On the occasion of the anniversary of the proclamation of the armistice by the Italian General Badoglio in 1943, we publish this recollection by Tina Longo, of Slovenian mother and Italian father, who as a child lived through the Second World War, the fascist and Nazi occupation, the partisan resistance, in various places in the former Jugoslavia.
by Tina Longo*
It’s afternoon. Dad has come home from work and is particularly excited. He’s heard that a large convoy of Italian soldiers on leave from Greece to Italy has been stopped: it’s 7 September. Nothing new for us. Whenever an Italian arrived in town, my father found a way to meet them: he welcomed them, spoke to them in their language and gave us the possibility of interacting with Italian. The convoy, which arrived during the night, was diverted from the main station to a dead-end track in the early hours of the morning. A strange episode, but no cause for alarm.
Afternoon of the 8th. Dad and I go to visit the villagers. When we arrive, we find ourselves surrounded by many people. There’s anxious anticipation for the departure and joyful curiosity among the younger ones, eager to go to the city. Dad asks to greet the convoy commander, hint at the possibility of a walk, and request permission. We find ourselves in front of an affable person visibly concerned. He can’t explain why they are parked in a cul-de-sac when their position would demand absolute priority. While we are in his company, I notice that the telegrapher is busy trying in vain to make a connection. We say goodbye, and outside, we are surrounded by soldiers, ready and anxious. Only the younger ones accept the walk; the older ones are focused on their destination, heading home, to the embrace of their loved ones. In the town, we go for a walk and then to the cinema. That evening they are showing Rigoletto in Italian.
When all this happened, I was a child and I felt important when our acquaintances and strangers looked at us asking for silk stockings. It was a constant request that young women made, encouraged by the presence of my father and me. They made unlikely appointments that would be honoured when the soldiers returned to the front, in Greece. I remember the film as a nightmare in the cinema because the dialogue was too fast for me and the subtitles were difficult to read.
We went out despite the curfew, after 10 pm. We didn’t mind; we felt safe because we were with the Italian soldiers, so well protected. We joked about the likelihood of meeting the German patrol; it didn’t happen. The soldiers were confident that they would leave the next day. Dad was at work, but my little sister and I could and should go to say goodbye to the commander and the other soldiers if they were still there. In the morning, around 10 am, Mum let us go. The track where they were stationed wasn’t far, just after the Orthodox cemetery: the place where the night executions took place.
From a distance, I saw the empty track, and this could have been a positive sign, indicating that they had left overnight. But two fully armed German soldiers marching along the track gave a different message. I realised that it could be dangerous for the two of us to show ourselves, so I gave my sister a tug and we returned home. No one gave me an explanation of what was happening; the meaning of 8 September was far from what I could understand. When it became a clear and precise event, many unanswered questions arose: “Was the geographical location of the convoy known on that fateful night? What was the fate of its occupants? Are they among the missing or among the non-existent? How does one conduct a search?”
*Born in 1933 in Sremska Mitrovica (now part of Serbia), Tina Longo’s childhood was marked by the events of the Second World War. The child of a Slovenian mother and an Italian father, her early years were marked by the experience of living through the Fascist and Nazi occupations and the partisan struggles in various regions of the former Yugoslavia. In her early years, she was educated in several languages. Her first year at school (1940-1941) was in Serbian, using the Cyrillic alphabet. The next three years (1941-1944) were in Croatian, using the Latin alphabet. In September 1944, the school building was destroyed when it was mined together with the Jewish Basilica. Throughout the war, their education followed a pattern common in dictatorships, emphasising loyalty to the leader. In her case, this meant reverence for the ‘poglavnik’, Ante Pavelic. In November 1944, she moved with her mother and sister (her father was working in Germany) to Slovenia, often referred to as “the land of the partisans”, to be with her mother’s family. May/June 1945: “The war is over – she writes – Schools reopen for two months, with undefined classes, but from there the search for normality begins”, starting with middle school (in Slovenian). “It is the time of the dictator Tito, the partisan brigades are glorified, Russian is studied as a foreign language and the glory of the Soviet army is already history”. When things became difficult for the Italians, despite the presence of partisans in their family (including one as a brigade leader and another who ended up in a Nazi concentration camp), they were forced to leave Yugoslavia (Zone B) in February 1947 as Julian refugees in Italy. They arrived in Foggia (with her father’s family) where she graduated from the Teacher Training College in 1953. She taught in primary schools for 39 years, retiring in 1996, and began to write sporadically about her memories of the war.
*Photo by Grisha Bruev on Shutterstock