On a sunny morning late last September, Marino Palmoni and his son Antonello took a group of us to see the area of Montefalcone Appennino where, during World War II, the Palmoni family sheltered escaped prisoners of war.
Along for this tour were: Anne Bewicke-Copley and David Runciman (who own a home in Montefalcone), Aat van Rijn (from the Netherlands, now a resident of Montefalcone), Steve Dickinson (visiting from England), and Mark Randolph and I (visiting from the United States).
The road to the Palmoni home—Casa Palmoni—in Montefalcone Appennino, Italy.
Casa Palmoni and the Marziali Property
This is the house where the Palmoni family lived for over 100 years. There were over 20 people living in this house during the war: Mario’s grandparents—Iginia and Luigi Palmoni—Luigi’s four brothers and their wives, and all their children.
They were contadini—sharecroppers working on the property of the rich Marziali family. The Palmonis didn’t own the house.
Marino remembers—as a boy—taking food to the prisoners who were hiding in the woods above his home. His family looked after four of the prisoners who stayed with them in the house—two English soldiers and two Americans (Louis VanSlooten and Luther Shields).
Above right, and below—the Villa Marziali.
Translating for Marino, Anne explained, “This is the Villa Marziali—this is where Marziali, the padrone—or landlord—lived. He was a Facist by day and a Partisan by night.
“They were in a difficult position. The Allies were coming up, Germans and Fascists were around. You basically needed to butter your bread on both sides.”
While we were admiring the house from the road, the current owner of the property—a British woman who had been gardening nearby—joined us.
She explained, “It’s a pity we can’t go in because it’s having quite a lot of work done, but there’s an incredible room in the house. The lady of the villa, because she was scared, had a safe room built upstairs where she barricaded herself in.
“It has an incredible door that she had made. It’s absolutely huge—and thick. And it has about three different locks. She was obviously terrified.
“Also, she wouldn’t spend the night alone in the villa. She basically purloined a contadino to spend the night in the villa with her—she didn’t have any children.
“Or perhaps sometimes a nephew spent the night. And that was why there was a nephew in the villa when the Partigiani arrived one night. The nephew didn’t recognize the Partigiani and so he shot at them and wounded a man.
“The Partigiani were at the opening to the tunnel just above on the hillside. They opened fire and covered the villa with bullet holes.
“In the villa there were little hiding places everywhere—in every alcove, every cupboard—behind a loose bit of wood they hid their gold coins or whatever.
“When we were first shown the house, it was explained to us, ‘They were not Facists because they were Fascists. They were Fascists because they were rich.’
“If you were any sort of a professional you had to be a member of the Fascist party. Otherwise you didn’t get any work.”
Marino said one of the POWs—Louis VanSlooten—was an engineer, and he did a beautiful drawing of the Villa Marziali. But no one knows where the drawing is.
There was a path from the house up to the tunnel where a lot of the contadini made holes—they excavated little caves for themselves where they would hide either grain or arms or other things of value that they didn’t want the Germans or others to take.
The Marziali barn. Beneath this barn, as is often the case, there is another floor, which was the cantina—the wine cellar.
At one time the Partigiani raided this barn. They opened the door and took the grain while the Fascisti were shooting at them.
As Marino explained in an earlier post about experiences, “Marino Palmoni on the Sheltering of the POWs“:
“The barn, located in front of the house, had been stocked with about 2,000 quintals of wheat on order of the Fascists and local authorities. This wheat would be used as provisions for the Nazi forces.
“On the night between February 1 and 2, 1944, the resistance forces raided the barn in an attempt to distribute the grain to the starving population. But, at first light of dawn the mayor and the Fascist men came firing and many were wounded or killed. Many fathers of families were caught and imprisoned for several months.
“Luther and Louis, escaped that night into the woods, and took refuge with the Corradini family in the nearby village of Smerillo, about five kilometers from our home.”
This post-war house stands beside the old Palmoni home.
Not far from the other buildings is a newer house, which the landlord built after the war. People were beginning to leave because the land didn’t give them enough to live on. And they were slightly more educated, so they could get along elsewhere.
All of the brothers and the younger relations were leaving, and the grandmother said we might as well leave, because it’s too much for us. But the landlord, in order to persuade her to stay, built this house. She didn’t move—she stayed where she was—but one of the brothers moved into the new house and he ended up being the manager for all the land owned by the landlord. So this was a bribe, in effect, to get them to stay.
The new house didn’t have running water or electricity—it just had fire for heating and cooking and that was it.
Anne explained, “It was very common after the war for people to abandon those older houses because the new ones that were built were considered better. They are scattered all over the place—these concrete houses. We think the old ones are marvelous, but the Italians liked the new ones because they often had modern conveniences.”
