Inspired by a visit to Crespino del Lamone on April 3, 2011.
On the surface, there’s nothing special about Crespino del Lamone. With its grey and crumbling facades, nondescript church, and geranium- and gelateria-free piazza, this tiny town tucked away in the Apennine mountains of northeast Tuscany possesses none of the charms we’ve come to expect when the words ‘Tuscan’ and ‘village’ line up together. To describe Crespino as rustic would be a lie–it is aged and weathered. The silence pervading Crespino’s few streets does not convey country tranquility, but rather a sense of isolation, of meager incomes, a bare essentials way of life. Many houses look abandoned, save the odd sign of human activity: a mailbox stuffed with adverts, a pair of dirty workboots left on porch steps. This is no Renaissance architectural jewel, no captivating medieval fortress town. Crespino del Lamone is what Tuscany looks like before putting on her makeup.
Wander out of the cluster of buildings that makes up the town proper, however, and Crespino reveals something unexpected. Just on the bank of the Lamone river, a monument comes into view, looming curiously large and audacious for a town of Crespino’s modesty. The surrounding grounds are immaculate; every inch of stone walkway clear of litter; the grass well-tended. Even Nature does her part in setting the majestic scene: the river bubbles a lullaby, the wind rustles nearby trees, the soporific effects of which are just taking hold as I step inside the structure. Glancing back at Crespino, I consider this contrast in aesthetics not without bewilderment. It’s as if the town surrendered its right to beauty so this monument might rise up in grand style.
This is the Monumento Ossario di Crespino del Lamone. As the name suggests, it is a place of bones (ossario=ossuary); or, more delicately put, a place where the deceased are entombed together and remembered. Inside it’s peaceful, austere, touched up with flowers, sun-lit. And despite this altogether un-tomb-like atmosphere, an undeniable feeling of something–like historical heaviness–is in the air. I came to Crespino to see this place firsthand, having read what I could prior about the event that led to this monument’s construction, yet nothing prepared me for this feeling of significance sinking in, saturating one’s very bones. I read the many in memoriam plaques, assorted names, nicknames, and epithets, of men of all ages and aspects and trades. Amid their diversity, a common thread unites these men, the day of their deaths: July 17, 1944.
During the summer of 1944, history with a capital H extended its cruel and indifferent reach to Crespino, culminating with the massacre of 28 of its men, executed right here on the bank of the Lamone. An act of retaliation, carried out by German soldiers stationed in the area to reinforce the Gothic Line in the attempt to block the Allied advance north. Retaliation, it is said, for the killing of two German soldiers in April of that year, and another soldier in early July, by Italian partisans active in this part of mountainous Mugello (as partisans were throughout Tuscany and along the Gothic Line in that period). The following day brought continued executions, as the Germans sought out others in surrounding smaller villages, killing another 16. In all, 44 men–civilians, heads of families, farmers, peasants–were executed.
Recreating the events of July 17 and 18, 1944 has been the arduous task of a few historians, and one study in particular, Valeria Trupiano’s A Sentirle Sembran Storielle*, confronts the challenges inherent to such a study: while the July 17 massacre is historical fact, it is only through the various individual, at times inconsistent, memories of Crespino’s surviving citizens that historians have been able to substantiate events of that day and those leading up to it. As such–reconstructed by witness accounts, by highly emotive memories, informed as well by the contemporaneous historical setting that saw Italy divided in two, one half under German occupation and the other a mere shadow of a nation, and throughout the peninsula hunger and uncertainty forming the average Italian’s daily existence–the July 17 massacre becomes an event that alters in both broad social significance and in the particulars, depending on the perspective of the narrator. Despite this (for lack of a better word) unreliability of witness accounts, Trupiano and others have been able to piece together those areas where memories of the Crespino massacre overlap. Here’s what is known:
- A Wehrmacht command post had been established in the home of one of Crespino’s citizens, Carlo Mazza, during the occupation, while partisans of the 36th Garibaldi Brigade were active in the area as well, for the most part keeping to themselves in the mountains. At the time of the July 17 massacre, the people of Crespino, like so many Italians, had been living with the extreme tension resulting from the proximity of these enemy forces–Germans and partisans in their backyards, and Allies approaching. (Florence would be liberated the following month, and Allied forces would reach Borgo San Lorenzo and surrounding Mugello towns in September). Some families had left their homes for fear of air raids.
