Mid-May 2019

By Lella, 82. Ivanhoe, VIC

I’m in Bolzano — the city in Trentino Alto Adige that delineates the boundary between Italy and Austria.

Cutting through Bolzano’s heart is the Adige River. While the sun makes a pale appearance, I lean over the railings on the Ponte d’Adige spanning the river. A wind hissing down from jagged snow-capped peaks in the Dolomites is biting the tip of my running nose. With eyes tightly shut, I absorb the eloquent burbling of the Adige meandering southward over and around ancient rocks to its final demise in the belly of the Adriatic Sea.

Lella in early 2019

Dreamlike, I am remembering the alpine flannel flowers packed inside a new pair of hob-nailed boots that my father brought for me from Bolzano when he came home for Christmas in 1949. I fist and stretch my gloved hands and try to imagine my father wintering in Bolzano between 1948 and 1950.

What would it have been like for my father who, before migrating to Australia in 1950, had to negotiate everyday transactions in this historic city? Where at the time, the predominant language spoken was German, but he only spoke Italian. Where a strong sense of pre-World War II, German superiority prevailed. Where even the mountain air that filled one’s lungs felt authoritarian German.

For my father, a man of few words, the pre-Bolzano (World War II) years of 1939-1947 had been a wasteland. Historical information from when he leaves my mother pregnant with me in early 1939 to go soldiering with Mussolini’s army to when he returns home in January 1947 is like a string of Rosary beads: dense, sparse or not existent.

It remains unknown if when he was being trained as a Morse-code operator he was aware that he’d be using those skills against the Allied forces in the Northeast African campaign (also known as the Abyssinian campaign).

Sometime early on in the conflict, possibly around 1940 or 1941, the daily droning from enemy aeroplanes overcrowding the empty sky was keeping us in a perpetual state of trepidation. Meanwhile, my father had been captured somewhere in Northeast Africa and became a prisoner of war.

Sometime in 1942, a heavily-redacted single sheet of tissue thin paper arrives. Not in an envelope but folded onto itself and connected by a tongue fashioned at one end that pushed into a slot at the other end. What was visible of the writing revealed a message in my father’s handwriting, formally telling my mother that he is prigioniero (prisoner of war). Information that he was locked up behind double-barbed wire fences in one of the most inhumane prison-of-war camps in Kenya governed by the English was leaked to my mother much later.

At home, our days were punctuated by hunger, ear-piercing sirens, and carnage. At the wailing of the sirens, we’d rush to the communal bomb-shelter cleaved into a pyramid-like granite rock, where huddled together, we’d wait in silence for the rumbling of enemy planes to fade away.

On a moonless midnight, a bomb rained down on the house next to ours, obliterating a man and his donkey about to set off for the market with a clandestine load of wheat.

While our house remained upright, the dust and stench that entered through jigsaw-like wall wounds lingered around.

For eight years, like Penelope waiting for Ulysses, my mother’s steadfast belief that one day her husband would return never wavered.

While waiting for that homecoming, each spring she’d lift his overcoat out of the wood and metal trunk that my grandfather had brought home from New York. She’d spread the coat across the back of chairs paired in the open air and use a wooden rug beater to beat dust motes into wakefulness.

Having never known my father, I’d ransack the coat’s pockets hoping to find evidence of his existence. But there was only emptiness.

Throughout the war, rumours that missing soldiers would soon return home abounded. However, despite the Second World War having officially ended on 2 September 1945, my father was left languishing away in captivity.

Enter 1947. The day is showery, and the snow season is drawing ever closer. On the 11th of January, a boy neurotically ringing his bicycle bell stops in front of our house, and leaning on the bicycle handlebars, hands my mother a telegram. Astonished to read that her husband has been repatriated, she demands, “And where is he?”  

The soldier that emerged through the back flap of an army truck at dusk was so scrawny that I could pinch the bones around his face.

After World War II, Italy was left morally, economically, and structurally crushed. Well-paying jobs were hard to come by. Food and clothing continued to be rationed until 1954, with meat being the last item to be de-rationed.

In the south where we lived, landlords provided work in agriculture, but one day at a time, and paid dayworkers only with olive oil, fresh produce, or small bags of grain. This situation didn’t augur well for my father, eager to start afresh and grow his family. Soon he resolved to try his luck in Bolzano where tunnels were being constructed by boring through the mountains that bordered Italy and Austria, as part of the highway linking the economically-depleted southern European countries with the industrialised ones in central Europe.

While ongoing work in the tunnels was guaranteed, the job was highly dangerous. Apart from the deafening noise, rocks loosened by explosives frequently dislodged, crushing workers to death. Worst of all was Silicosis, a disease caused by dust particles which silently ate the lungs of otherwise healthy workers. After nearly three years of such ever-present danger, my father decides to migrate.

In 1950, he could have applied to go to Argentina, Canada or Australia.

But without grudges or rancour towards the Allies that had kept him captive for nearly eight years, once again he leaves my mother pregnant with my youngest sister, and sails for Australia.

Left: My journey in 2019 afforded me the opportunity to visit different burial sites where the remains of family members and childhood friends reside. In trying to reconnect with the past, I wanted to capture in my memory bank what remained of some of the ancestral homes of my childhood. This photo of me looking for signs of life in bottomless darkness is important for me for several reasons. It’s the kitchen part of the house where my father’s Aunt Brigida raised a family of sons, and where when I was very young, her sons regularly entertained me by playing music on the gramophone; it was next door to own grandparents’ house, which no longer exists in its original style; it shows the door with a small window cut out, which at the time it was the only means to let in light and fresh air into the house; and it is a classical example of dwellings constructed with locally sourced material.

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1 year ago

I like your descriptive use of adjectives,
& I passed through Bolzano myself 5 years ago so could visualise some of your story!

Lesley Willott
Lesley Willott
1 year ago

Love how you paint a picture with your descriptive words, I could picture you standing on the bridge. It’s always a sign of good story telling when the reader wants more. I’d love to know how long your mother had to wait to join her husband in Australia and how they both fared on opposite sides of the world. Real human stories of difficult times make for some of the best reading. Thank you for sharing.