Diary of Writing Italy’s Sorrow

Monte Sole, March 22 2003
We got up and after getting completely lost, eventually found Cornelia Paselli’s flat. We also managed to find a florist – arriving with flowers or a bottle of something is not just a common courtesy, but also shows, I think, that I’m not taking their help for granted. At least, I hope it has that effect. Roddy was brilliant at translating. I’d ask a question, he’d translate, then repeat back in English the gist of what she’d said. I scribbled away, but also had the recorder. To begin with started gently, talking about life in her home village in the 1920s and thirties. We talked about her family, and her childhood. All the time I could sense we were building up to the big moment and when it came, she was unflinching. There was not so much as a tear as she calmly told us about being lined up with her mother, brother and two sisters and machine-gunned. She only survived because moments before a German soldier had lobbed a grenade and the blast had knocked her unconscious. When she came to, she was drenched in blood and covered in bodies. Her mother was alive but dying, her younger brother and sister – twins – were dead, and her other sister was just about alive having survived a bullet grazed across her head. She lay where she was from around 9.30am until about 4 o’clock that same afternoon. Both Roddy and I were completely chilled to the core. I have never ever heard anything quite so harrowing in my entire life.

Later we headed to Marzabotto, some twenty miles south of Bologna, where we met up with Anna Salerno. As before, she was incredibly helpful and told of the other appointments she had fixed up: another survivor of the massacre, Francesco Pirini, tomorrow, and then the next day, three former Partisans, all members of the Stella Rossa. Later in the afternoon, Roddy and I drove up into the mountains themselves, booking ourselves into a hostel high on the mountain plain. It’s very beautiful up there. Sixty years ago, this was home to a number of villages – or rather, clusters of farmhouses. All are now ruined. We went to the remains of San Martino then to Casaglia, beneath Monte Sole. Within the trees and undergrowth you can see the remains of old buildings, now ruined. We saw a car and an old man placing a wreath on one of the buildings. Perhaps it was just me, but I felt a very real sense of sadness still hanging over the place. It was so quiet and still and so devoid of human life any more. We saw the ruin of the church where Cornelia Passeli and her family had huddled before being marched with 170 others to the cemetery, then walked on to the cemetery itself. It’s only a couple of hundred yards further on from the church, and, I imagine, largely unchanged since those terrible events all those years before. The old man caught up with us and placed another wreath on the iron gate of the cemetery – the same gate, presumably, through which the Germans had wheeled their machine gun.
I looked up at the summit of Monte Sole, clearly visible. Cornelia had said her father had seen the executions from up there and I could understand how he would have become demented seeing what he had. We both felt rather depressed when we left.

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