- According to accounts, a small splinter band of the 36th Brigade made up of ‘bandits’ and ‘draft evaders,’ with no real investment in the Resistance agenda, took advantage of circumstances for their own gain–‘leaning on’ the town, harassing locals, entering homes by force, confiscating food.
- In April of 1944, two German soldiers stationed in the area, one possibly a German navy commander stationed in Marradi, are killed by some of these so-called ‘bandit’ partisans in the nearby town of Casaglia. No retaliation comes for this attack, but it puts the Crespino-Casaglia area on the German radar of partisan activity.
- Again in early July partisans attack, this time capturing two German soldiers, one of whom they throw off a cliff. The other escapes and reaches his fellow soldiers, sounding the alarm, it is said, that causes more Crespino residents to flee with supplies and food.
- On the morning of July 17, the same band of partisans again attack, this time a German troop, killing another soldier (or possibly two; sources conflict on this point). As an ambulance arrives from the nearby military hospital, partisans launch a hand grenade at it. Shortly after, a second German troop arrives with reinforcements from Marradi. More people scatter and hide, believing that this second attack will surely not go unpunished.
- The afternoon of July 17, German soldiers begin an armed interrogation of the town. They shoot a peasant who hesitates when asked who is responsible for the attacks. They execute the entire family of one the identified partisans, locking them in a barn and burning them alive. They begin rounding up men, pulling them from houses and fields and herding them towards the headquarters at the Villa Mazza. Women and children are locked in the church.
- The captured men are taken down to the Lamone river and shot. The priest of Crespino and two peasants are made to dig a mass grave. According to some accounts, one of the peasants is allowed to flee. The other man and the priest are shot. At some point during the massacre, Germans kill one or two men hiding in the church by rifling beating. Twenty-eight men are executed in all.
- The following day, July 18, the retaliation operation continues in nearby villages, with another 16 executions–burnings, beatings with rifles, and shootings.
- About two years after the massacre, the remains of the executed were exhumed from the mass grave and laid to rest in the Ossario.
During her research, comprised of several interviews with locals who were children at the time of the massacre, Trupiano was surprised to discover that many survivors blamed the partisans for July 17, not the Germans who carried out the killings. It’s even suggested by some that the German soldiers had no choice, were merely doing their job (by the spring of ’44 the Nazis had adopted a retaliation policy of ‘ten Italians for every German’ to rein in partisan activity). Italian partisans, on the other hand, violated the accepted forms of engagement, as it were, and knowingly put local communities at risk with their guerrilla-style, retaliation-provoking attacks. What’s more, in Crespino as elsewhere, partisans relied heavily on civilians for food and supplies even as they put them in danger, and expected a level of complicity from locals, in keeping their names and hideouts secret, for instance. (Partisans were also provisioned by the Allies, to whom they provided vital intelligence; given the obvious advantage each partisan success meant for the Allied effort, the British and U.S. military were known to keep partisans armed and supplied via parachute drops.) Yet not all Italians supported partisan activity or tactics. Some feared and distrusted them. Some revealed their secrets and were spared execution.
The history of the Italian Resistance has interested me for long while, together with the operations and battles of the Allied Italian Campaign. Only recently, though, has my understanding of the Second World War in Italy moved beyond what I describe as the ‘Hollywood version’–of cowards and heroes instantly recognizable by their physical traits, of clear-cut decisions and tall, incorruptible leading men, romanticized violence and music cued to evoke the appropriate emotions (just in case you’re not sure)–to a realistic appreciation of the extremely complex set of social, political, economic, and geographical conditions that formed the war years for Italians.
Visiting Crespino had the initial effect of reaffirming my assumptions, embarrassingly naive, about good guys and bad guys, Nazis and partisans. Once I started looking deeper, though, past hearsay and slogans, and doing my best to ignore the disturbingly hate-filled elements scattered about the Internet, I came to realize the need to question, indeed to revamp altogether, such a simplistic view (and at my age!) No war is ever the unequivocal good-versus-evil enterprise governments and extremist bloggers would have us believe; yet those who would have us believe this know well the power of image, of symbolic ideology if you will, on even the most rational and cultivated mind. Take film, for instance. I’m the first to admit that much of what I know, or think I know, about World War II comes from historical fiction adapted to film and television programs. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying history rendered as entertainment, of course (and many fine films in this genre treat the themes and myriad tragedies of the war with subtlety and finesse), as long as we are aware of how these visual experiences feed the mind’s bank of symbols–from swastikas to Rosie the Riveter–that we inevitably draw from in the discourse and opinions of our daily lives (not, rather, from facts lacking or facts irreconcilable with a convenient, crystal-clear dogma). This is why propaganda works so well, after all.
