This book is an account of seventeen months that Eric Newby spent in Italy during World War II, first as a prisoner of war, and then after the Italian Armistice in September 1943, a fugitive from both the invading Germans and the remaining Italian fascists. Like many of his fellow British soldiers, he was hidden and helped by the people of the countryside. Among them was a young Slovenian woman named Wanda, whom he married after the war.
I have read some military history on the Second World War, but that was years ago. More recently my reading on the war has focused on the Holocaust, and on the home front in both Britain and the United States. I don't know much about the war in Italy, or about life for army POWs, so what Newby was writing about was new to me.
He was captured with four other British soldiers off the coast of Sicily on August 12, 1942. All members of the "Special Boat Section", they formed a unit sent ashore to blow up German bombers to prevent their attacking a convoy then approaching Malta with critically-needed supplies. The operation, code-named "Whynot," which Newby recounts in detail, was a complete failure. The men missed their rendezvous with the submarine that was to evacuate them, and they spent hours in the water before being rescued by fishermen, who turned them over to the Italian forces.
The next section of the book covers the year he spent as a POW. He focuses on the last six months, after he was transferred to a camp located in a village near Parma in northern Italy, in what had previously been an orphanage. It was attached to a convent of cloistered nuns, who did the prisoners' laundry and sometimes hid encouraging notes in their clothes. Newby approaches this section as something of a sociologist. He looks at how the men spent their time, explains the devastating effects of flocks of girls parading past the camp, and describes its social organization. There was a definite hierarchy in the camp, headed by the "O.K." people, who ran everything. Newby had a "marginally O.K." friend, who was his entrée into the fringes of society. He tells us,
"I wanted the opportunity to observe the O.K. people at close quarters and some inner voice told me, quite correctly for once, that this was going to be my last chance ever to do so in the whole of my life. Before the war I had rarely spoken to O.K. people, let alone known any well enough to talk to."This period, marked above all by boredom, ended with the Italian Armistice on September 8, 1943. At the time, Newby was in the infirmary with a broken ankle. Since there was no plaster in the camp, he was confined to his bed. The British troops, anticipating the arrival of Allied forces in the next day or so, prepared to leave the camp. When it became clear that the Allied advance would be slow and difficult, the escaped prisoners had to decide whether to head south, which meant crossing the German and Italian lines, or north, hoping to reach Switzerland. With his broken ankle making travel impossible, Newby had no immediate choice in the matter. As Italian civilians gathered with clothing and food for the British soldiers, he finally saw a doctor, who whisked him away to a hospital. Newby discovered later that he was hidden in the maternity wing, where the agonies of women in labor terrified him. Here Wanda visited him, as she did other hidden refugees. She taught Newby Italian and practiced her English with him, and as they became better acquainted they fell in love.
Wanda helped arrange his escape from the hospital just before he was to be arrested. He spent the next four months hiding with country folk in small mountain villages, moving from place to place. For several weeks he worked on a farm, backbreaking labor moving stones out of a field. Later a group of villagers built him a concealed shelter in a forest and kept him supplied with food, and he was joined there by a friend from the orphanage camp. More than once he had to leave a refuge because his hosts feared discovery, or because they learned that troops on their way to arrest him. Twice he was denounced to the authorities by fascist sympathizers, and the second led to his final capture in December of 1944. Newby wants to pay tribute to all the people who helped and hid him and his fellow soldiers for so many months.
"I finally decided to write the book because I felt that comparatively little had been written about the ordinary Italian people who helped prisoners of war at great personal risk and without thought of personal gain, purely out of kindness of heart."He is clear about the risks. Both the doctor who got Newby into the hospital and Wanda's father were arrested, as were scores of others; some of them were sent north to Nazi concentration camps. These civilians were already suffering the deprivations of the war. Food was scarce, and other necessities, some as basic as salt, were in short supply. Some found the strain of helping was too great. Newby was refused refuge in one house because the family "had fear." The word paura (fear) was constantly in the air. Yet people moved beyond that fear, to do what they could, to help. Many who had sons fighting on the Russian front offered help hoping that their sons would in turn find help, not knowing that few would ever return. It was humbling and inspiring to read about their generosity, like the "righteous" who at the same time were risking their lives to save Jews, and to wonder how I would meet that challenge. This book is a wonderful tribute to them.
Newby has no intention of presenting himself as a hero, however. He is completely and disarmingly candid about his own incompetencies. He freely admits his fear of horses and his general wimpiness:
"I invariably faint away during performances of King Lear, Coriolanus, any Greek tragedy worthy of the name, and in any film in the course of which operating theatres and torture chambers form part of the mise en scène . . ."More seriously, he was not immune to paura, not just for himself but also for Wanda. At times it was only the sense that he owed something to the people risking their lives to protect him that kept him going. But he did keep going, and that persistence, that stubborn unwillingness to give in, is itself heroic.
I'm glad that I had already read Eric Newby's A Traveller's Life, which I posted about back in February. Though not a full-scale biography, it gave me an overview of his life (at least up to 1982), so that I could put this book into context. It continues this story with two chapters on his experiences as a POW in Germany, after his re-capture. What neither book tells me is how he was able to keep in contact with Wanda during those years, and what they were like for her, before he returned to Italy in December of 1945 to propose. The romantic in me hopes maybe that story will be told in one of his other books.