They woke us up early. It was still dark outside, and for the time of the year it meant it was not six o’clock yet.
They both came in, switched on the electric light and shouted, ‘Wake up, now! Come on; up you go. Be ready downstairs in five minutes’ time.’
We didn’t answer back because they were two of the ‘old’ ones and seemed to swing a lot of weight around: they had long hair and officers’ pips on their shirts, while, with one or two exceptions, most of the men in the room hadn’t had more than fifteen days in the ‘bands’. We got up and were ready before they had time to shout again or shoot their tommy-guns at the ceiling. It didn’t take us long, because none of us had taken our clothes off the night before.
We all filed down, from the loft of the large house that we were using as a barracks, into the kitchen on the first floor at the end of the stairs, and sat along the trestle-tables, drinking coffee and eating some bread.
We didn’t know what we had been woken up that early for, but I didn’t feel like asking. Nobody else did, because they were too shy, for being too ‘new’, to behave as if they really had any rights at all. They hadn’t been hiding in the hills for long enough. The way things were, maybe they were just thankful to have been allowed in and given a uniform and a gun and a piece of paper that said ‘The holder is a PATRIOT (and not a partisan) of the 43rd Garibaldi Brigade’, which, by the way, meant a Communist brigade. They must have been thankful because – short hair and all – they were still little Samsons: with their uniform and their gun and this piece of paper, it was harder for people to stop them in the street and scream, ‘You’re a Fascist: catch the dirty dog!’ just because, maybe, they had an old grudge and wanted to have someone shot, or hanged, or thrown over a bridge into some river or other.
They were the glory of Italy, those days. We went and scrubbed all the dirt off our skins and we scrubbed so hard that – to this day – the skin of some has not stopped bleeding.
So we sat there and whispered, drinking that ersatz coffee without sugar and waiting we didn’t know for what.
La Mazza, who had three pips on his shirt but still looked a funny officer with his hair reaching to his shoulder-blades, addressed us briefly. ‘We’re waiting for orders from Varese,’ he said. ‘I want you to be ready because we’ve got some work to do. Nobody leaves the room till I say so.’
There was an old, old radio on the mantelpiece in that smoke-blackened kitchen: a black box with separate loudspeaker, and La Mazza put it on. There was some static and then a voice came through with the time signal. It was seven o’clock. All the voices were absurd: the regular announcers had disappeared and the ones who had taken over sounded as if they had never learnt to read. Fortunately they didn’t have to speak much: they kept playing all the patriotic songs they could lay their hands on, the very few that had been patriotic before the Fascist time, without even bothering to mention their titles. From time to time the singing or the playing stopped abruptly and a voice gave us a dribble of news, as the news developed. The Americans were coming and the people were rejoicing, because the war was over and they thought they had won it.
Those who didn’t live through those days will never know what they missed.
We didn’t know what La Mazza had meant about the work we had to do. I don’t think we cared. We didn’t know each other; we called each other by some ridiculously unbelievable false names (because perhaps we didn’t really trust each other), but, as they say, this love of ours for our country obliterated all differences and made us into a unit. We were as tight as a gang of crooks playing at being soldiers. Of course, I don’t mean to say that we were crooks.
We sat there, Marco and Bruno and ‘Pontiere’ and ‘Professore’ and I don’t know who else, and spent our time that morning – our time before the orders from Varese came and between one new communique and the next – talking of ourselves and the places we came from. All our stories were compelling and moving: we had all suffered and we had all done our best for the great cause. We spoke about ourselves with reluctant modesty and we nodded our heads, I, too, repeated my story time and time again: it sounded so familiar by now that, between one sentence and another, I lost myself at times and wasn’t sure whether I was lying or not.
The brassy music of the patriotic songs kept playing and we kept talking, on the benches along the trestle-tables. We kept talking of the tortures the Fascists had done to us and of the Germans we had killed with our bare hands; we told of the relatives we had killed, and of the homes we had burnt. Marco showed the black stumps of his black teeth and said, ‘This is what the bastards did to me,’ and we said, ‘The bastards…’ politely, gritting our teeth, although perhaps his were just naturally decayed. Then we spoke about the eyes that Fascists plucked from the sockets of their victims, and we all agreed that we had seen them ourselves and that we had escaped a similar fate only because of some inexplicable miracle.
Then we talked of our victory, Italy’s and the Allies’, and we rejoiced at the thought of what was going to happen to the Germans. We were glad we were not Germans and we were glad we had not lost the war. I thought, indeed, that we had lost it, but mine was a special case and I kept my thoughts well hidden.
