Vous êtes ici

Oral testimony of a peasant soldier from Tuscany (1941-1947)

Author: 
Natale AGOSTINI
Interviewer Urbano Cipriani
Critical edits, foreword and notes Viviana Agostini-Ouafi
Translation Lisa Samson

Foreword

The video interview with Natale Agostini was carried out by Urbano Cipriani on Monday the tenth of October 2005 in Avena, in the commune of Poppi in Casentino (AR). The transcription of the interview in Tuscan, and then its adaptation into spoken regional Italian, are otherwise the work of Viviana Agostini-Ouafi who also proposed the general title given here to the interview. The division into first and second parts was already present in the video recording. The chapters into which the testimony is divided were introduced in the transcription to facilitate a themed chronological reading of the narrative: these indicate the variations in situation, place and time in what is in fact a flowing monologue of one hour and forty minutes, with occasional interruptions from the interviewer. Urbano Cipriani’s participation, often of a factual nature, is always in italics. Bracketed italics in the body of the narrative describe the gestures that accompany the interviewee’s conversation. The footnotes contain further information of various sorts, and signal the occasional chronological inaccuracy in the distant historical events described, as is inevitable in a narrative that is exclusively oral.

Remember that there is an original north-eastern Tuscan version. 1 This version in vernacular Tuscan accompanies the video of the interview on the web section dedicated to audio testimonies. We have tried to remain as faithful as possible to the phonetic, rhythmical, lexical and syntactic features of the spoken language of the orator. The adaptation into regional spoken Italian was, on the one hand, intended to facilitate understanding of the interview (on the video and original transcription) and, on the other hand, to increase the readability of the translations in various foreign languages: first of all in French – because of the privileged cultural connections between Tuscany and Normandy –but also in Croatian, in German and in English, or rather in the languages of the civil and armed forces with whom the narrator came into contact during his wartime travels in Europe.

Natale Agostini, born on 23 rd April, 1923, died at the age of 82 on the 2 nd November, 2005, following a road accident. This single interview, conducted by Urbano Cipriani a few days before his demise, has enabled us to provide a lasting oral and written record of this expert of the spoken narrative in his natural voice (in flatus vocis), to hand down his memories – incredible testimonies of wartime experiences and brotherhood –and to preserve a sample of the spoken Tuscan language which none of his children, brought up and educated after the second world war, could pass on to future generations in such a pure and sonorous form.

FIRST PART

Military examination and enlistment2 The beginning of February 1941. The witness will cite the date of 8th February 1941 many times during the course of the interview (the second chapter) as the date on which he enlisted in the Air Force and started to attend military training school.

NATALE AGOSTINI – I presented myself for the medical at Arezzo, at that time the recruiting office was at Arezzo. And since I was one of the first to be called, perhaps because they called us in alphabetical order or perhaps for a reason I wasn’t aware of, but I was one of the first twelve to be examined. I came out quite quickly, passed fit for service. As I recall, I didn’t ask where they were putting me. I came out and met Monsignor Guerri, who was originally from here, from Avena.

URBANO CIPRIANI – Ah, I knew him well! 3 Urbano Cipriani’s interruptions are in italics and will be indicated by the use of his initials.

He was a great friend of my family.

‘Oh, Natalino,’4 Diminutive of the proper name Natale. he said to me.

‘Well,’ I said to him, ‘I’ve passed the check-up, it went well, but is there any way of finding out where they’ve put me?’ He knew everyone in Arezzo and he was someone people took notice of wherever he went.

‘Wait a moment, I’ll go and find out,’ he said.

After ten minutes he came back. ‘Yes, they’ve put you in the 6th division of Light Infantry in Palermo.’

‘Oh my goodness,’ I said, ‘the 6th Light Infantry in Palermo, is there anything we can do about it? In three months I’ll be in Africa. Could you see whether I could change places, though I’d be fine wherever they put me.’

He went to find out and when he came back he said, ‘No, there’s nothing we can do, they’ve made the exact calculation of the number they have to send.’

‘Oh, my goodness. They didn’t say anything to me about this.’

So he said to me: ‘Come with me, we’ll go to the airport. I know that there is a voluntary enrolment in aviation.’

So we went to the airport. There was a captain and the two of them spoke with familiarity, as if they were brothers. The captain said: ‘This enrolment is closed now, but in Rome they haven’t finished all the examinations yet.’

You see they didn’t do the check-ups for aviation specialists there, they did them in Rome and it was quite a different kind of examination. So the captain said: ‘This is what we’ll do. Go home, go to the town hall and get them to prepare these papers for you.’ The papers were all necessary for the enlistment. ‘Tomorrow morning, come back and I’ll put them all in an envelope for you and I’ll send you straight to the place where they do these examinations. They’ve still got quite a few to do.’

I went home and I went to the town hall. Poor Marietta was at the town hall and Lanini. What was he called, Franco? No, you know Lanini, the one who married Toni’s sister from Ponte a Poppi. Anyway, all three of them were there. And I arrived just in time, because I managed to get the eleven o’clock train from Arezzo. At midday, when I got there, the office was still open. Fosco! Lanini: now I remember his name.

Fosco, Elia and Mariettina all told me: ‘Come back tomorrow morning at eight o’clock or eight thirty, because Simoni has to sign them.’ It was... not the mayor... wait... there wasn’t a mayor in those days, they gave him another name.

U.C. – The magistrate.

The magistrate, Simoni.

The next morning, I went at the agreed time, everything was ready. I took all the documents and got the ten thirty train, then I got to Arezzo station where Monsignor Guerri was waiting for me. We went to the airport, the captain was there and he put all the documents in a big envelope for me and he wrote the address for me: Number 31 Ripa Grande, Rome.

‘That’s where they do the check-ups,’ he said, ‘and they’ve still got lots to do.’

I went there. The captain had said to me: ‘When you get there, give the porter this letter.’

I gave him the letter, he opened it, glanced at it and then said: ‘Okay, this is where you need to go.’ And he forwarded the letter for me too.

To cut a long story short, they didn’t call me that evening, then the next morning they did and I passed the examination. They were quite complicated tests, there was a trick test,5 In the concrete sense of the term: one of the tests consisted of falling unexpectedly through a trap door in a space below without losing balance, whilst retaining the ability to follow a series of commands. you had to overcome all of these challenges and then there were more tests: for example, a sheet the size of half a newspaper with lots of questions. You had to answer all the questions. Then, what else? You were given a box with thirty or forty pieces in it and they emptied it then you had to fill it up in the same way, within a set time, you see. There were lots of discs, all round, one of ten grams, one of eleven, there were maybe thirty or forty and you had to progressively put them in weight order. After that, another series to put in order, another thirty discs, no there were only twenty, twenty red discs that graduated to a brighter shade and you had to put them in the right order. So altogether there were lots of questions and lots of tests.

After doing all these questions and tests, lots of us were turned away; on one side they put those who were judged to be fit and able, and the others were sent home. After four days, the tests were over and they put us in a big room where there were about two hundred and fifty or two hundred and sixty people. They put us all in there, then called us each in alphabetical order. I was called me up fairly quickly, after two or three Abbondanza, two or three Acciai, and then it was my turn: Agostini. They checked all the documents and papers, then they said.

‘Who sent us this one? He’s only done the fourth year of elementary school!’

In fact, I’d gone through elementary school but before going to be a soldier I had taken the school leaving certificate as a private student.6 Of the five years of elementary school, Natale had effectively only completed the first three. In order to obtain the school leaving certificate, he had studied privately.

‘Send this one over there,’ he said, ‘This one will have to be sent home.’

And they passed my file to another table where there was a lieutenant who re-checked all these documents. After a while, about twentieth or thirtieth, came a certain Benedetti Giuseppe from Viterbo, no Grosseto, in Tuscany: ‘This one too, who sent him? Oh, put him there.’ And these documents, Benedetti’s documents, were passed further down to the same officer, who picked then up. They arrived down there: ‘Look, this one will have to be sent home,’ he said.

In fact, you couldn’t be accepted for this training school if you hadn’t passed at least middle school. So, there was Commercial School…and there were two sorts of middle school.

U.C – Yes, the career paths.

Yes, the career paths... you had to do one of the two.7 After primary school, the scholastic cycle which follows, middle school, lasts three years in Italy.

Someone said, ‘These ones are to be sent home.’

What was the point of doing all those tests, the jump in the trap, we had to read everything they gave us as quickly as possible, you had to keep a score, push the buttons that they told you to. Altogether, as I told you, we spent four days undergoing these tests, examinations.

But this lieutenant said, ‘I’m sending both of these boys to do the course. They are capable. Out of the four hundred initially recruited, it would be hard to find ten who have their physical abilities.’ Then he added, ‘Anyway, there is an exam every two months.’

Every two months there was an exam at the training school and anyone who didn’t pass was sent home. You see what I mean?

U.C. – So they had a method.

Yes, they had a method.

‘But...’ the others said.

The lieutenant said, ‘Come on, we’re sending them home.’ The others were sent home and we were sent to do the course.

Military school and fighter bomber squadron88 th February 1941 to 8th September 1943.