For my part, the gut-wrench of a black-and-white photo of skinny, fierce-faced young Italian partisans has always been a personal weakness. Perhaps for you it’s that of American soldiers hoisting children on their shoulders, kisses and chocolate bars flowing freely as they parade through liberated towns. Maybe it’s the iconic photo of Iwo Jima, of Mussolini hanged, or of V-Day celebrations in your favorite European city. That’s the dual power of image plus limited, or at least superficial, knowledge of the history, a power that held me fast until I opened Trupiano’s book. One of her interviewees, a man named Renato whose grandfather survived, amazingly, the massacre (and died a few years later), says about that day: “I need to tell the truth! This whole business that happened here, these dead people, they are dead because here in our area were the famous partisans. They went into people’s homes, people who kept to themselves, and it’s not that they said ‘give us some bread’ […] they went into homes and found gold and took it! Gold chains, watches, rings. What is that? Is that hunger or is that thievery? You understand?” Other similar indictments emerge from Trupiano’s interviews, painting a portrait of partisans not exactly consistent with the images I’ve been carrying around in my own mental bank. It’s not the petty crime itself–in desperate times many a decent man has surely been driven to worse–but the animocity latent in this accusation and others that’s got me rethinking the image of the Italian partisan I previously held dear.
When I visited the ossuary, I picked up a memorial pamphlet dedicated to Renato’s relative mentioned above. Giuseppe Mariano Maretti survived being shot that day and, in a letter written in November 1945 and published in 1948 in the bulletin Le Nostre Vittime, recounts his ordeal in chilling detail: of waking in a pool of blood and becoming aware he was alive, of his dead paesani strewn around him, of escaping to the nearby woods where he hid by covering up with leaves, of his pain and hunger, his wounds grave and festering (he lost most of his jaw). He waited in the woods three days before venturing out and making his way to help. He ends his letter with, ‘I send you my most reverent greetings, and sign my name survivor Maretti Giuseppe Mariano.’ He died in 1948 from complications related to his injuries of July 17.
Outside the monument to Crespino’s dead on an April day, the riverbank has transformed into a springtime tableau of picnic tables and sunshine, care-free children and their chatty parents. I wonder how much, how often, their town tragedy figures in their daily thoughts. At what appears to be Crespino’s only open establishment, one of those Italian bars that doubles as purveyor of goods & gossip, a handful of elderly locals gathers. With no discernible purpose beyond the need to be part of the oral ritual of information exchange so vital in remote places, they banter and smoke and drink espresso from tiny cups. Two of them look old enough to remember 1944, to possess firsthand knowledge, meaty tidbits and prized anecdotes sure to embellish my story. I’m thinking about Maretti, who was not a young man at the time of the massacre, wondering if these men knew him. I want badly to approach them, and for a moment I even convince myself this would please them–to know that another person has taken an interest in their history. I look closer at one man, the one I am considering speaking to. Propped up by his walking cane, dressed in a sweater vest and neat little cap, his eyes flicker when they meet mine, communicating playfulness, a juvenile mischievousness belying the face’s deep grooves and sorrowful jowls. I make a move–and the old man’s look changes. The eyes dim; the skin of his face grows heavier. The spot of road between us lengthens, becoming miles of impenetrable space swimming with newsreel images and un-wished-for letters, decades of global catastrophes and hometown heartbreaks, of wars neither of us lived or comprehend. A great, widening gap, possessing more natural force than good intentions can muster–a gap that one old man and one foreign woman cannot, I know, bridge on this day. I smile at the man, who eyes me with what looks like suspicion but could be merely curiosity, and head back to where I came from.
*The full title of Trupiano’s study is A Sentirle Sembran Storielle-Luglio 1944: La Memoria della Strage di Civili nell’area di Crespino del Lamone.