We listened to each other but I don’t know that we were interested in what we had to say. More than anything, we merely heard those sounds, as some sort of unnecessary background noise, and when they stopped we took the interruption in turn as a cue to our own little line, our own little speech.
The news came through. Irregular and bombastic, it dripped down into my consciousness, hardly stirring it. Thousands of Germans were surrendering to the British around Venice and thousands of others to the Americans around Genoa. The Russians spread into Europe from the northeast and the southeast and everywhere, like a smooth patch of oil, and the Allies – even the French – were pouring into Germany from the west. But, as far as the real war went, the news was not exciting any more: everybody knew who the murderer was and the surprise ending had been spoiled. It was the news of the war within the war, of what was happening all around us, in places we knew and to people we had all heard of, that was exciting.
It must have been, because I don’t remember whether it was that morning that they crossed the Elbe or that they bombed Hamburg (if it hadn’t already fallen), but I do remember that at half past seven the man from Milan, in the little black box, stopped the music and said in big, heavy capital letters, ‘Sentence of death by the People’s Tribunal of the National Committee of Liberation has been carried out on the traitors of the country Osvaldo Valenti and his mistress Luisa Ferida.’
We stopped whispering for a moment until we got over our surprise, and then somebody along the line said, ‘Pity we didn’t get the bloody pig first.’
It was a good spring-clean. We had to do it: the country was so filthy that it had to have that bath.
Then, not very much before eight, there was another break in the music from the black box and the same man’s voice came on again. It tried to be dispassionately professional, but it faded away, puffed and choked after the first few words. It had to stop, sigh apologetically and take a hold of itself before it could go on.
‘Sentence of death,’ the formula was dreary, but the repetition must have been calculated to give it the weight of a newly acquired tradition, ‘… sentence of death by … on the following traitors of their country …’ There were fifteen names, headed by that of one Benito Mussolini. They had shot his mistress, too, and the fact that they mentioned the word over the air made us understand that now, at last, we were free.
The man’s voice explained that the bodies would be on show in a square in Milan, so that anybody who had doubts could satisfy himself that justice had been done. Then the voice faded away into the notes of the Piave song, which was one of those pre-Fascist songs about soldiers stemming the advance of the enemy with their breasts.
The men around me started saying that they shouldn’t have killed them so quickly, because they would have made a good circus show at 100 lire a ticket. There was just beginning to be a discussion about the idea when we heard a motorbike roar into the courtyard downstairs and stop with a screech of brakes. Bidonista and Geppo got off, and called for La Mazza and the other partisan officer to go down. Then, for the first time that morning, I think I began to understand what La Mazza’s ‘work’ was going to be.
Bidonista and Geppo were back from Varese.
It was like a flash going through me with the speed of an electric shock, that thought of the seven prisoners from the Fascist ‘Piacentini’ Brigade, part of the dirt that we no longer wanted. They were just across the road, in the gym of the primary school, and La Mazza must have known that he was going to have them shot. Perhaps he didn’t know it in such a clear-cut way, because – by the sound of it – there were legal formalities to be observed: the sentence of the People’s Court and the orders from Varese. But he must have known or he wouldn’t have got us all up at such an early hour.
I hadn’t thought much about those seven captured men in the school. Since they had come down from the back of the truck and I had caught a glimpse of them from among the partisans and civilians who had gathered around, I had said to myself, ‘Don’t worry: just don’t think about them.’ I would have wanted to cringe away and hide, not to have seen them there, if I had only been able to. They had come down from the truck, helping each other: Leonardi, Rollo and Bianchi junior, the younger ones, jumping first and holding their arms out to catch Uti and Muzio and Bianchi senior and Masieri-Risotti.
I had seen their uniforms and black shirts dusty and torn in places, and I had watched them as they stood silently, facing the crowd around them without looking.
‘Don’t worry,’ I had kept saying to myself. ‘They’ll be all right. Now that the war is over they’ll be treated like prisoners of war, and they’ll be out by the end of the year.’
Nobody had laid a finger on them. There had been one or two cries of ‘Pigs!’ and ‘Sons of bitches!’ but the partisans from the truck had kept everybody away.
For the two days that they had been with us I hadn’t thought much about them, but now that they had suddenly become the ‘work’ we had to do I found them back with me.
# # # #
It was so long ago. For a while, for a long while, I have kept the thing a secret and I have never spoken of it: every time I started thinking about it there was a great blank between the moment I found them back with me and the moment I saw them there, on the shore of Lago Maggiore, ranged in a short, thin line, elbow to elbow, dishevelled and ashen-faced, their backs to the rail fencing the square, their hands tied behind their backs.
