“A Symbol of the True Italy”


First page of Guido Calogero’s essay

Researcher Brian Sims discovered the following essay, entitled “The Handful of Flour,” among the files of the Allied Screening Commission (Italy) in the British National Archives at Kew.

The task of the Allied Screening Commission was to investigate and acknowledge Italians who helped escaped Allied prisoners-of-war.

The purpose of this essay among the commission’s files is not entirely clear to me. Although it includes information about a particular Italian “helper,” Nunziata, the essay doesn’t seem to be intended as justification for a specific recognition or compensation. Rather, it seems a broader appeal to the commission to exercise fairness and generosity in their task.

Brian wrote, “What ‘Handful of Flour’ tells me is that the peasants gave what they really couldn’t afford to, while such people as businessmen gave several thousand Lire without too much ill effect on their everyday life.”

The sacrifice is best measured not in what was given, but rather in “the cost to those who gave.”

Translation in areas of the essay seems a bit awkward, but the sentiment of Calogero’s message rings clear.

Guido Calogero was an Italian philosopher and essayist.

Read a Wikipedia biography of Calogero in Italian, or translated into English.

The Handful of Flour

In the Autumn of 1943, some groups of friends went into hiding in the mountainous zone of the Abruzzo, which surrounds the lake of Scanno. The Germans had already placed garrisons in the villages, and the proclamations in two languages menaced the destruction of the houses and the families where Allied prisoners were found being sheltered. However, the prisoners liberated on 8th September from the Concentration Camp of Sulmona continued to pass through the mountain paths, stopped over in the houses, proceeded towards the South. And I was often taken for one of them. “Lordship do you wish to stop?” the mountaineers used to ask me (down at Anversa red posters announced the execution that had taken place of a shepherd who had given something to eat to come prisoners in his hut). “Come and eat a little bread and cheese with us. We are friends of the Americans.” I tried to use my best Abruzzo accent to convince them that I was Italian. But they looked at me with unbelief, and almost rancor, as if I had shown that I did not trust them.

Desire of gain in this proffer of theirs? But the prisoners, most of them, did not have a penny in their pockets. Desire to create merit for themselves, to have a “written paper”, an address, to show later to the Allies, to use perhaps as a pretext to have one day the permission to return to work in America? But written pieces of paper were dangerous, the shepherd of Anversa had been shot just because he had kept in his pocket a small piece of paper with some addresses, and therefore nobody could wish to have them. Their attitude did not depend upon motives of immediate interest. Certainly, it could not be explained either as a consequence of a real political convincement. They understood little of interior politics, and still less of International politics. They understood that Mussolini had brought great troubles, that for this bad government many people in the world had been compelled to kill, and to suffer, and to die, that the Germans had come to steal and to kill, and that it was necessary to help those who wished to escape them. But above all this was the great, unconcerned Homeric sense of the sacred right of the guest, of the stranger, who has things against him, and must be protected.

In this sense the humble people of shepherds and Italian peasants gave then to the world a proof of civilization, which should not be forgotten, beside the other offers made by the partisans and the politicians. This moral revolt was anonymous: also in this its disinterest was shown. Neither will we tell, therefore, the name of that small part of the country of the Abruzzo, where the number of prisoners was so vast, sheltered in farm houses, and in huts, and in grottoes in mountains, that the intervention of single persons could no longer be sufficient to sustain them. Then the women who went to the mill to grind wheat, decided each one, to leave behind, from each one her own bag, a handful of flour for the bread of the prisoners. This place taxed itself with a tithe of a new kind, the small Abruzzesi had to stay their hunger, to avoid fair young men from Scotland, and gigantic Negroes from South Africa from perishing from inanition in the grottoes of the Genzana. And the Allies, yes, were able to receive signals and to throw down supplies with aeroplanes. However, almost always the parachutists finished up in the hands of the Germans. Who, if they had known how things were going would have had the locality evaluated or burnt down. But the women continued peacefully to give their handful of flour.