The first course was at Ascoli Piceno, under the direction of the engineer, Cesari. It lasted a year. The second course was practical and took another year. We went on the course but for the first two months they didn’t test us, neither me nor this Benedetti, because the course actually began at a level so high that neither of us understood anything, do you see. If you do Middle School and then you go to High School, you can keep up, but if someone hasn’t done middle school and you send them to high school, you see what I mean… Nevertheless, they put the two of us together in the same form and they really made us work, they gave us so much to do, believe me!

Every evening, the course director came into the classroom. Because we went every morning at eight o’clock, we came back at midday, we went back at two o’clock and we came back at six o’clock. After six o’clock, from seven o’clock onwards, there were two hours of obligatory study time with a non-commissioned officer watching over us. Once these two hours were over, anyone who wanted to remain stayed and anyone who wanted to go to bed went. We two were amongst those who remained because we liked studying.

It was sometimes hard, studying, coming to an understanding of things, of the reality, especially in electro technology… which was our speciality; there were sixteen electro mechanical connections on board, that was our main area and it was interesting. We also had one or two hours a week on the human body, one on Tuesday and one on Saturday. But when we did the hour on the human body I stayed up studying and didn’t go to bed because at military school, if you want to study you can study as much as you like.

We studied after hours because we wanted to and the course director always came round during those extra hours. And he used to say: ‘I want to question one of you.’ So I’ll explain, at the school if you got ten out of twenty you got a night in the cells; eleven out of twenty: no cells, no prize; fourteen out of twenty: no prison and no prize; sixteen out of twenty: an evening pass, because you could only go out on Sunday, you see. On the other days you could not go out; seventeen out of twenty: two evening passes; eighteen out of twenty: three evening passes.

They never gave twenty out of twenty to anyone but I got eighteen a few times. Finally, at the end of four months, they made us sit the exam too. During the first two months they had already sent fifty or sixty away; those who were empty headed didn’t get the pass mark, none of them. In brief, they gave the pass mark to both of us after two months, me and Benedetti. After six months it was the same. So at six months, even before six months were up, I had earned two passes because he asked us questions if we were still there. He said: ‘Which of you knows the answer?’ All it took was for someone to give him the answer and he would get an evening pass. But whilst he was interrogating one person, he was also interrogating the rest of us, because if the person didn’t know the answer, he asked the group and there was always someone who knew the answer.

What else happened? Well, I used to – nowadays it happens less – but at that time my feet used to sweat a lot and my socks were like rags because I washed them and wrung them out so much. At first I didn’t know what to do, so I asked for a meeting with the commandant. I went to find him and I said to him: ‘Captain, I’ve got something wrong with me and this is what happens to me…’

‘It’s not a problem.’ He gave me a credit note: ‘Go to the shop. Will five pairs be enough for you? When you’ve used them up, tell me and you’ll have to go back.’ So I was already enjoying some concessions.

As for sleeping arrangements, we slept in bunk beds, as you know. There were two beds. After a while, a certain Mangani said he wanted to take the bunk above mine, because he wanted to study; he wanted to do well but he didn’t have a good memory.

He said: ‘If I come then even in the night when I think of something, I’ll ask you and you can tell me.’ And that was quite something.

He confided in me, he said to me: ‘My dad is dead, I’ve only got my mum, and if they send me away my mum will also die, so help me!’ You see, those who were sent away were soon sent to the front, or to some other place.

I helped him, and others as well. I even helped those who at first used to call me ‘Zollone’9 Derogatory term meaning peasant: ‘le zolle’ are the compact pieces of turf that the labourer turns with the plough., clod hopper, because there were some there who were the sons of professionals.

U.C – Yes, Yes.

‘Hey, clod hopper!’ You know, these Romans, there were lots who came to ask me to explain things to them. Finally, we reached the end of the course, not quite the end, the end of the first part of the course was February the 22nd. Anyway, when the course director came, he said: ‘I want a volunteer.’ But nobody volunteered. So he took the list and he called out those who had a certain culture, there were accountants, there were geometricians; he would hardly call out someone who had only completed junior school.

To cut a long story short, on the 20th or 21st December, he came back and asked the same question. It was captain Pasinati from Pisa. He said: ‘I need a volunteer.’

I got up, because you had to stand up (he lifts his right arm high and waves his hand) and I said: ‘Agostini, Natale.’

‘Come on, then! At least you are a Tuscan, so we can understand one another, you and I.’ (He smiles, stroking back his hair with satisfaction.)

I went up to him and he said to me: ‘Today I’m not asking you school questions, I’m going to ask you what I want and you must respond as best you can, and even if you don’t respond there will be no punishment. But if your answer merits a reward, rest assured that I will give you one.’

So he calls me and he asked me lots of questions. As calmly as I could, in the best way possible, I answered him.

And after asking me a dozen questions, he said: ‘Listen, now I want to ask you another. I see that you have answered me and that not one of your answers is wide of the mark, not one. Now I’ll ask you another one. How come you managed to answer me when you have only done fourth grade?’

Well, I wasn’t scared to say: ‘That’s true, but I studied for fourth grade on my own, I only took third grade at school.’

‘And your answers never strayed from the question.’

‘Listen,’ I said to him, ‘those who defined these laws and rules and summarised them into the essential points are people who have studied and who have considerable memories. I don’t have a brain like theirs at all, but I haven’t studied for nothing: I can’t explain things as they do, but I have tried to give you an idea that I have understood the subject, at least in part.’

‘Now, I’ll ask you another,’ he said to me, ‘and if you give me a good answer, there will be a reward.’

Another question: I listened carefully. ‘How long is it since you went home?’

‘Since I came here,’ I said, ‘the 8th February.’

‘Would you like to go back?’

I said: ‘Neither a teacher nor a scientist could answer better than me. Of course I would like to.’

‘Come to the office tomorrow: you’ll have five days leave, plus the journey time.’

That was the only leave granted as a reward, the only one, because until the end of the course there was no leave: the only one and it was given to me. Then I went home. At the end of June there were exams: I was graded twelfth on the list.

U.C. – The end of June in which year?

June… 1942. For the first course, not for the second, do you see!

U.C. – Yes.

It wasn’t the second course. Benedetti came twentieth, you see. I remember those who… Cardani, Pucci…, then, you know, there were the colonels’ sons, there were also the sons of the big wigs, important people. After that, we went on the second course, they sent us to Capodichino.

At Capodichino, below Naples, we were to have stayed a year. After ten days, they transferred us; they sent us to Port Rose, past Trieste, in Slovenia. Why? During those ten days that we were in Capodichino, we couldn’t go to school at all because there were bombings every day, you see… it was like the end of the world.

We arrived at Port Rose. At Port Rose, we should have had a year’s course: after six months, at the end of June, they put us into squadrons. They put me in the thirty sixth fighter bomber squadron, not the fiftieth, at Altura di Pola. At Altura di Pola, however, it was a seaplane squadron: the thirty sixth squadron was for the seaplane. So just before the start of September, I don’t remember which days now, but it was at the end of August, we got a radio message; we had to go and escort the ships that had left Piombino and were taking reinforcements to Sicily, because at that point the Allies still hadn’t disembarked,10 This event took place at least by the end of June 1943 or the start of July because the Allies disembarked in Sicily on 10th July. you see.

We were twelve aircraft and when we had passed the island of Elba – it must have been about a hundred kilometres after the island of Elba – the American and English aircraft arrived, there must have been a hundred of them! In the end, of the twelve aircraft only seven returned and five ended up in the sea. You see what kind of work it was!

U.C. – That’s what you call a real baptism of fire.

Yes, they beat us. Following that, we stayed up there in the North, until the 8th September arrived.11 8th September 1943. Following the Allies disembarkation at Reggio Calabria, the government of Marshall Pietro Badoglio signed the 3rd September armistice of Cassibile between the Italian army and the Allied armies. The announcement was made on Italian radio on 8th September whilst the Allies took hold of Salerno, below Naples, and the government, Badoglio and the King, took refuge in Brindisi under the protection of the Anglo-Americans. The Italian troops were ill-prepared to face the situation.

The 8thSeptember and the Slavic prison camp12 8th September or start of November 1943.

Then the 8th September arrived. We never lay at anchor in the same place, because if you look geographically at the map, from Trieste the Slav coast looks straight, as if it is all going in one direction… However, to get to Zara from Trieste, because Zara was also Italian, there were a hundred islands, and a hundred gulfs as well. We didn’t lay at anchor at Altura di Pola, you see, so that we weren’t taken. These were things that… It was not me who decided, it was the officers.

On the evening of the 7th September, we moored four or five kilometres from Zara, still in Italian territory, because Zara, Zagabria, Lubiana… Fiume, Pola were all Italian. It was taken in the 1915 to 1918 13 Italy entered the 1st World War on 24th May 1915.war, an area almost as big as Tuscany and it was entirely Italian. In the morning, we began to hear noises all around us; when day broke we realised that the squadron guards had seen that we were surrounded by all their boats. They took us all prisoner. There were some of us who tried to escape in the aircraft, but you can’t escape in an aircraft unless it’s been filled up, which they hadn’t…

What is more, about eight thirty in the morning, while we were still there, a radio announcer, General Badoglio, transmitted a brief message: ‘Italians, the common enemy is German. Our enemies are the Germans.’