Every time I started thinking about it, it was as if I were trying to remember a dream that had lost its continuity. I never spoke of it and I never spoke of Italy too much, when they told me about the beauty of its works of art and the kindness of its people. I only saw that broken thread and couldn’t care less.
It has been as if the essence of Italy for me had lain hidden in that odd interval of time that had done something to me; in that brief hour, that blank, that thing I couldn’t remember which found me in pain for those seven men in the school and left me utterly uninvolved in their fate.
I seemed to have kept no memory of the intervening facts between the paralyzing notion that they were going to die and the sudden, illogically cold curiosity with which I watched them as they stood in the square, within the cordon we had formed to keep the people away.
La Mazza, Bidonista, Geppo, the other man who had come up to the loft, and the ‘Count’ who commanded the Mazzini division, faced them, cradling their Stens in the crook of their arms, grim-faced, bearded, long-haired and dedicated.
Opposite, Uti, the Fascist general. For all these years I have remembered their last moments with a sort of detached approval that could not possibly be the consequence, the ultimate development, of that last sharp pang I had felt when I first realised that they were going to die. I have kept remembering a sort of far-away detachment with which I looked on and with which I met, at the very end, Uti’s eyes. He might have recognised me and had perhaps an inward smile as I moved my head up slightly, in a meaningless gesture. We looked at one another for a moment until something like a wind, in a rebounding clatter of gunfire, swept him and his men off their feet, buffeting them without pity, like a soulless punching machine. And, over all these years, as I tried to explain what had happened to me, I could only say that there was no answer. It seemed hard, knowing what had existed between them and myself, that I could think of them as if they had been sacks pushed here and there by a hot-tempered storekeeper, but that was all. Plus an obscurely sad taste in my mind that, somehow, it should have been different.
If – as a young friend of mine would state, who must have been born when all this happened – it did not sound like ‘crap’, I would nearly say that on that day I died, I died with them, because they were the Italy I knew, the only possible Italy that could exist.
But it would be too dramatic. And it would not be true.
Now that the blank had filled up, that the hour which found me something and left me something else has finally come into focus, I shrug and I feel surprised.
If I had only know how simple the explanation was …
# # # #
I had not been with the partisans for long. I couldn’t have been, because for ten months I had been fighting them. I had been trapped with them, because the end for us had come too soon and caught us unprepared. No more than fifteen days before, those seven men had been my officers and my comrades, my brothers and my friends.
Soon after Geppo and Bidonista finished talking to him, La Mazza called us down and took us to the school. He went and talked to the ‘Count’ who was in charge of the partisans in the school, and asked him for the prisoners. The ‘Count’ came out, went to the gym and led those seven into the courtyard. We started marching them from the school, through the town, to the square at the edge of the lake, and the whole affair seemed a happy procession on some anniversary day.
As we went, everybody came down and joined us and there was soon a long column behind, following the Pied Piper that was those Fascists and their escort.
On the way from the school to the square I never got close enough to them for them to see me. I don’t know what they would have done if they had seen me there; I don’t know whether they would have betrayed me and called me the Fascist I was, because – I think – it was only Uti, the general, my general, who knew what I was doing.
As we walked, I thought of them, hemmed in by the fluid circles of bodies around them, and somehow I could only see how useless everything had been.
Whatever we had done or said or fought for – those seven and myself – had no meaning at all. I saw it clearly then, on that walk, after I had had a look at the other side, at the enemy, at those partisan shadows we had been running after all those months. We were no different. We had been fighting one another – we the Blacks and they the Reds; hating each other with a hatred that was cloying and blind; clawing at each other with the wild fury of depair – and we were just the same. I saw it clearly. I weighed our words against their words, our hopes against theirs, the things we had died for against the things they had died for.
We had fought for ‘honour’, ‘country’, ‘freedom’ and the ‘new era’, like them. It was the same things that they, the Reds, and I with them, were shouting for; and it was the same things that they, the Blacks, and I with them, were going to die for. I went with them for a while, but now that we had come to the end of our road, I shied away behind. I was a lucky coward.
I also tried to understand.
I went back, all the way down, all the way south, to Lucca and Tuscany and the summer before and the beginning of our long march northward, that was leading … them, not me, nowhere.
I tried to understand whether at any moment we could have known. With God and justice on our side, how could we have failed? Where had God gone? Why had He chosen La Mazza’s and Bidonista’s and the Count’s side?
I tried to understand but it wasn’t easy.