This high womanly serenity was one of the characteristics of the reaction against the Germans and of the help to the Allies. We knew of the firmness of the Italian women in the face of police methods of fascism, of arrests, and of proceedings, and of cross-examinations of themselves and of their relatives. But we could have thought that only women who had been able to reach a high grade of political education were so, whether they belonged to families of “subversive” working people or to antifascist intellectuals. The period of German occupation has taught us what our women are capable of doing, also only for a spontaneous sense of defense of life, and of human dignity against any abuse of power.

I will never forget the mother of a family of marchigiani peasants, from the area of Fermo. She was a peasant, she had a master: but nobody could have been more worthy of the title of mistress, of ladyship than she. She did not reign only, with Homeric power, over her children, her daughters-in-law, her grandchildren. She reigned also, with no less authority, over all the unbelievable guests of the house: English officers and non-commissioned officers in uniform, who slept by day and operated by night; Italian agents of Transportation Service for Allied prisoners; prisoners of all ranks and races, from English generals to Italian aviators. A certain number of beds of the house, and huge plates of macaroni were always at the disposal of the guests. Who changed continually, came and went, and spread themselves in the houses of the peasants of the area, each time after vainly waiting for the boat on the beach (sometimes under fire of the German patrols against the partisans who kept guard and awaited the replenishment of ammunition from the same boat) and it was necessary to return and find shelter. Thus it happened, one night, that we were guests in the rich villa of a count, and the next night we slept on straw of the stable of one of his peasants.

But of all this coming and going the house of Nunziata remained the headquarters. The fascist squads were around: at Grottazzolina they had fired against prisoners and against their hosts: but Nunziata did not worry about this. Her peacefulness was contagious. She faced the most embarrassing situations with her incomprehensible “marchigiano” and noisy laughter. Sometimes one had to either hide the tommiguns or hold them ready for use: but Nunziata went down and found the most gay pretexts to send away in a few minutes, the fascist secretary of the nearby village, who had come on a round of inspection. Her strength, after all, lay in her humane friendliness: she had no enemies and therefore did not fear any information being given against herself. And when P., one of the secret agents got ill with typhoid and I had to stay behind to assist him, and with great envy we saw the others leave in a sailing boat, Nunziata took care of him as if he were her son. P. was Italian, but in delirium spoke in English, and one could not foresee what he would have said in his delirium. Nunziata, however, never lost her smile. She used “tu” (thou) to everyone, without distinction to generals or soldiers, to Italian professors or Palestinian sergeants; after all she did not worry about knowing our true names. But her favourite was L., the Chief of the organization. If she had had a daughter ready, she would have given her to him as a wife.

The “marchigiana” peasant woman, the countess with snow white hair, who with so much indulgence poured out tea to seven English generals, awaiting to escape, while her husband exhorted her to fight against not only fascist imperialism, but also Angle-Saxon imperialism, the dressmaker of Sulmona, organizer of resistance to prisoners liberated from the Badia, are women who belong now to only one family. The common battle has brought them together, remembrance of them is scattered all over the world. On the other side of the seven seas, many men will remember their faces, the same way as others will not forget the faces of the guides who brought them to safety beyond the snows of the Maiella.

Now and again, requests for indemnity for expenses incurred reach the Allied officers of the Screening Commission. The officers know that there are deceivers, that he who produces the greatest number of documents is often the person who has made the most calculations to use them, and for the sake of prudence the decisions are protracted. With impeccable qualms of procedure, they to not even believe the attestation of members of the High Court of Justice. Perhaps they think that in this field it is very difficult to do justice, and therefore they prefer to do as less as possible.

But the Italians who have risked their lives to help Allied prisoners, and who today find themselves in poverty, rarely ask for money. They most they do is to ask for work. Also, in this they are a symbol of the true Italy.

Guido Calogero.

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