Remembering Grezzano, 1943-1944

Braschi's book coverEdoardo Braschi’s Lavoravo alla Todt: La Costruzione della Linea Gotica nel Mugello (‘I worked for Todt: The Construction of the Gothic Line in the Mugello’) outlines the history of the Todt organization, the German military engineering group sometimes referred to as the construction arm of the Wehrmacht, and in particular focuses on Todt’s activities in the Mugello from post-Armistice 1943 through late summer 1944 (when towns in this part of Tuscany were liberated). The strength of this engaging and meticulously-researched book lies in its direct testimonials, which bring to light fascinating details about daily life in wartime Mugello as well as suprising insights into relations between locals and occupying Germans. Together with Valeria Trupiano’s A Sentirle Sembran Storielle (see this post), Braschi’s work has all but quelled any lingering romanticized ideas I once held about the war in Italy, transforming them into what I suppose could be called a more ‘realistic’ view. One of the ways we cope with wartime horrors, I have come to understand, is by constructing myths, as the human acts we deem heroic often have far more to do with self-preservation (and luck) than we are comfortable admitting. We need memories of good and courageous acts to mitigate our knowledge of the terrible. This is not to say courage in war does not exist—quite the opposite is true. Rather, it’s the way we define what is heroic and what is cowardly that is insufficient. Throughout the war in Italy, non-fighting men and women endured fear of a kind few of us today can comprehend, revealing their own form of heroism in countless undocumented, undramatic moments. We need to hear their stories, too.

Lavoravo alla Todt also confronts, albeit indirectly, the incredibly thorny subject of the ‘good’ enemy. The remarkable narrative of Luciano Mazzoni, a Grezzano native who shares his memories in Braschi’s book, provides a glimpse into everyday interactions between the occupiers and the people of Grezzano. Mazzoni’s portrayals of the German workers stationed in his town do not easily reconcile with the Nazi soldier of our collective imagination (just as the thieving partisan makes us bristle, I’d add). Mazzoni’s memories form part of a vital historical record, and moreover take us beyond the confines of our neat and tidy understanding of the war to a fuller awareness, one that acknowledges our complex natures and thwarts our urge to stereotype.

Today I met Luciano Mazzoni. He lives just down the road from me, and while I was pretty sure I knew who he was, I’d done some asking around just to be certain. This morning I rang the doorbell at his home, and was immediately invited in by his wife. As I explained my project, the purpose of my un-announced visit, I could see he was keen to talk. We sat down at the dining room table. He answered my questions, helped me pinpoint some locations I’d not found on any maps, recounted a story or two about the days following the liberation of Grezzano, and lent me a book. He let me take his photo, after slight protestation—like the true Italian gentleman he is—that his appearance might not be smart enough. Saying our goodbyes, he told me to come back anytime I felt like continuing the discussion. Out of personal interest, but also I imagine because he lived through it, World War II is a topic Signor Mazzoni knows well.

I have been translating Mazzoni’s narrative for some time, and am pleased to finally publish here for English-speakers. I have not included Braschi’s footnotes on the various locales referred to by Mazzoni, preferring instead to create a Google map of our area with select points of reference mentioned. In this way, I hope to convey at least a minimal sense of the immediacy of the war for those who lived these experiences, at that time, in this singularly special place, Grezzano.

***

Luciano Mazzoni was born at home on July 31, 1931 in Grezzano, where he’s always lived. During the war he lived with his parents Enrico Mazzoni (b. 1890) and Chini Giulia (b. 1895). He had two brothers, Renato (b. 1923), taken prisoner in Greece and sent to the camps in Germany, and Orazio (b. 1925). In the summer of 1942, after finishing elementary school, he went to work with his father as a lumberjack.