Italy and the Fascist Brigade were behind me, stretched over all those months and all those places, and nothing seemed to fit. From Lucca upward, into Liguria, Piedmont and Lombardy, we – they? – had all been waiting for this kind of day. They had all known it would arrive but we hadn’t pictured it would be like this. And it must have been, for us Fascists, the way it is for people with religion and God. One either knows that God exists or, if one doesn’t, there is no use pointing at what everybody else is doing. Nobody could have proved to us that we would have gone all that way to end up like that, bang against a brick wall in a blind alley.
I followed those seven Fascists along the stone-flagged streets and I tried to kepp my eyes on them, over the bobbing heads of the crowd, because there was nothing more I could do.
They fell into their places, each large and each small, in my mind, as I tried to be with them again in the stages of our long retreat and as I tried to part with them completely, there and then, because, if I didn’t, that weight would have crushed me.
We were us again as I saw them under the gunfire of the partisans’ ambush at Rivergaro, sheltering behind a farmhouse and the wall of a cemetery. We were scurrying and scattering, with only the dead left still on the road under the November Indian-summer sun. We would have all been blasted to hell if Masieri-Risotti, who was too old to worry about dying, had not kept swinging his machine-gun all over and covered us. He had nursed me back to sanity that day, after Biacentini had died not more than a foot away from me, and taken me up as his ammo-bearer.
But what did that really matter?
When they, the partisans, had thrown hand-grenades at us, in that old Garfagnana monastery, as we had sat down for our evening meal discussing the tortures they had done to us, we had gone after them, Leonardi and Rollo and I, into the wood on the hill. We had gone and then we had come back, helped bury the four who had been plastered all over the wall and felt sorry for them because they had gone so soon.
But what did that really matter, I kept saying to myself?
Still, no matter how hard I tried, I went on for a while longer skimming from one scene to another: from the crossing of the Po River, with Muzio, under fire from an English fighter plane, to the billeting in the empty Bettola’s brothel we had just taken over, to Uti talking to me the last time I had seen him before this. And it didn’t seem I could shake them off: the ghosts and the near-ghosts.
They clutched at me and they held me as the people around me clapped the yellow Partisan tunic on my back, and I went by without seeing them.
You know, after all these years – even now that I know, when these men I am speaking about must have become who knows what who knows where – I still can’t see it: the whys and the wherefores. We had done all we could have done. We had slogged and slushed and risked and died, and still it hadn’t been enough. Until the end we kept that certainty within ourselves that we could not lose. What does it mean when they say, ‘If you really want something, you’ll get it in the end’? I was the only one who did, but was I truly getting it?
Uti had called me into his office at the beginning of the month. We had moved up to Como, to reinforce Mussolini’s bodyguard. I couldn’t have said that Uti would have been a dead man in less than four weeks, and I had stood to attention in front of him and said, ‘At your orders, general.’
He had made me sit down, and asked, ‘What do you think of the situation?’
‘Well,’ I had said, ‘it isn’t very good, but these German secret weapons should fix it for us. Any idea of when they are going to come out?’
‘Some time soon, I hope. But I asked you here for another reason. How do you feel about a special job?’
‘What kind of special job?’
‘We want to know what’s going on in the partisans’ camp; how many men they have, and what they are going to do.’
‘Right. How long have I got?’
‘Stay up three weeks and then come back. We’ll give you some papers…’
Had the Germans ever had those secret weapons? Hitler died and the war was over, and suddenly we had become the scum of the earth, hunted like the witches of old.
But was it WE or was it THEY? I didn’t know whether either thing still had a very definite meaning. La Mazza, in a way, was just another Bianchi senior, not so well educated, perhaps, and the ‘Count’ of the Mazzini Division reminded me of Uti. Blacks or Reds, the words were the same; even the names of the battles were the same, because both had fought them: Cavour to the east, Rivergaro to the south, and Montefiorino and Casetta Rossa. The terms of reference hadn’t changed. We – either ‘we’ – had shot them and at them and run away to lick our wounds and dispose of our dead.
I must have wanted it so much because, as we were walking, I remember – the thing I haven’t wanted to remember all this time – I thought, ‘Yes, we’ve won; we’ve won.’
And so, while Uti and the others were being walked towards the lake, I decided that Uti and the others were they and that La Mazza and the ‘Count’ and Bidonista and Geppo and the other ‘others’ were we. You see, it was so easy: only a matter of grammar.
It set my heart at peace. I noticed everything again there in the square: the new spring and the sun. The ground was hard and solid. I felt my gun and I held it close to me as if it were a girl I loved or the cross I worshipped.
Click here to read Renato Amato’s A Walk into the Shadows.