We didn’t even try to resist. There was no point rebelling, we couldn’t do anything in the face of the machine guns. They took us away. They took us to the top of a mountain, which was between Zara and Sarajevo. It can’t have been very far from one or the other, but it must have been about fifty kilometres away. They took up there all the supplies that we had from the shops, ship’s biscuits, everything that we had in the way of food. And we built a hangar up there, one thousand eight hundred metres up, it was about sixty metres long, maybe seventy. It was big, you see. That’s where we slept.

U.C. – How many of you were there?

When we went up there were about two hundred of us.

U.C. – But who was it who took you prisoner?

It was the Marshall Tito’s partisans.14 It was Marshall Tito’s partisans. But Tito’s partisans – it seems funny to say it now but it wasn’t funny at the time – they argued amongst themselves. It was obvious that they were living like wild animals before they went up there… everyone wanted to capture us because we had so much stuff, they took our provisions up there, tins and other food stuff. For the first three or four days, when it was meal time they gave us something to eat as well. Then after eight days they didn’t give us anything anymore. They had hardly anything for themselves. Everything got used up fast, especially the food, because it wasn’t just the ones who took us prisoner that took all the stuff, the other group took some, they quarrelled amongst themselves and divided it all up. Anyway, it wasn’t as if we could go and see what they were doing.

After twenty, twenty five days, everything was used up, all the food was gone… they didn’t have any left for themselves either. They went down the mountainside a bit and there were shepherds down there, so they’d take two or three sheep and bring them back. They had a cauldron as big as this (he opens his arms wide); you could fit two sheep in there easily. They knocked in three posts like this (he opens his index fingers and thumbs symmetrically), two and a half metres high, held up from above, with a steel pole all around. Then this wire hung from the middle with a hook on the end, a big hook to which they attached the cauldron with a fire below. They made it boil for at least seven or eight hours, and when it had boiled enough, they tipped it all out onto a cloth on a level surface, and everyone helped themselves to the meat. As for the bones, there were quite a few ravines up there and there were wolves, so they threw the bones down into the ravines.

I held out well, I’ll tell you why. There were bushes up there and when I was hungry I started to eat juniper berries. There were red ones and some little round black ones that had bristly seeds inside, but I had good teeth and I ate them and chewed them. Even now, I’m eighty three years old and I’ve never taken a laxative; I had a good stomach. However, there were some who started to waste away. And the thirst, that was worse than the hunger. When you’re really dehydrated, you can’t… There was no water up there. It was a distance away and we weren’t allowed to go further than ten metres. But every so often someone went. Once, I tell you, there was a whole flock of us getting water from the fountain with our hands. Seven or eight of them arrived with… but there was no chance of escaping because they had a machine gun – they would slaughter us all. What is more I saw them slaughter each other in their rival factions. You see, Mount Corniolo, you know where it is, well Mount Civitella is about two hundred metres away as the crow flies. So there was a faction from Mount Corniolo and another from Civitella. When they met and fought amongst themselves, they slaughtered each other. They attacked each other like this (he holds his head with his right hand and, with his left, makes a quick chopping motion on his own neck), a bayonet strike here, and the other would fall to the floor, gasping for breath, though it wouldn’t last long. Then it would be over.

So, what else happened to me? It happened that every day I ventured a little further on my excursions because in the nearby bushes I had soon collected all the berries, so that the next day there were none left. So I’d go a little further. One particular time, I must have gone about twenty five metres away, and I saw one of them hiding behind a rock and he pointed his gun at me.

‘Stop!’ (he holds his palm out flat towards his interviewer) Don’t shoot me! I haven’t done anything to you! Look, I haven’t got anything (he turns back the lapels of his jacket). I’ve got no intention of doing you any harm, believe me. I don’t need to tell you because you must have seen me before you pointed your gun at me, you must have seen me looking for berries. You haven’t got enough food even for yourselves, you don’t give us anything and I eat these berries because I don’t want to die here; I’ve got a mother and a father and six younger brothers and sisters at home. And you too, I expect you’ve got a mother and a father too and you’d like to go home too. But those in charge have put me here and they’ve put you in the same place. Now we can’t go down there because the Germans are there. And what you could do to me they would do to you, so that…’ That’s how I started to reason with him.

Nowadays, I’m not as I was, now I’m nothing, it’s not worth it anymore, but when I was young, I knew how to react to things without getting scared; I didn’t lose my head in difficult situations. I was always in control of the situation. So as a result of my reasoning, he lowered his gun.

‘I thank you for not killing me,’ I said to him, ‘but you should also thank me, because if you’d killed me, you’d always have had it on your conscience in life that you had killed a boy of the same age What class were you in?’ I asked him, because there must have been only a few months age difference between us. ‘A boy who had done nothing to you but was there because he had been sent there, and you killed him. If you think about it, you would regret it for the rest of your life. Whereas if you spared me, and you are sparing me, every time you think of this you should feel good about it!’

Listen (he turns to Urbano), even today when all these immigrants arrive and everyone objects, I help them, all of them! Why? Because I owe it to the world: I help all of them! Why? Because someone helped me when I needed it.

I also said (to the Slav): ‘Listen, I’ve got every intention of getting away from the top of this mountain.’ There was a long valley of about one thousand eight hundred metres that went down to about two hundred, where you could see well-used footpaths.

‘I planned to leave one night, and hand myself over to the Germans, because here,’ I said, ‘well, you know there were two hundred of us and now there are only fifty.’

Most were killed and others died… yes, died. After two months, it was Halloween, just after Halloween, because there are two months from the 8th September to just after Halloween: September, October. And if you don’t eat, you die. You know, in the morning not everyone got up, do you understand?

To cut a long story short, I said to him: ‘Listen, when I fall into the ditch down there on the left, I’ll turn down there on the right, then in that ditch I’ll go back there and eventually I’ll arrive at those little footpaths that you can see and those vehicles you can see from down there are surely German.’

‘Yes, yes,’ he said, ‘they are German.’

‘I’d give myself up as a prisoner, rather than die here,’ I said.

‘You’re right,’ he said to me, ‘Listen then, this is what you must do. If I see you down there at night, I would have to shoot you without saying anything to you, and anyone would do the same. At ten tonight I finish my guard duty because I came up at two, and we do eight hours. After ten o’clock, I won’t be here, there will be someone else.’

The Slavs were born Italian. Their parents weren’t, but they were born after 1918, and after 1918 they went to Italian school and they spoke Italian like us. They could speak Slav as well, but they spoke Italian, with us they spoke Italian.

He said to me: ‘Well, look, I’m here until ten o’clock. Watch the area carefully and come back here, I won’t shoot you! Do you understand?’ Then when we parted I put out my hand and it was he who embraced me! Like two brothers! Do you see?!

Since it was November, at five or five thirty it was dark, and at six o’clock, when it was really dark, I set off down, down, down, down; I passed by there again, he was there waiting for me behind the rock, as he had seen me during the day. He said to me (in a low whisper): ‘Keep going down there straight ahead.’

Only, at that time of year it was snowy, for four or five miles I walked in the snow. And the snow was high there. It was dark; there was no moon15 According to a lunar calendar consulted on-line, All Hallows Eve 1943 is a Monday with a thin crescent moon: the first quarter was Friday 5th. The waning probably took place on the 2nd or 3rd of November. and I stumbled. Despite these difficulties, before daybreak, I had covered ten kilometres, maybe even fifteen. Once I was down there on the narrow road, when I hear a car approach, it was a jeep. I stood at the side of the road and clapped my hands together like this, saying: ‘I’m Italian, a prisoner of the Slavs.’ There were two Germans, they didn’t understand me but when they came closer they saw my flying gear, my flying jacket. They saw that I was Italian and which division I was from. ‘Take me with you.’ They looked at me for a moment then they made me get into the jeep.

Deportation to Germany and life with the peasants16 Middle of November 1943 to the beginning of June 1944. The witness confirms at various points that he arrived in Germany towards the beginning or middle of November. Various enquiries, kindly carried out for us by Alessandro Tuzza, on the departures of deportation convoys of civilian and military personnel from Trieste train station in November of 1943 indicate that this event took place towards the end of the month. If the Berlin WAST, whom we have approached, could search their Second World War archives and provide us with the residence and work permit issued to Natale Agostini, we could clarify the date of his arrival in Germany and of the town to which he was deported. As for the escape and return to Italy, for reasons which we will describe later, these events must have taken place at least at the end of June of the same summer.

In two days, that day and the next, we ended up in Trieste. At Trieste, they loaded the wagons, you know, those ones for animals that are closed from below with a handle bar. But there weren’t just soldiers, there were children, women, men, there were… what do you call them? They must have been Israelis17 The witness confuses ‘Israelis’ with ‘Israelites.’. Everyone was squashed in like sardines, you see.