“I didn’t work for Todt because in 1943 I was only thirteen years old. The Gothic Line passed about three hundred meters north of Grezzano, so my house was very close to the German posts, and after their retreat an English battalion commander stayed with us. Here the fortification works lasted for three months, until July 1944, but they were never completed. At Giogo, however, the works had begun in December 1943, starting in the area higher up, Lo Stecconato and Le Pratelle, and only afterward, sometime between the end of April and start of May ‘44 did they move towards Grezzano. Along the course that runs from the Giogo Pass to Colla there were many enforced points, especially at Castellaccio where there were more than ten posts and sixty workers, but also from Piana di Pozzo all the way to Monte Altuzzo e from Poggio Prefetto until Ronta.

From early May until the end of June, 1944, part of Todt dissolved because the front was moving and the enemies advancing. The works were taken over by another German company that finished the fortifications, the trenches and the barbed wire enclosures until the Giogo pass, passing by the principle points: Argignana, Castellonchio, Piana di Pozzo and Monte del Prete. During the first four-five months hardly anything was done, while during the last two, with the arrival of Germans and Northern Italians, the fortifications were finished quickly. With the round-up at the end of June ’44, the Germans captured more than sixty civilians (my father among them) and forced them to work until September 11, when they retreated. This was supposed to be the strongest line of defense for central Italy, but here there was no German resistance like what happened rather in Firenzuola. At that time it was said the most obvious defect of this stretch of the Gothic Line was the great distance between defensive lines that made refurnishing supplies and connections difficult.

Regarding Todt, I remember an episode in which a partisan and a German soldier died. It was early May, 1944. Two partisans hired as civilians by Todt, one named Lemmi di Pisa and the other, a borghigiano (my note: a person from Borgo San Lorenzo) who was in the 36th Garibaldi Brigade at Monte Giovi, were charged with furnishing one of the posts with ammunitions; along the way, at the Bottega del Penni in Grezzano’s piazza, Lemmi pulled out a pistol and tried to shoot a German engineer named Valentino who was drinking a coffee with a fellow soldier. The shot missed. Hearing the gun shot, the Germans came out and shot Lemmi in the stomach. The borghigiano with him managed to get the pistol and shot one of the Germans, then escaped. What followed, as was routine, was a round-up: twenty-two civilians were taken (including some Todt workers) to the central piazza of Grezzano for the decimation. But the German commander couldn’t recognize the shooter among those rounded up and he didn’t want to accuse just anyone for personal revenge, showing great honesty. The civilians were released after three days of exhausting imprisonment at the Romanelli soccer field.

I recall another curious episode, this one with pleasure. One work day a Todt employee made a bet with his colleagues that in two and a half hours he could take eight rolls of barbed wire (each weighing almost twenty kilograms), from  Castellonchio to Picchietto. The guards gave their blessing and assisted, astonished and amused by what seemed an impossible feat. With an adept technique and a wooden support covered in straw to prevent injury to himself, he loaded the wire on his shoulders and started walking. He lost the bet only for having taken too long, but made it to the destination. Even today I remain stunned.

Getting back to the fortifications, there really were a lot of them and for each there were between seven and fifteen workers. They dug the tunnels by hand, making use of the rock and stone that were transported with local mules; the pine and chestnut tree trunks were used as stakes for the fencing, to arm and protect the fortifications or as the groundwork for pathways that connected one post to another. In some tunnels twenty people could sleep, and I remember one that held up to fifty; inside they were very large and some even had rooms with mattresses to sleep on. The tunnels were shaped like horseshoes, with two entrances, both two to three meters wide with pine trunks planted in the ground to protect soldiers from explosions. The tunnels served as shelter for the soldiers and as a firing post to hold back enemy attacks.

