Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Growing up in Fascist Italy

Peace and War, Wanda Newby

This is the year that I discovered Eric Newby on my own TBR shelves, and so far I've read six of his memoirs and travel books.  In five of the six, his wife Wanda joined him in the adventures that he chronicles.  In the first I read, Round Ireland in Low Gear, Eric briefly told the story of how they met, while he was a prisoner of war in Italy during the Second World War, which of course was the subject of another of his books, Love and War in the Apennines.  I read a great review of this (under its more evocative British title) over on Leaves & Pages, which is also where I learned that Wanda Newby had written her own account of those years.  As soon as I read that, I immediately started looking for a copy.

Her book, subtitled "Growing Up in Fascist Italy," is divided into four sections.  The first, "My Country and My People," covers the first ten years of her life.  Wanda Skof was born in 1922, in an area of Slovenia called the Kras, which had been annexed to Italy at the end of the First World War.  She was the youngest of eleven children born to her parents, with her brother the only two to survive infancy. Both her parents were Slovenian, with deep roots in the Kras, and Wanda grew up among its fields and mountains.  She describes the villages, the people, their way of life, with affection and an eye for detail.  This is an area of the world I know very little about, and I found this section really interesting.

The people of the Kras felt themselves removed from the Italy to which they technically belonged.  Those who spoke Italian at all spoke a local dialect.  Benito Mussolini, who had risen to power with his Fascist party, suspecting the Slovenes in northeast Italy of disloyalty, determined to keep them under tight control.  As the Fascist presence in the area grew, Wanda's brother Slavko, eleven years her senior, joined many other Slovenes emigrating to Argentina.  Her father, a schoolmaster, was considered a potential subversive who might incite his students to revolt against the Fascists.  The government began a program of transferring teachers, sending Slovenes south to Italy proper, and bringing in properly-indoctrinated Italians into Slovenian schools.  Two years after her brother's departure, when Wanda was ten, her parents learned that they were being sent to a village called Fontanellato near Parma, in the central plains.  Like many of the transplanted families they found some difficulty in adjusting to a new community, a new way of life, and a new language.  For Wanda's family, their Catholicism gave them one point of continuity in the town, particularly for her mother, who was slower to learn Italian.  All three of the family already spoke German, which would soon prove an advantage.

The second section of the book, "First Steps in Italy," covers the family's move and explores their new community.  Here again Wanda describes their neighbors and the life of the community.  She made friends among the local children, and later her fellow students at the high school in Parma, a city she came to love.  She was still in school when Mussolini began to prepare the country for war in Africa.  Her father strongly opposed war and Fascism, and much of the surrounding country was Communist in sympathy (a unique Italian version of Communism).  In the third section, "Rumours of War," Wanda describes the lead-up to the invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 and the events that followed, which seemed quite remote to the people of Fontanellato.  Despite rationing and other restrictions, war remained remote until the first troops from the area were drafted and sent to Russia in 1941; most disappeared without a trace, never to return.

There was great excitement in the village in 1943, when residents learned that a POW camp would be built there.  Wanda and the other young women often found excuses to walk or ride by, exchanging smiles and waves with the hundreds of young British prisoners.  The camp had been open only a few months when the news came that Italy, following the Allied invasions in the south, had asked for an armistice.  Before the Nazis moved in to re-establish Fascist control, the commandant of the camp allowed all of the POWs to leave.  Some would head south, hoping to reach the Allied force; some north, heading for Switzerland.  Eric Newby, with a newly broken ankle, was unable to travel.  With the village doctor, Wanda and her father risked their lives to help him evade the authorities.  In the process, as he and Wanda got to know each other, they fell in love.  The last section of Wanda's book parallels his, though it continues her story after he was recaptured and sent north.  The book ends with their reunion and marriage in April of 1946.

Though Wanda Newby's writing does not have the same verve as her husband's, I enjoyed this book.  It was interesting to see the events of Love and War in the Apennines from her point of view, and to learn more about the local people's efforts to help the escaped prisoners and to resist the Fascists, German and Italian alike.  In addition to introducing me to the Kras and its Slovenian people, it is also the first memoir I have read of life in Italy before, during and immediately after World War II.  It is of course one person's account, from the unique perspective of an individual "Slovenian by birth, Italian by education and English by adoption" (as the author's note states).  It is also written from the perspective of a young girl in a country village, and it does not discuss the political or military situation in great detail.  And then it ends too soon for me.  As I've mentioned before, I would love to read Wanda's account of her experiences as a war bride in England.  We get only a few glimpses in Eric's book covering those years, Something Wholesale.


  1. What a fascinating life Wanda has had! I don't know much about the war years or post-war years in Italy, either - it seems like a very dark and little discussed era.

    I've really enjoyed learning about this amazing couple through your posts on their books. I still have On the Shores of the Mediterranean checked out from the library and am slowly working my way through it. I love Newby's observations.

  2. I still have that book on the TBR stack, and I'm looking forward to it.

    I saw your tweet about wanting to comment more often - but you're always generous with your comments!

  3. I haven't heard of either author but their books sound fascinating. I will definitely be looking for the Ireland book--I love travel memoirs and have been wanting to read more about Ireland as well.

    Great review.

  4. Jane, the Newbys were one of my favorite discoveries this year. I've really enjoyed reading about their travels - even when they weren't particularly enjoying them.

    Eric was always interested in the culture and history of the people he was visiting, so you get a lot of context for their travels.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!