they (and all around them) eventually lost all their livestock and produce to feed the troops, in the early stages when Italy was on the side of the Axis powers it was a happy occupation. The soldiers played with the children, and, while far from being a normal life, it was relatively peaceful and safe for the children.
When Italy changed sides, so did the treatment of the family change. The women and children, while not sexually violated, were treated harshly and my friend, at the age of 5, was expected to do farmwork far beyond her capabilities to provide food for the soldiers. She says it still hurts when she thinks of how the soldiers she trusted, who carried her on their shoulders and played with her every evening, became tyrants shouting orders and treating her mother and the children so badly.
That's what war does to people. The young German soldiers, just teenagers towards the end of the war, were victims too.
Other troops were commented on but the Canadians and the Kiwis were the ones held in fondest regard. They were "people just like us" she said, "they didn't think they were better than us".
Sunday lunchtime was spent talking to an exhibitor at the local exhibition, listening as he shared his memories of occupation and the good things he knew about Kiwi soldiers. New Zealanders are well known here for their generosity with food.
Many of this gentleman's stories (he is now 81) had both of us near tears. He finished with a story about a clever pig to make me laugh. His mother had eleven children, and all their food and resources had gone to the German troops except a hidden cow and a pig. Money had no worth, and a little oil that they had buried was their currency for grain until that too was taken from them, and only mountain grass and milk was left to feed the family.
The cow was hidden in a dark underground space below the kitchen. The only way down to it was through hidden stairs from the kitchen itself. How they got the cow down there in the first place I simply couldn't imagine. The milk was all that the family had, and this was mixed with a coarse red maize crushed to make a meal that fed the family, or boiled for the babies. The mother had lost her own milk for feeding the babies because of the lack of food. Sometimes the maize that the oil was exchanged for was mouldy and inedible.
The pig was walled in, in a crumbling barn away from the house. Manure from the precious cow was mixed with water and painted on to the new wall to make it look old. The ruse worked. The smelly wall was never discovered or breached. There was no door into the space. There was what I think might have been a grate to allow air and light, and to drop food in, and this was covered when soldiers came. Apparently every time the family members came out to feed the pig it snorted and grunted as soon as it heard them, impatient for it's tucker. When German soldiers with their noisy boots approached the covered feeding hole the family collectively held it's breath. So, apparently, did the pig. In this case German searches were unsuccessful. The pig was never discovered.
Here there are so many stories that need to be told. Not to re-write history books, but to allow the people to express the grief and loss that still wells up inside them as they look at the past. It is the same in New Zealand. Let's listen well, and try to understand what makes us the people we are. New Zealanders. The "passionless people?" I think not. Or if we are, as Gordon McLaughlin suggested in 1979, the passionless people, maybe that is how we became, after the war. Perhaps there was a reason to be so, and now is the time to reverse that shutting down of emotions and remove the mask that says "Leave me alone, I'm OK".