In this portion of the Gothic Line the barbed wire barricades extended twenty meters; then a space about one hundred meters between the fortification and the fencing was cleared of vegetation to facilitate alerts and  counter offensives. The workers posted spikes about one and a half meters tall at equal distances, and the Germans worked in pairs to spread the wire, wrapping it around the pole. The wire was very thick and so twisted it was tough to cut it with pliers; the end points were almost as thick as your finger. Besides the tunnels and fortifications not much else was done, at the most constructing some defensive walls with a shovel, pick ax and dynamite. Above Piazza Carbonaia, in Argignana near a large cypress tree, there was another tunnel: it was about one hundred meters deep and one and a half meters wide, with a the base made of wood boards and reinforced with large stakes; of course there were also niches for the machine gun barrels. Outside Grezzano, however, at Bocca di Porche, three enormous holes were dug with an external circular trench where a group of German soldiers engaged the Allies for a long time.

There were really a lot of workers, about two hundred. Most were from Grezzano (I remember Enrico Mazzoni, Gino and Marcello Chini, ‘Nencetti,’ Piero Innocenti, Gino and Tullio Margheri, Marino Gori and one nicknamed ‘Manicomio’), others from Borgo San Lorenzo and even from Northern Italy. Most of them were between thirty-five and forty years old; they were mostly lumberjacks, and a few peasants.

Everyone had a specific task. They worked every day from morning until evening, stopping only for the rations break. Lunch was brought by Rocchi, the courier who travelled with mules, picking up food from the cook at the Grezzano farm, where Todt had set up its command post, and bringing it to Castellonchio, where the workers had lunch in a large farmhouse. The workers were all paid with the German equivalent of the Allied Military currency, that is with a rectangular shaped money card the Germans carried in rolls and cut out with scissors; if I recall correctly, the 500-lire notes were red and corresponded to a Todt worker’s monthly salary, while the 1,000-lire notes were brown. The first time I ever saw a 500-lire banknote was in one of their hands.

Every morning the Germans delivered the orders and organized the work groups, which were monitored by at least one soldier. Some officials spoke a little Italian but the regular guards did not actually know our language; communicating with them was practically impossible, but for the little things we made do with gestures. To carry out their work, some of the Italian engineers collaborated with the Germans and in some cases were obligated to sleep in the camps. The old Todt guards were generally not bad types, however. Some would even help us to make the refuges with dynamite. When the guards went on their patrol rounds they only made sure the workers were doing their jobs, taking notes in their register, and they did not notice if the hole was not finished by evening. In my opinion they were obligated to fulfill to their roles and they were perfectly happy to help us out, which they demonstrated on various occasions. In July-August of 1944 when the fortifications were finished and the bridges were mined, it was they who warned us of the danger, telling us how and where to hide out; one guard warned us about the presence of mines in the forest and another said to me, ‘Try to get to the shelter or stay at home and hide well, because we are leaving in a few days. There’s only death for you up there.’ And so it happened: at five o’clock in the morning the bridges of Grezzano were blown up, and that night we saw the Allies. Naturally we hated the Germans for what they were doing to our people but with these soldiers, we could not feel resentment towards them.

That same day, the retreating Germans planted mines on the road that goes from Grezzano to Casa d’Erci (precisely where the Scarpelli house sits) and on the main roads through the hills, while at Risolaia and partly at Castagno a little outside Volpinaia, the fields had been completely mined.

Regarding Todt and the partisans, it doesn’t seem to me that relations between them were very collaborative, given also that around here there was an active group of about seven or eight drifters who hid in the mountains and surely some in town were in contact with them, but there were never any reprisals.

In Grezzano, the fortification works were effectively completed, and even though they weren’t put to much use, they were made to last a long time. The Allied bombings lasted six days and after another two days they broke through the front.  Although that battle was not one of the bloodiest, I recall very well my fear, my family’s fear, and the horror we felt in the face of so many dead.”

LucianoMazzoni

Luciano Mazzoni at his home – February, 2014

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This entry was posted in Local History, World War II in Italy and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Remembering Grezzano, 1943-1944

  1. Joyce says:

    Amy, this is so good and I will reread it more than once. You did a good job and I am so impressed as usual. You have taught me so much about the War and Italy. It is so cool he is your neighbor.
    Love, your Mom

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