Sometimes, someone fell to the floor, either because they were ill or for another reason, only there was no space and it wasn’t difficult to stay upright. After three days, three days and two nights, I don’t remember the exact number of hours; I remember that we arrived early in the morning. It was still quite dark. And that wagon, this kind of train had been parked on a disused platform. After a bit, almost straight away, we heard them talking… the Germans arrived. They pushed a two wheeled hand cart with a little tray on it, and on this were rectangular nuggets of bread, full of mould. Out of one loaf they made six pieces. And they opened the carriages and they gave a little piece to everyone. The dead people were taken out one by one and thrown down. Because there were dead people: young people, old people, women, people of every sort. When they opened the wagon where I was – I remember that I was near the opening and I was certainly the first who took some bread – there was an old man in front of me. There was an old man in civilian dress (he was seventy five, which in those days in 1943 meant he was really old, wasted) who spoke with the Germans. So I saw this old man talking with the Germans while I was eating my morsel of bread. One of the German soldiers went over to the station and came back quickly, after a few minutes. He came back and he turned to us and spoke in Italian, with an accent like ours from the centre of Italy, not Neapolitan or Milanese.

‘Are there any amongst you who were farm workers?’ he said. This man was a land owner, his sons had gone to be soldiers and he needed men to work the land.

I put up my hand quickly; I was the first. When I put up my hand everyone noticed me, not just this man but the Germans too18 The term ‘Germans’ will never be used by the narrator to refer to civilians but always to the German military.. Then lots put up their hands, you see. To cut a long story short, they called me first. This man took five of us.

The soldier said: ‘He’s going to take you to work but tonight you’ll sleep here in the station quarters.’

We left. It didn’t take long to get there because it wasn’t very far on foot from the station. Between the station and the house of this guy19 The expression ‘the house of this guy’ is repeated twice but the narrator is not expressing any derogatory sentiments towards the old proprietor by calling him ‘person’, but rather his own uncertainty in defining his precise status, which in his eyes has not been well identified: he chooses ‘old man’, ‘farmer’ or ‘peasant’ rather than using the pejorative term ‘German’., it was about one and a half kilometres. His house was on the other side of the river, and to get there you went over a bridge. From the river onwards was a plain that stretched further than the eye could see. Every three hundred or four hundred metres there was a farmhouse where these landowners20 In a previous conversation with Urbano Cipriani, Natalino confirms that it was the town of Bremen on the Danube. But the Danube does not flow through the big industrial city of Bremen, which is situated in the North-west of Germany. Is his testimony therefore confused? In fact, there exists a small town called Hohentengen-Bremen which is sited on a small confluence of the Danube. This is a railway junction that may have been strategic for Baden Württemberg, not far from the carbon deposits, and its rural landscape seems to correspond to that described. lived.

Once we were there, he took us to the fields. After a quarter of an hour day broke, so he harnessed his horse, and his wife arrived with an enormous tureen (he holds out the index fingers and thumbs of both hands) full of well cooked beans. There was no oil in it but you should have tasted how good it was!

Then at midday they called us to eat. I tell you: they had beans, potatoes… For the first few days they didn’t give us any meat, but they had rabbits, hens, geese, a certain kind of big black goose with a long neck… Anyway, to get back to the beginning, they gave us each a tool: one guy got the horse and plough to work the fields, I got a large hoe like this (he widens his hands) with two points on the end and an axe in the middle: though we couldn’t work well because we weren’t used to it. But I had a good go at it, I had to bend over to hoe and I tried hard. One of us got a kind of shovel, someone else got a large pitchfork and this man watched us.

The next day, the one who was working the plough – if you don’t know how to work the plough you leave the earth all compact – the one who was working the plough didn’t know how to do it, so it was half-turned and half compact: a real mess! I said to the man, on the first day, I tapped him on the shoulder like this (he taps his left hand on his shoulder a few times), I said: ‘I, I (he points at himself and then moves his hands up and down in parallel), I know how to plough straight furrows.’

I couldn’t say it to him but I showed him like this (he continues to move his hands up and down in parallel). So I took the plough and the other guy took the hoe.

The next day, about ten or ten thirty, the belt that goes round the horse’s middle snapped (he moves his hand round his own belt). This guy was desperate! Well since I was there I signed to him: ‘Calm down! Calm down!’ I went into the stable. I found a big sack. I took the sack and I tied the two ends of leather together by winding the sacking round it four or five times. And I gestured to the man: ‘You (he points at his interviewer) wind… (he moves his hands in opposite directions as if he is winding a cord).’

Anyway, he understood. He brought me a long thread, finely plaited. I took this thread and I went into the stall where a few big nails stuck out of the wooden frame and I gently pulled one out (with his left index finger placed on the back of his right hand he indicates the length of it). Next, I picked up a stone and went back and set to work: with the nail I made a hole and passed the thread through it, here, then there, until I’d finished a piece like this (he simulates his actions on the large flat arm of the armchair). In short, I got the work done. Well, when he saw what I was doing, he went away and found me another long thread. After that, he brought me a kind of awl or punch, but I couldn’t use it very well, though it did get the job done quicker. I over-sewed all of it with very thick edges and I finished a long piece like this (he indicated the arm of the chair).

And then we harnessed the horse again. When we had harnessed the horse, instead of – I said to him again by tapping him on the shoulder (he taps his hand on the arm of his chair and points at himself with his index finger) – so instead of giving the horse to the guy who had it before, he gave it to me. I gave my hoe to the other guy. This happened on the second day. I started work late and in the end I only did three or four furrows, although they were about a kilometre in length. Each furrow was a kilometre long. In the meantime, the farmer was showing the others what to do. Though I noticed that he was watching me from a distance: ‘Eeh! Eeh! Eeh!’ Good God, how could I possibly understand after only two days there? I didn’t understand a word he shouted. Then we went back to the house, and when we got there, this is what I did. The other evening when we got back the horse was all sweaty and the old guy told him to put the horse back in its stable, which he did. But when I got back that evening and he told me to put the horse away, I said to him: ‘No, wait’ (he raised his open palm).

I tied the horse to a ring near to the door, I picked up what was left of the sacking, and I stood next to the horse to rub him down. The farmer watched me contentedly. And then (he made the gesture of the farmer who told him to put the horse away then he made the sign for his own response) ‘No, wait.’

I went into the stable, I took the pitchfork and cleaned up the horse’s bedding. I took a bucket of water and put it down for him. Next, I saw a full sack of fodder in a corner. There was a bowl there, so I took a bowl of fodder and put it down for him. When I cleaned out the stable, I cleaned the bedding and put the clean straw in front and the dirty straw at the back. I took some clean straw and twisted it and made a long plait like this (he pointed to half his arm). Then with another bit of straw I tied it so that it didn’t fall apart. During all of this time, the horse was outside. After that, I went out and rubbed him down with the straw plait, then I left. How that old man stared at me! He put the horse away and then took us back to the camp.

When he came back the next day he took three of us instead of five. It was obvious that he was looking for me though. When we got to the field, I began to work with the horse but he said ‘No! No!’ He took the horse by the bridle and led it to the top of the field where the other guy had worked.

U.C. – To redo it all?

I began from the top of the field. What a lot of work. I saw that the farmer was happy as a king. The food was the same as before. That day there were three of us instead of five. But they still gave us the same amount to eat. In the evening he took us back again. In the morning he came to get us but he took only two: me and another guy. He didn’t take the other one anymore. After six or seven days he just wanted me. He used to chat to me but I never understood; what could I have understood!

Well, one evening when he took me back, he didn’t leave me but he stayed and began to talk to the Germans. It was at the entrance to the camp where everyone was grouped together and he began to talk to these Germans. One of them went off somewhere. When I saw him come back from the station quarters with the station employee who spoke Italian, I knew there was something new in it for me and I was pleased.

He came up to me and said: ‘Listen. This gentleman says you are very good at working the land and looking after the horse. He says you’re very good. If you want to stay with him, he will put you a camp bed in the corridor between his house and the stable and you’ll stay with him. Give me your badge.’ (He addresses Urbano) You haven’t been a soldier but we soldiers wear a small badge under our collars that serves as an identity card. He said ‘After a few days this man will come back with an identity card for you which means you can go round town and always carry it with you and no one will bother you or say anything.’

When the farmer took me back he put a camp bed in the corridor for me. It was a camp bed that opened out like this, but it was November, about the 15th of November, and cold in there. He put two or three covers underneath for me and a few on top. So I slept in there for three or four nights.

The following evening – since I had learnt ‘Gute Nacht’21 That is ‘Goodnight’. Natalino’s German is very inexact, and on a phonetic level, is characterised by his own heavy Tuscan pronunciation (for example, he often adds a vowel at the end of tonic syllable words and truncated words which in German end in a consonant: Nacht –nacche). which means Good Night, – after dinner I said ‘Gute Nacht’ and I left.

‘No! No! No!’ he took me by the sleeve of my jacket, a habit that he had, and he took me into his sons’ room. So that’s where I slept, there in the bed! I was nice and cosy.

