50. War Times

I just finished an amazing book, War in Val D’Orcia, by Iris Origo. Iris was an Englishwoman married to an Italian marchese. During World War II, they turned their 15th-century Tuscan farm estate, La Foce, into a home for refugee Italian children whose homes were in populated areas that were susceptible to bombing, or who were recovering from tuberculosis. This book, published in 1947, is her diary from January 1943 to July 1944, covering the time after Italy surrendered but was under Nazi domination. During this period, central Italy was occupied by the Germans, supported by Fascist loyalists. Italian partisans were fighting for liberation and praying for the breakthrough of the Allied forces.

My father would talk about tales he heard from his hometown at that time (he was safely in America during the war) where if one German was killed in a particular town, they would execute scores of young men, forcing their mothers to watch. While an occasional German comes across in Ms. Origo’s diary as decent and honorable, most come across as rapacious sadists — killing, raping, imprisoning, and destroying with impunity. Given the risks she and her husband took to shelter, both openly and surreptitiously, not just Italians, but escaped British and American prisoners of war, it is amazing they made it through the war alive.

This book is a true diary, chronicling a daily life constrained by fear, punctuated by terror, grief and outrage, dealing with everything from escaped British POWs to Allied bombing to malnourished babies to peasants executed for no real reason except to instill fear and maintain control. Origo writes about one of her Italian neighbors during that terrible time, who was begging for food to feed a British soldier he was harboring, at great risk to himself:

Much has been said in these times, and not least by the Italians themselves, about Italian cowardice and Italian treachery. But here is a man (and there are hundreds others like him) who has run the risk of being shot, who shared his family’s food to the last crumb, and who has lodged, clothed, and protected four strangers for over three months — and who now proposes continuing to do so, while perfectly aware of all the risks he is running. What is this, if not courage and loyalty?

How did these people, then, get mixed up with the wrong side of history to begin with? This has always been a mystery to me. Luckily, Origo’s diaries from 1939-1940, A Chill in the Air, have just been published. I’ve already ordered the book, and I expect to find some insights there.

La Foce has now been restored from the ravages of war, and is considered one of the premier estates and gardens in all of Italy. My friends Sharon and Sandy Ewing visited recently, and shared these photos.

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