Archive for October, 2012

Nazi Preoccupation from “Conversations With Claudio”

Thursday, October 4th, 2012

Moving up through PratoOne of the most joyful things about being a kid is the ability to take people and things that happen at simple face value. Having little or no frame of reference for possible long-lasting consequences of any one incident or motives that might underlie others’ behavior, children tend to face life head-on and fully in the moment. When circumstances are extreme, this quality can be a terrific blessing because it spares them a lot of the fear and foreboding experienced by their more apprehensive elders. I have no doubt that it worked to my advantage when I was 13 years old, and the Nazis descended upon my hometown of Fiume, Italy.

It was then that my once-innocent eyes began to take in a more realistic – and forbidding – view of people and the world. I watched as my peaceful, safe, and beautiful Fiume became a city ruled by fear, destruction, and brutality. It was terror of these foreigners, who marched in with that ominous and unmistakable stomp made by the metal in their boot heels striking the pavement. These foreigners forcefully helped themselves to our food, our property, and our lives. All citizens were ordered to surrender anything they owned which would aid the Nazi war effort – pots, pans, utensils, sewing machines, wedding rings, even snow skies. Subject to seizure was anything of monetary value or any items that could be melted down for the iron used to make their tanks, planes, missiles, and other weaponry. Refusal to comply resulted in immediate execution.

Things I had taken for granted up until the start of the war, like always having enough to eat, became poignant memories of a past gone forever. During the occupation, I forgot what bananas and apples tasted like. Most fresh fruits and vegetables were no longer available. White bread disappeared, replaced by the Germans’ coarse, dark loaves. It seemed that I was constantly hungry. There was never enough food, and along with the rest of my family, I became quite skinny.

Was it my childish illusion of immortality, or just plain stupidity that drew me toward the Nazi encampments in our town? Perhaps it was simply starvation. Yes, they had food and we did not. Piles and piles of canned meat, bread, cheese, and rice lay stacked and stored inside a building that had been a small school before the occupation. I knew about it because I was constantly watching the Germans, hating them for their crimes against my relatives, friends, and neighbors, and yet endlessly curious about their activities.

Next to our town’s cemetery, there was a larger building that had also been taken over by the Nazis. It, too, had originally been a school. Rooms once teeming with children learning the fundamentals of reading, writing, mathematics, science, and history, were now dormitories and storage lockers for the implements of Hitler’s war machine. Attached to the building was a large courtyard, which the Germans used for holding the property they had seized from our town’s citizens. Always eager to know what the soldiers were doing, I passed by the encampment frequently. Because of my small stature and thin frame, I had the survival advantage of looking much younger than I actually was. And as a skilled hoop roller, I could deftly send my hoop wheeling onto the grounds “accidentally.” With the excuse of retrieving my hoop, I would run after it into the courtyard. To the Germans, I was all but invisible – nothing more than a small child boy playing with a toy. But my brief time inside the hornet’s nest allowed me full view of the confiscated items and exactly where they were stored.

In my carefully-suppressed angry indignation at the injustice of the Nazis, I joined with my buddies to hatch a plan for stealing back some of our fellow citizens’ rightful belongings. It was a daring and dangerous escapade, which made it all the more exciting in our young, adventurous minds.

Under the cover of night, I and a few others crept through the cemetery and jumped over the wall it shared with the school grounds. Of course, a couple boys were assigned to alert us of any German soldiers that might be patrolling, using a special whistle that sounded like a somewhat convincing owl. We had some success, hoisting a few things, including a shiny pair of snow skis, back over the wall and hiding them amidst clumps of trees and tombstones in the cemetery. But with the thrill of the caper – the exhilaration of dodging the attention of the Nazis and quite possibly their bullets – behind us, we quickly lost interest in our plan to restore the stolen property to needy townspeople. We left those items, which we had literally risked our lives to get, in their hiding places in the cemetery! Sometimes I wonder if they are still there today.

Even more harrowing was my lone effort to steal from the Germans the thing that preoccupied my mind almost constantly – food – from the smaller school building where they had it stored. The biggest problem, besides possibly being shot dead by a Nazi soldier, was that the provisions were kept in a room on the second floor. I was not to be deterred, however. The exterior surface of this brick school building had crevices just deep enough that they could be used as footholds for climbing up the outside wall. Choosing a time when it appeared few soldiers were around, I crept to the back part of the building and climbed two stories up until I reached the window of the storage room. Having made sure beforehand that the window was open, I easily pushed back the pane and flung myself inside.

My plan went awry, however, when my feet landed on something lumpy and rather soft underneath the window. It turned out to be the chest of a Nazi soldier! Dead to the world napping on a cot set there, he was startled awake the moment my feet touched him. He sprang up in shock as I stood watching in paralyzed horror, unable to move or think.

Fortunately for me, the soldier was as scared as I was, because although the Germans were the brutal dominators in our city, they had also suffered several casualties at the hands of oppressed people intent on retribution. Without bothering to even glance my way, the soldier immediately ran out of the room. I wasted no time. Heart pounding, I lept out the window and dropped two stories to the ground below. I’m sure that adrenalin alone powered my getaway after falling so far to the hard-packed earth. Later, though, I regretted not having grabbed any food before my jump.

Had I been an adult, I’m fairly certain I would not have attempted such a feat, even if I were starving to death. I do believe, however, that the more one can retain the child-like qualities of accepting things at face value and living in the moment, the more satisfying and exciting life can be at any age.