Well this man was seventy five years old and he had a bit of a cough. He had a bit of bronchitis and asthma. He didn’t stop coughing. After a few days I had started to talk a bit (work ‘arbeitte’22 The term ‘arbeit’ means ‘work’., sleep ‘snacche’23 This verb, with another two variations: ‘nappe’ and ‘snappe’ corresponds to the German ‘schlafen’ meaning ‘to sleep.’), so that evening I said to him: ‘Nae! Nae! Di moga nappe, nics sveg arbaitte’24 ‘Nein, nein. Du morgen schlafen: nicht weg, nicht arbeiten’, means ‘No, no. Tomorrow you must sleep, stay here, don’t work.’. ‘Tomorrow, don’t get up, (resting his head lightly on the palm of his hand): ‘Snappe, aite neffestunde’25 ‘Schlafen, um acht, neun aufstehen’ means: ‘Sleep, and get up at eight or nine o’clock.’, ‘at eight o’clock, nine o’clock, come down and give me something to eat.’ But he said: ‘Isch arbaitte, isch arbaitte’26 ‘Ich arbeite, ich arbeite.’ Means ‘I work, I work.’. I got up early every morning, you see, Urbano. When he said that, his wife, who was seventy, gave me an egg: ‘Moga nappe fif sekse stunde’27 ‘Morgen schlafen funf, sechs aufstehen’ means ‘Tomorrow, you sleep and get up at six.’. (he points at his mouth) ‘When you get up at five or six o’clock, drink this.’

After that, it wasn’t long before we understood each other. By Christmas I’d been with them fifty days. After three or four months, I understood everything they said to me, and they understood everything I said to them. I stayed there until the 24th or 25th of June of 1944.

This is what happened next. This old man had a younger brother, about ten or twelve years younger, and he worked in an office at the station... At least once a week, sometimes twice, he came to see his brother. He had money, he earned a good wage, but it was difficult to find food, even in Germany, they had nothing to eat. He came to see his brother, of course, but when he left they always gave him a few eggs, half a rabbit… Because we always ate really well there: they had rabbits, hens, big geese. One goose weighed seven or eight kilos, when it was killed a goose would last quite a few days.

The brother and I became friends. He liked a good chat and so do I. He used to ask me questions about Italy, he asked me how we lived, we chatted and we became friends.

At the end of June, the twenty fourth or twenty fifth, no, the twenty fourth or fifth of May 1944, not June, I’m getting it wrong. I’d been there since the beginning of November (he counts on his fingers), November, December, January, February, March, April, May: seven months. Five months in 1944 and two months in 1943. He said to me: ‘Natalino, you know if you had courage, you could find a way to go back to Italy.’

I said to him: ‘Angiolo28 Angiolo is the Tuscan variation of the real name Angelo, so the narrator is Tuscanising the German name of his friend, Engel., when it comes to going back to Italy, I’ve got enough courage for myself and a hundred men besides!’

‘Listen,’ he said, ‘a lorry is going to leave, a convoy of open wagons loaded with coal will go to Florence. The day before it leaves, I have to go and make sure the breaks and batteries are all working properly. If you want, since I always take a shovel with me when I go, I’ll dig a hole for you in one of the wagons at a distance from the station. I’ll dig a hole: there will be time because it doesn’t leave until eleven or midnight. First, I’ll come and fetch you and I’ll cover you up.’

And that is what he did. He came to find me and he covered me up. Coal comes in big lumps, you see, so it wasn’t difficult to breathe. I did think I was going to die in the tunnel between Bologna and Florence though, because it wasn’t an electric train, it was a steam train. I had to breath in that confined space, all that time, but I managed. I was a bit older than twenty, maybe closer to twenty one, and I had not suffered from lack of food, I had eaten well and I was strong.

Return to Florence and the frontline in Casentino29 The beginning of June, 1944. In fact, it was not the end of May but at least the end of the month of June when the escape took place. However, in the conversation already cited that he had with Urbano on the 6th September 2005, Natalino admits that he stayed in Germany eight months (instead of seven), information which confirms his later departure. On arrival at the Saint Maria Novella station in Florence towards the beginning of July, he finds the city still occupied by Germans (Arezzo, 80 kilometres to the south, was liberated by the Anglo-Americans on only the 16th July). The war front becomes busier in Casentino where the allies, climbing up the valley along the Arno, conquer Subbiano and push towards the area between Rassina and Bibbiena: which is why the German kitchens had already been moved from Rassina to Monte, near the Mausolea. The birth place of the narrator, Avena, was evacuated by the German police and because it was situated too close to the Gothic Line. This evacuation took place after that of Banzena on the 5th August. The Gothic Line consisted of a series of defensive fortifications built by the Todt (engineering group) along the 320 kilometres of the Apennines that stretch from Massa-Carrara to Pesaro, that is from Versilia to the Marches. The Gothic Line, ordered by Hitler and Marshall Kesserling, was to maintain an excessive German military presence separating Tuscany from Emilia-Romagna. Following the seizure of Montecassino and the liberation of Rome on 4th June 1944, their aim was to block the advance of the Anglo-American army towards the north of Italy.

I got there, despite all these difficulties. In Florence, I jumped over the wall in Via Luigi Alamanni. There was someone there who I knew, a woman native of Romagna called Marcella who I met when I was a milkman from 1938 to the beginning of 1939 and I delivered her milk. So I went and knocked on her door, and I explained to her that I was all black because I’d come back in a coal wagon. But she opened the door to me, let me have a bath and leant me some of her husband’s shorts and a shirt like the one I’m wearing now (touching his shorts). After that I took the SITA30 SITA was the name of the bus company. bus and came back home.

When I arrived I couldn’t find any of my family. They had taken all of them away and I discovered that they’d all been taken to the Musolea31 The proper name for the farm run by Camaldolese (Benedictine) monks situated between Partina and Soci was the Mausolea but lots of the monks, even Don Antonio Buffadini in his war diary, simplify the ‘a-u’’ to ‘u’. It is worth noting that the narrator does not mention the month he spent doing enforced labour on the Gothic Line as a worker for the Todt (a Wehrmacht organisation), or his escape from the mountain front to Avena when the news came of the evacuation and the enforced deportations, which included his own family. evacuation camp. So I went to the Musolea. They’d been taken there on the eighth or ninth and they were still there. I got them to let me in because I said ‘My father and my mother are both in here!’ Only then they wouldn’t let me out again. To get out again I said to my family: ‘I don’t want to go back to Germany. They will evacuate you.’ They were taken to Santa Sofia, and then on to Reggio Emilia. They didn’t come back until December and they’d been gone since June. I managed to escape via the drainage pipe of the electrical cabin, which they had at the Musolea. It was a pipe where only a little water trickled. I ended up in the middle of the fields. It was across the fields that I arrived at the Front. I passed by the Arno. On the other side of the Arno were the English.

SECOND PART

Human solidarity and the struggle for life

I feel that I’ve had a lot of luck. The reason why I’ve always wanted to help immigrants is because when I found myself in the midst of people who behaved like animals because of their laws and customs, I found someone who saved my life. He was supposed to kill me and he didn’t, and he helped me, gave me advice and confirmed that the road I wanted to take was the right one. He said to me: ‘Take your chance tonight because tomorrow… If you go after ten tonight I won’t be there, it will be someone else and if he sees you at night he will certainly kill you.’ That’s why I believe we should help everyone.

U.C. – On the subject of helping people, you were and still are a blood donor.

I gave sixteen blood donations in six years as a soldier. After that I just carried on. First they gave me the bronze medal, then the silver medal, then the gold medal, but even after I got the gold medal I carried on. The last time I gave blood was when they sent me by mistake, because I was sixty six, though I said: ‘No, take some because I feel fine, I can still give you some.’ Another time, I gave blood in a case of extreme necessity to my brother’s wife, Ilva, (one of your relatives) on the second of September 1961 at Poppi hospital. She had a haemorrhage. On the twenty eighth of the same month, she was still there in the hospital and the haemorrhage returned so they rang here. I can give my blood to anyone. I left straight away and it was Doctor Fiorini, the one who took my blood on the second. He said: ‘No, not you!’ ‘No, I’m fine,’ I said, ‘let’s get started.’ By direct transmission, I gave her blood until she opened her eyes. (he puts his hand on his heart) I did it with love for everyone, not just for my sister-in-law. Quite a few times, I went to Florence to give blood; I went to Sienna: I did it willingly and with pleasure.

To return to my desire to help everyone, I am driven to it because if someone hadn’t helped me, I certainly wouldn’t have returned home.

In Germany, I stayed a little over seven months but it was as if I had a mother and a father. Because that old couple loved me as if I were their own son! And all the other people I came across loved me. On that land where we worked every farmer had a strip of three hundred metres along the river and one kilometre in length, and between one property and another there was a bog road that everyone could use.

When you were working you met people, those from above and those from below. I cleaned the horse well and rubbed it down, so for two hours in the morning it didn’t sweat. Whereas the others, those of the women - because at that time there were no men around, all men in Germany between the ages of eighteen and sixty five had been mobilised – and the women saw that their horses soon started sweating and couldn’t work very well, so they asked my farmer about it. They said: ‘How come your horse doesn’t sweat so soon?’ So he told them about this treatment that I gave it.