The landlord’s wife left all her money to a convent. She didn’t have any family and she desperately wanted to endow her chapel. While she was alive she apparently didn’t do a thing for anyone.
The property owner kindly allowed us into the older Palmoni home. We entered the ground level of the house, which used to be the stables.
Left to right: Mark, Anne, Antonello, and Steve in the stables.
The depression in the wall at center is the alcove beneath the stairs where the prisoners hid.
The owner explained, “This is—as you can see—the stables. In this side room is where the men were hidden. There used to be stairs going up into the house from the stables and this niche was almost like a cupboard under the stairs. Here they stored the hay for the animals. There were four of them hiding in there—two English and two Americans—with hay in front of them, covering them. That’s where they slept.”
Anne, Marino, and Aat walk a trail on the hilltop.
From the Palmoni house, we drove up the back side of the hill to the area where the prisoners hid in caves.
Anne translated for Marino, “The padrone used to cook up a great big saucepan of beans and then he’d call a contadino to take it up to the prisoners who were hiding up here.
“Lots of men used to just appear out of the woods to eat in the open. There was a small field up here that people were cultivating. They came up to collect wood as well. There is no field now, as the area has grown over with woods.
“At that time every piece of land was cultivated. You could see more because of the lack of trees, and even the woods were cleared of anything that got in the way. Now it’s all over-grown, but during the war it would have been clearer.
“This is the nearest woods to Servigliano. When the prisoners left the camp they followed the Tenna River. There were woods on both sides, so if they came up from the riverbed into the woods on one side they ended up in Smerillo or Montefalcone Appennino, and if they took the other woods they ended up in Monte San Martino—which is where Keith Killby* turned up.”
*<em J. Keith Killby, a former prisoner of war, is a founder of the nonprofit Monte San Martino Trust. The trust awards English language study bursaries to young Italians, in recognition of the courage and generosity of the Italian people who aided escaping Allied prisoners.
Views from the hill. In the second photo the original Palmoni home, the post-war house, and the Villa Marziali are barely visible between the two roads.
“There is a trigonometry point on this hill because we are 1,000 meters above sea level here,” Anne said. “Isn’t this a fantastic view?
Marino, Anne, and Steve at the entrance to a cave on the hilltop.
After the trip to Italy, I sent Louis VanSlooten’s son Tom a few notes about the visit and a few pictures—including photos of the cave.
Tom wrote back, “I showed your pictures to my Dad last night and he was very excited to see them. The picture of the cave with the stones in front of it he recognized as well.
“He said that when they hid there they had many of the stones inside the entrance so that once inside they could stack them up to close off the entrance, making it look like nobody could be inside.
“While hiding in one of them, a local student brought them some food, and this student found out from conversation that my dad had engineering experience. Well, this student was enrolled in an art class and had an assignment where he had to turn in some drawings. He told my dad that engineers can draw and if he didn’t do the drawings for him, he would turn them in to the Germans in the area.
“My dad did the drawings, but after he finished them he and Luther didn’t stay around to find out if the student passed the class with dad’s drawings. My dad often wondered what grade he received on those drawings.”
Marino, Antonello, and Anne. This hilltop, now heavily wooded, was cultivated during the war.
“Everyone used to basically walk up the side of that cliff,” Anne said. “There were very steep paths that they made to come up here.
“But now the rains have washed them all away. If people aren’t using them they disappear in time.”
An Earlier Visit
Iginia and Luigi Palmoni, with Louis VanSlooten (left) and Luther Shields (right).
In January 2008, Ian McCarthy of Casa della Memoria in Servigliano first located the Palmoni home. He took a few photos for Tom VanSlooten that day and talked with Giuseppe Palmoni (Marino’s cousin).
Giuseppe Palmoni in the stables beneath Casa Palmoni.
Giuseppe told Ian that he remembers his family taking food to the escaped prisoners when they were hiding in caves in the rock face above. He was three years old at the time, but remembers that the men called him Joe.
As mentioned above, the widow Marziali left the property and the houses on it to an order of nuns. The nuns, now old, had decided to sell the property. Giuseppe confirmed that an English couple had purchased it.
On receiving the photos, Tom wrote to Ian, “We had my parents over last night for dinner. My father confirmed that this is the house where he stayed and was helped by the Palmoni family for approximately three months in late 1943.
“He remembers Giuseppe Palmoni. He said Giuseppe would always follow Luther around and wanted to be picked up and held, and that Giuseppe was fascinated by the pigeons that were always around where the oxen were kept. He would point at them and say “pigeon” in Italian over and over again.”
Tom continued, “In the photo of the small building with part of the roof missing, my father also remembers an old car that was kept there. He said it was old, maybe from the 1920’s, but it was in nice condition.
“He thought to himself that someday he would go back and buy that car. A young man and his dream of car ownership, imagine that….”