Archive for September, 2012

Memory of Terror from “Conversations With Claudio”

Friday, September 7th, 2012

I often ran errands for my mother when I was 15 years old, walking the familiar route from our house to the business district of our small town. That morning in 1943, as I passed the cemetery, my eyes were drawn to an unusually large, dark shape atop a wall near the front gates. The typical early-day mist had still not cleared, so I could not quite make out what it was. I went closer. Very soon I would regret my curiosity.

As I drew near the cemetery, the form of a huge man came into focus. Dressed in his Nazi military uniform, he lay face down on the stone wall, dead. I instinctively averted my eyes from this disturbing spectacle, but in doing so caught sight of something else off to the right. Something bizarre and far more horrible. Strangely lined in a row on another low wall were the bodies of several infants, some so tiny they looked as though they had been torn from their mothers before birth. All had still-attached umbilical cords, which dangled between the lifeless babies like snakes amidst prey.

Repulsed, I turned and ran. But as fast as I ran, or have ever run since, memories from that time in my youth are inescapable. After awhile, I learned to put them into safe corners of my mind, where they could exist harmlessly while I faced the day ahead. Some of my experiences lie so deep they are inaccessible. The mind will protect us for the sake of our survival.

And survive I did, through instinct, perseverance, and luck.

The place where I was born and raised – Fiume, Italy – is no longer. Along with countless resources, lives, and dreams, it was lost to the ravages of World War II. Originally a port town in the northeastern part of the “boot” of Italy on the Istrian Peninsula, it was occupied in the early 1940’s by the Nazis, then handed over by the victorious Allied forces to Yugoslavia in 1945. During the upheaval, Fiume and its name vanished. The peaceful and prosperous city where I had grown up was overtaken, disappearing along with my youthful illusions about people and the world.

During my early childhood years, I thrived within the well-defined (or rigid, to be more accurate) structures imposed by my parents, the Roman Catholic Church, and Mussolini’s Fascist regime. My family was considered well-off, as my father was a successful furniture manufacturer and importer. I was never in want of food, clothes, or a warm bed. Our lifestyle, however, was black and white. Personal freedom and individuality were not tolerated if they clashed with obedience to authority. If one is born into a society ordered in this way, rebelliousness is rarely an issue. But despite being quite regulated, mine was a happy boyhood. Certainly I was secure in the knowledge of what was expected of me.

All of this changed around 1939, when the cloud of Hitler’s quest for European domination intruded upon my tightly-controlled world. While still a youth, I witnessed the collapse of Fascism and subsequent occupation by a force even more dogged and brutal: the Nazis. Watching one-time allies become unscrupulous enemies, neighbors being forced to work in German labor camps, and my own brother being unwillingly conscripted into the Nazi army, I became intimately acquainted with “the evil that men do.”

Even now, the sound of planes overhead never goes unnoticed by my mind, which instantly attempts to calculate the aircraft’s size and type. Am I somehow still awaiting the terrifying thunder of a dropped bomb, still wondering how close it will be to where I am standing? In Fiume, we civilians tried to go about our lives as though things were “normal.” But what is normal about random bombings, panicked flights to the crowded shelters, and the constant fear of being mistaken as a Jew? I saw what happened to them in the shadow of the mountain where our shelters were built. Executed point-blank. The location was conveniently close to the cemetery, where piles of bodies were deposited for disposal. Like the shelters, the cemetery was overcrowded.

When the town was handed to Yugoslavia under Tito’s Communist regime, the new party promptly seized the money and property of its citizens, and set about to rid the area of all “enemies of the state.” I was still just 17 and now in a new type of danger. My older brother had already been jailed by the Communists for his former alliance with the Italian military, which had invaded Yugoslavia a few years earlier. I knew that if I stayed there, I would be under rigorous scrutiny and likely also be arrested. One summer day in 1945, I ran to the jail and signaled to my brother with our secret whistle. When I knew I had his ear, I shouted one word: “cut.” I was cutting out of Fiume, by now renamed Redeka, to take my chances as a refugee.

At 5:00 am the next day, I darted covertly through the city, then scaled walls to gain access to the railway. Jumping aboard a freight car headed for Trieste, in the free part of Italy, I possessed nothing but the clothes I was wearing. My adventure in survival as a homeless immigrant had begun.