The upshot of it was that one evening, after I’d put the horse away, the old farmer told me to go to the farm of the neighbours – there were about three hundred metres between one house and another – to clean the horse and show them how to do it. It was a woman, not a man. I was willing to try and he explained to me, he said: ‘Do you see there, that house down there.’ The woman was already outside her house waiting for me. When I set out, after fifty metres two dogs came up to me..Because on these farms some had one dog, some had two, lots of sheepdogs. .. The old farmer had gone back into the house, so I ran back and said: ‘No, no, no!’ And I made him understand about the dogs. So he came out and took me by the arm and shouted down there. And she came up and took me by the arm and led me down there. We went into the stable and I did for that horse everything that I did for mine. The woman chattered away happily, but I couldn’t understand what she said. I stood there a while, then I tried to explain to her what to do…

Then I said to her: ‘I don’t (he points at his interviewer and opens his mouth) understand you! And you (pointing at himself and then at his ears) don’t understand me! Look, this is what I did.’ (he pretends to stroke the horse’s back) I showed her what to do for the horse. Then I added: ‘And this is what I do to women’ (he comes close to the lens and caresses his cheeks with his hands.). She threw herself on me. I thought she was going to eat me. I won’t say anymore. It’s easy to guess what happened.

A few days later, it was an evening a few days after Christmas, she came to ask me to go with her, to see something. I didn’t want to go, but the others told me to go with her. I went and we crossed the bridge over the river, and twenty metres done the road there was a small hall on the left. To cut a long story short, there were some nuns with some boys between the ages of ten and fourteen years old and they put on a sort of comedy show. However, before going there, she took me to the house of her sister, who was also coming. So we went with the sister and that’s how I got to know the sister as well.

After two weeks, towards the middle of January, she asked me to go and see another of these shows with her. But she said: ‘Nics aite stunde, secs stunde’32 ‘Nicht um acht, um sechs’ meaning ‘not at eight, but at six’. The narrator’s translation is therefore inexact.. ‘We won’t go at eight, we’ll go at seven.’ It seemed she had to go and get the measurements for a dress, or so she made have me understand. So we went. Well she said she was taking me to her sister’s house and that while she went to get her dress I had to wait there until eight o’clock. When she had gone, her sister explained that she was all alone in the house. ‘Aine, I’m all alone.’ She showed me a room on the ground floor. She took me to her room. Basically, what happened with her sister happened with her. Honestly, I was there for eight months and I didn’t lack for anything.

That’s what I wanted to tell you about.

U.C – Just one thing, you said something else about when you were starving on that mountain between Sarjevo and Zagreb, something about the bones that were thrown down the ravine.

Yes, I ate the bones and they were good for me. When they threw the bones of the sheep down the ravine – I waited until they cooled down, which wasn’t very long because there was snow down there. After quarter of an hour, I climbed down the ravine, and I picked up two stones, one large heavy one and one smaller one. I put the bones on top of the stone and I split them with the other, then I sucked out the marrow. I wouldn’t say that the marrow tasted nice but it was nourishing. When I left Yugoslavia they didn’t give us anything to eat at all, so all I had was the berries and the marrow. When I escaped, I walked at least fifteen kilometres during the night, through the undergrowth, and from one thousand eight hundred metres I descended to between two hundred and five hundred metres. I wouldn’t say that I was weak; I was strong and well.

Escape from the evacuation camp and journey to the front

U.C. – Tell us how you escaped from the Musolea down this pipe.

I couldn’t stay at the Musolea. On the other hand, I was familiar with that place; I had served as an intermediary in the affairs of the farmer, Vannini. He had showed me round and I knew that there was an electrical cabin. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘this is the central electricity. The water comes from up there, then it goes down this pipe.’ This pipe down which the water drained away was enormous, at least eighty or ninety wide: if the pipe was as big as this (from a sitting position, he raises his hand to the level of his chest), the water drained away like this (he indicates the level of his knees). So I went along this pipe.

U.C. – Did you go down the length of it? How long was it?

It was about fifty metres, maybe sixty.

U.C. – And where did it finish? In a ditch?

In the middle of the field down there.

U.C. – Was that where you set out from?

Yes, after I had crossed the Arno.

U.C. – This was in June 1944?

Yes. I crossed the Arno. It was about the fifteenth, because I seem to recall that I returned, coming from over there, on about the tenth or eleventh.

U.C. – June or July?

In June. In Avena they’d taken away my family.

U.C. – Yes, I was there!

They’d taken away the whole of the village of Avena two days before33 Given that we are not in June but in August, the succession of events is quite probable. The inhabitants of Avena were in fact evacuated by force, on foot, to the Mausolea (Via la Sova, Ragginopoli and Soci), and on the 10th August the front had already moved along the Arno to the area between Rassina and Bibbiena..

U.C. – Yes, I saw the whole of Avena being evacuated.

Well, I went there because I knew they were there and when I arrived, I said: ‘I’ve come here because when I went back home I couldn’t find my family and I know they are in here.’ And they let me through without asking me any questions. Once I was inside, I said to my family: ‘I can’t stay in here with you.’ So I escaped down the big drainage pipe.

Prisoner of the Allies and writer of oral poetry

When I’d passed the front and crossed the Arno, I came across an English patrol. The English took me to Subbiano, where there was an important command post. Since they were taking me there, they certainly thought I might be a German spy. In the morning the commander wasn’t there. They locked me up. When you arrive in Subbiano, on the left as it was then, there was a roadhouse, it will still be there; they took me there and locked me in a big room. The interpreter came and he said: ‘This evening when the commander returns, he will interrogate you.’

Well, I had nothing to do to pass the time, so I found a crayon in my pocket and there was some paper there and, since in my youth I wrote poetry, I started to write a poem. I was there all day. I can still remember it:

Oh my dear and beloved family

This very day I’m sending you my thoughts

I am locked up for no reason

But I have good memories to dwell on

You know my sentiments

But I still wish to express them

I was waiting for the Allies

To avenge us of all their crimes

I’ll just go back a step: you see, here and at the Musolea, I spoke with the locals, and they told me that on the Montanino there were canons that were fired on Poppi, and killed people. That’s why I wrote:

You can imagine my sentiments

But I still wish to express them

I was waiting for the Allies

To avenge us of all their crimes

When they approached our area

I crossed the frontline, proud and strong

And with the courage of a true soldier

Asked to speak with the Germans

They took me first to Salutio

Then to the great commander at Subbiano

They fired questions at me

To find out where the Germans were

I swear to you that

The canon at Sasso alla Lippa34 At Sasso alla Lippa in Montanino, just as in Cerreta near to Camaldoli, were the cannons of the Gothic Line which fired on the valley of Casentino and on Poppi in particular.

And the other placed at Cerreta

Tomorrow will be destroyed

For now and ever more at Poppi

All will be calm and peaceful

Liberated from those evil villains

Who tried to destroy everything

I believe the whole world

Will soon be at peace again

Every heart will be glad and joyful

When we embrace one another

I think of you all in the family

Especially mum and dear Bruno

Bruno was only three then.

Of all the days and months and years

Without even a kiss from you

At twenty years old, I wrote poems. I even wrote one about when I was nearly gunned down, when only seven out of ten aircraft returned. The next day I was on duty and two days later I was supposed to return to the same place but I never went. Instead, I went to the infirmary.

‘Why?’

‘Because I have a bad head,’ I said to the lieutenant, ‘I am one of the survivors of the White Cross35 The organisation that provides medical assistance for the ill and injured., one of only seven out of ten who returned…on Tuesday night. And on Friday I’ve got to report for duty? I’m not going.’

He said to me: ‘Take this castor oil and drink a glass of it!’

Well, I said to him: ‘You can send me to the military prison in Gaeta36 The oil was castor oil which was a well known method of purgative punishment used by the Fascist regime. if you like but my mother never gave me castor oil and you aren’t going to either. If you’ve got a conscience you’ll give me a day off. If not, do as you wish, send me to Gaeta if you want.’

‘Go and lie down then!’ he said.

I went to the barracks. I had to stay there for a day and I felt inspired to write. I even wrote poetry for my girlfriends and my sisters and my cousins. This is one of them:

Today I am resting and I have nothing to do

I want you to know that I’m in good health

My greatest wish is that you too are well

And that you all think of me a lot

I have nothing else to do but think of you

Just one hour a day when I bathe in the sea with my friends

Sadly, this is how days and months

Months and years, pass us by

This is how young men of twenty live now

Here is another one!

In the American Air Force: the flying fortress37 July 1944 to May 1946. Enrolment in the US Air Force is a move that takes place half way through August.

In the evening, when this commander arrived, he interrogated me and I told him where I had been, what I had done, this and that.

‘Very well,’ he said, ‘I’ll see what I can do. Tomorrow morning I will give you a letter.’

In the morning, he had rung up and organised everything. He said: ‘All I need to do now is write you a note for the Department of Aeronautics.’

The Department of Aeronautics was at Orvieto, not at Rome. They prepared the papers for me to go to the Department of Aeronautics, and once there I found lots of stragglers like me. Two days later, an Italian captain came with two American officials to ask us who wanted to go voluntarily into the American Air Force, because they would give us the same pay that they gave their own soldiers. It was clear they needed flying squad specialists.

I went straight away. From there, I went to Pescara. In Pescara I found Alberto Rabagliati38 Alberto Rabagliati was a famous singer of the time, who was previously a refugee at Lierna, near Poppi., who was in the eighty second squadron of the Flying Fortresses, which was now in Pescara. After about twelve days, we left for Osimo station in the Marches area. Later, when the Americans disembarked at Rimini, the Germans withdrew, and we went to Grado, in the province of Gorizia. I stayed in the American Air Force there for sixteen months39 Given the declarations made by him soon after, it consists of about twenty two months, from August 1944 to May 1946. We must remember that the Allies liberated Rimini on the 21st September 1944., not just a few days, until I requested a transfer. We signed up for six years, you see.

U.C. – What did you do for sixteen months with the American Air Force? Were you always on the ground?

After a fortnight we began to fly over with them to bomb Germany every day.

U.C. – Fortunately the German anti-aircraft had almost been destroyed…

Completely destroyed! The danger was that some days, from the July of 1944, there could be thirty thousand aircraft flying over German at any one time. The German anti-aircraft didn’t exist anymore. The only danger was in the air, there was lots of space but from time to time the tip of an aircraft might touch the tip of another and, you know, once that happened it was difficult to save yourself.

U.C. – Did you often fly in formation?

You know, the wings and the fuselages are all petrol tanks. Especially at take-off. The number of bombs dropped on Germany can never be estimated. In June, or at the end of May, 1946, I requested leave.

Transfer to the Italian Air Force40 June 1946.

I made a request to be released and they transferred me from the American Air Force to the Italian Air Force. The Italian Air Force was based at Padova. I wasn’t exactly in Padova, I was a few miles away at the Villa Oste41 More precisely: Villa Oste, the meteorological centre of Italian military aeronautics.. However, I didn’t stay there long; just a month or a month and a half. Those who had made a request to be transferred were sent to the pilot training school in Galatina, below Lecce. There, I bumped into Colonel Teucci, from Poppi! I went to see him and I spent most of that period with him. I was in the first squadron and he was in the fourth, but it didn’t matter. He used to telephone for me. Galatina is twenty three or twenty four kilometres from Lecce and about thirty five from Gallipoli, which is in Taranto. The officers were free to go out every evening, but the non-commissioned officers seldom went out and since my transfer I’d been a sergeant in reserve. He went out every evening and every evening he took me with him; they wanted me to go with them.

That’s the way things go; you need a bit of courage and a bit of nerve. I didn’t really have the right to go out with the officers; he was a colonel. I learnt from an officer in my squadron that the fourth squadron was under the command of a colonel from Poppi.

‘From Poppi,’ I asked, ‘what’s he called?’

The next day, he said: ‘Teucci.’

‘Oh, I know his brother well,’ I said. It was true that I knew his brother well, the one who lived in Poppi with his mother, because he used to come hunting on my fields42 At that time Natale was a sharecropper for the Brami family in Bibbiena. with the farmer, Gigino Martini. They once had polenta for breakfast with us. So I knew him well, and I thought to myself, I must introduce myself to Teucci; I must arrange to meet him. But he was a colonel in the fourth squadron and I was in the first squadron, so it was tricky. I needed to find a way round it. I thought about it a lot and hatched a plan. I had planned what I would say to this guard:

‘I know that I’m not supposed to speak with him, but could you possibly give him a message?’

‘What do you want me to say to him?’

‘Tell him that there is a certain Agostini from Poppi, who has recently returned from leave, when he visited his house because he is friends with his brother and mother. In conversation with them, he told them he is in the military at Lecce, at the pilot training school, and his mother said: ‘What a coincidence, my son is also down there. When are you going back?’ I said: ‘I’m going back tomorrow morning.’ So she said: ‘If I’d known I would have bought him some of those socks that they need there.’ And I replied: ‘What a shame I’m going back tomorrow.’

In the end, I just told the guard to ask him if he wanted to speak with this boy from Poppi who has been to see his brother and his mother.

When this guy had spoken to him, he said: ‘Of course, come if you like.’

I went but I didn’t recount this story, I told him the truth: that his brother came hunting with me, and I gave him the latest news from home. For the four months that I stayed there, I wasn’t just an airman, I was an officer. I was always having fun, going round with him, out every evening. That’s how things were.

Return to civilian and rural life43 The end of January 1947. The only document in our possession (the number 130 catalogue of the Royal Ministry of Aeronautics, matriculation list) confirms that Agostini, Natale, matriculation number 320164, is released from the special penalty of 30 months and placed on indefinite leave from 10/12 /1946. Then a second hand adds, still in pen but without a date that he was released from the special penalty and passed over to Government category. However things went Natale Agostini’s memory rounds things off at the end of the month (or year) following the start of a new life. Unfortunately, the other dates in the catalogue that refer to Natale Agostini’s serial number do not match up to his memories: another hand, different from the previous two, wrote that on the 8th September 1942 he was taken on as a voluntary airman ‘as a student electrician’ and that on the same day ‘he was sent by special licence without checks to wait for the start of the course.’ Then the same hand wrote that on the 23rd October 1942 he was ‘invoked by this licence’ and sent to ‘Ascoli Piceno to attend the electrician’s course’, except that on the same day the same hand also wrote that he was ‘mobilized in the territory declared in a state of war and the area of operations’!

From there, I returned home. I went home on leave because my poor father was ill. Who would pay for the expenses? Do you know how much I earned every month in 1947, with all my compensation? I took home thirty seven or thirty eight thousand lira a month!

U.C. – Was that good?

What? Was it good? It was an enormous amount!

U.C. – However, you gave it up?

Yes, I had to give it up. I came home and it was me who paid for the two little ones to study, Bruno and Chiara.

U.C. – You were the oldest.

I did the same for my own children. Robert got a diploma in accountancy but if he had wanted to go to university, he could have. Antonio has been the director of a bank for many years, and he is well respected in his field. My daughter teaches at university in France, so obviously they didn’t stop after junior school like me.

U.C. – As I was saying, when you left the service, did you have to pay compensation to the Americans?

Did I have to pay compensation? I told you they paid us as well as they did their own soldiers but only for the duration of service. The Americans gave us flight compensation, an advance at the end of two years, then after the first two years there was an advance. They gave us everything, just as if we’d done service in the Italian Air Force. After being home a couple of months I went back at the end of January, 1947. In March, I was summoned to the headquarters in Rome and they gave me one hundred and fifty thousand lira, the difference between the pay in the Italian Air Force and theirs, you see. I was scared to put it in my pocket!

U.C. – What could you buy with that amount?

You could buy lots of things. Listen, with sixty three thousand lira I bought a complete trousseau for my two sisters, Bruna and Rina, who both got married in 1947. They didn’t have anything. We went to Bibbiena. It wasn’t a luxurious trousseau but it was a good one, not elegant but useful. It was what they needed.

And then with the rest of the money I began to earn more. You know what they say: ‘Where there is a will, there is a way.’ You need the will to work. In 1947 I earned sixty five thousand lira from the wheat harvest. First, I harvested my own wheat, then when haymaking was over, on the second or third of June I went with another three guys to Pian di Ripoli44 Pian di Ripoli is situated on the left bank of the Arno on the extreme south east of the Florence basin.. We harvested there for about ten days. There, we met another farm labourer who had come from Montiloro, near to Le Sieci45 A locality to the south-east of Florence, situated on the right of the Arno., where he also had to harvest on his own farm. The others wanted to go back home but, in the end, me and another guy went to Montiloro, where we harvested for another ten or twelve days. When we got back, we divided the money between us. We had been harvesting for about twenty five days.

U.C. – What did you harvest?

We harvested hay and wheat (he moves his right hand horizontally, as if he were holding the sickle).

U.C. – By hand?

By hand! My God, sometimes we worked until eleven o’clock, even midnight. After, we tied the sheaths in the darkness. In the early hours of the morning when we got up at two or two thirty, our trousers were still warm on our chairs! But we each earned sixty five thousand lira.

With the sixty five thousand lira and the hundred thousand that I still had left, I came home and bought a few pigs, twelve in fact, off Ottavio Cremoli from Corsignano. They were expensive. They were good pigs but they cost a lot. I bought them for sixty five thousand lira, he wanted more, but in the end I said to him: ‘I went harvesting in Pian di Ripoli, then in Montiloro. I harvested for thirty days and I brought home sixty five thousand lira. I don’t have more than that, so I can’t give you more.’ Well, he replied: ‘Someone else offered me the same amount a few days ago but you’re young and I like you, so I’ll give them to you.’ Over a couple of months, their value increased from sixty five, and in the end I got one hundred thousand lira for them because they grew. Since then, I’ve always traded for a living. I worked on the land but I’ve always bought and sold to make a living: seeds, anything. And here we are now, then.

U.C. – Here we are. Today is the…

Tenth.

U.C. – Monday, the tenth of October 2005. At quarter past twelve the cassette has come to an end and, although we have more to say we’ll stop for now.

Oh my God, we’ve been chatting for ages!

  • 1. This version in vernacular Tuscan accompanies the video of the interview on the web section dedicated to audio testimonies. We have tried to remain as faithful as possible to the phonetic, rhythmical, lexical and syntactic features of the spoken language of the orator.
  • 2. The beginning of February 1941. The witness will cite the date of 8th February 1941 many times during the course of the interview (the second chapter) as the date on which he enlisted in the Air Force and started to attend military training school.
  • 3. Urbano Cipriani’s interruptions are in italics and will be indicated by the use of his initials.
  • 4. Diminutive of the proper name Natale.
  • 5. In the concrete sense of the term: one of the tests consisted of falling unexpectedly through a trap door in a space below without losing balance, whilst retaining the ability to follow a series of commands.
  • 6. Of the five years of elementary school, Natale had effectively only completed the first three. In order to obtain the school leaving certificate, he had studied privately.
  • 7. After primary school, the scholastic cycle which follows, middle school, lasts three years in Italy.
  • 8. 8 th February 1941 to 8th September 1943.
  • 9. Derogatory term meaning peasant: ‘le zolle’ are the compact pieces of turf that the labourer turns with the plough.
  • 10. This event took place at least by the end of June 1943 or the start of July because the Allies disembarked in Sicily on 10th July.
  • 11. 8th September 1943. Following the Allies disembarkation at Reggio Calabria, the government of Marshall Pietro Badoglio signed the 3rd September armistice of Cassibile between the Italian army and the Allied armies. The announcement was made on Italian radio on 8th September whilst the Allies took hold of Salerno, below Naples, and the government, Badoglio and the King, took refuge in Brindisi under the protection of the Anglo-Americans. The Italian troops were ill-prepared to face the situation.
  • 12. 8th September or start of November 1943.
  • 13. Italy entered the 1st World War on 24th May 1915.
  • 14. It was Marshall Tito’s partisans.
  • 15. According to a lunar calendar consulted on-line, All Hallows Eve 1943 is a Monday with a thin crescent moon: the first quarter was Friday 5th. The waning probably took place on the 2nd or 3rd of November.
  • 16. Middle of November 1943 to the beginning of June 1944. The witness confirms at various points that he arrived in Germany towards the beginning or middle of November. Various enquiries, kindly carried out for us by Alessandro Tuzza, on the departures of deportation convoys of civilian and military personnel from Trieste train station in November of 1943 indicate that this event took place towards the end of the month. If the Berlin WAST, whom we have approached, could search their Second World War archives and provide us with the residence and work permit issued to Natale Agostini, we could clarify the date of his arrival in Germany and of the town to which he was deported. As for the escape and return to Italy, for reasons which we will describe later, these events must have taken place at least at the end of June of the same summer.
  • 17. The witness confuses ‘Israelis’ with ‘Israelites.’
  • 18. The term ‘Germans’ will never be used by the narrator to refer to civilians but always to the German military.
  • 19. The expression ‘the house of this guy’ is repeated twice but the narrator is not expressing any derogatory sentiments towards the old proprietor by calling him ‘person’, but rather his own uncertainty in defining his precise status, which in his eyes has not been well identified: he chooses ‘old man’, ‘farmer’ or ‘peasant’ rather than using the pejorative term ‘German’.
  • 20. In a previous conversation with Urbano Cipriani, Natalino confirms that it was the town of Bremen on the Danube. But the Danube does not flow through the big industrial city of Bremen, which is situated in the North-west of Germany. Is his testimony therefore confused? In fact, there exists a small town called Hohentengen-Bremen which is sited on a small confluence of the Danube. This is a railway junction that may have been strategic for Baden Württemberg, not far from the carbon deposits, and its rural landscape seems to correspond to that described.
  • 21. That is ‘Goodnight’. Natalino’s German is very inexact, and on a phonetic level, is characterised by his own heavy Tuscan pronunciation (for example, he often adds a vowel at the end of tonic syllable words and truncated words which in German end in a consonant: Nacht –nacche).
  • 22. The term ‘arbeit’ means ‘work’.
  • 23. This verb, with another two variations: ‘nappe’ and ‘snappe’ corresponds to the German ‘schlafen’ meaning ‘to sleep.’
  • 24. ‘Nein, nein. Du morgen schlafen: nicht weg, nicht arbeiten’, means ‘No, no. Tomorrow you must sleep, stay here, don’t work.’
  • 25. ‘Schlafen, um acht, neun aufstehen’ means: ‘Sleep, and get up at eight or nine o’clock.’
  • 26. ‘Ich arbeite, ich arbeite.’ Means ‘I work, I work.’
  • 27. ‘Morgen schlafen funf, sechs aufstehen’ means ‘Tomorrow, you sleep and get up at six.’
  • 28. Angiolo is the Tuscan variation of the real name Angelo, so the narrator is Tuscanising the German name of his friend, Engel.
  • 29. The beginning of June, 1944. In fact, it was not the end of May but at least the end of the month of June when the escape took place. However, in the conversation already cited that he had with Urbano on the 6th September 2005, Natalino admits that he stayed in Germany eight months (instead of seven), information which confirms his later departure. On arrival at the Saint Maria Novella station in Florence towards the beginning of July, he finds the city still occupied by Germans (Arezzo, 80 kilometres to the south, was liberated by the Anglo-Americans on only the 16th July). The war front becomes busier in Casentino where the allies, climbing up the valley along the Arno, conquer Subbiano and push towards the area between Rassina and Bibbiena: which is why the German kitchens had already been moved from Rassina to Monte, near the Mausolea. The birth place of the narrator, Avena, was evacuated by the German police and because it was situated too close to the Gothic Line. This evacuation took place after that of Banzena on the 5th August. The Gothic Line consisted of a series of defensive fortifications built by the Todt (engineering group) along the 320 kilometres of the Apennines that stretch from Massa-Carrara to Pesaro, that is from Versilia to the Marches. The Gothic Line, ordered by Hitler and Marshall Kesserling, was to maintain an excessive German military presence separating Tuscany from Emilia-Romagna. Following the seizure of Montecassino and the liberation of Rome on 4th June 1944, their aim was to block the advance of the Anglo-American army towards the north of Italy.
  • 30. SITA was the name of the bus company.
  • 31. The proper name for the farm run by Camaldolese (Benedictine) monks situated between Partina and Soci was the Mausolea but lots of the monks, even Don Antonio Buffadini in his war diary, simplify the ‘a-u’’ to ‘u’. It is worth noting that the narrator does not mention the month he spent doing enforced labour on the Gothic Line as a worker for the Todt (a Wehrmacht organisation), or his escape from the mountain front to Avena when the news came of the evacuation and the enforced deportations, which included his own family.
  • 32. ‘Nicht um acht, um sechs’ meaning ‘not at eight, but at six’. The narrator’s translation is therefore inexact.
  • 33. Given that we are not in June but in August, the succession of events is quite probable. The inhabitants of Avena were in fact evacuated by force, on foot, to the Mausolea (Via la Sova, Ragginopoli and Soci), and on the 10th August the front had already moved along the Arno to the area between Rassina and Bibbiena.
  • 34. At Sasso alla Lippa in Montanino, just as in Cerreta near to Camaldoli, were the cannons of the Gothic Line which fired on the valley of Casentino and on Poppi in particular.
  • 35. The organisation that provides medical assistance for the ill and injured.
  • 36. The oil was castor oil which was a well known method of purgative punishment used by the Fascist regime.
  • 37. July 1944 to May 1946. Enrolment in the US Air Force is a move that takes place half way through August.
  • 38. Alberto Rabagliati was a famous singer of the time, who was previously a refugee at Lierna, near Poppi.
  • 39. Given the declarations made by him soon after, it consists of about twenty two months, from August 1944 to May 1946. We must remember that the Allies liberated Rimini on the 21st September 1944.
  • 40. June 1946.
  • 41. More precisely: Villa Oste, the meteorological centre of Italian military aeronautics.
  • 42. At that time Natale was a sharecropper for the Brami family in Bibbiena.
  • 43. The end of January 1947. The only document in our possession (the number 130 catalogue of the Royal Ministry of Aeronautics, matriculation list) confirms that Agostini, Natale, matriculation number 320164, is released from the special penalty of 30 months and placed on indefinite leave from 10/12 /1946. Then a second hand adds, still in pen but without a date that he was released from the special penalty and passed over to Government category. However things went Natale Agostini’s memory rounds things off at the end of the month (or year) following the start of a new life. Unfortunately, the other dates in the catalogue that refer to Natale Agostini’s serial number do not match up to his memories: another hand, different from the previous two, wrote that on the 8th September 1942 he was taken on as a voluntary airman ‘as a student electrician’ and that on the same day ‘he was sent by special licence without checks to wait for the start of the course.’ Then the same hand wrote that on the 23rd October 1942 he was ‘invoked by this licence’ and sent to ‘Ascoli Piceno to attend the electrician’s course’, except that on the same day the same hand also wrote that he was ‘mobilized in the territory declared in a state of war and the area of operations’!
  • 44. Pian di Ripoli is situated on the left bank of the Arno on the extreme south east of the Florence basin.
  • 45. A locality to the south-east of Florence, situated on the right of the Arno.
Archive Number:
  • Numéro: MR001
  • Lieu: Centro documentazione guerra e resistenza Biblioteca Rilli-Vettori, Poppi, Arezzo
X
Saisissez votre nom d'utilisateur pour Mémoires de guerre.
Saisissez le mot de passe correspondant à votre nom d'utilisateur.
Image CAPTCHA
Enter the characters shown in the image.
En cours de chargement