Every year on the third Monday in January, in the United States we celebrate a national holiday honoring the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Beginning in 1955, Dr. King was one of the most prominent human rights leaders in America, heading a movement to advance equal treatment of people of color through nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience. As a Baptist minister, he was inspired by his Christian beliefs, as well as the nonviolent activism of Mahatma Gandhi.
Dr. King knew the personal risks he faced, but in an atmosphere of ever-present hatred and threats, he remained steadfast. He was planning a national occupation of Washington, D.C., to be called the Poor People’s Campaign, when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
Italian Heroic Resistance
During the Second World War, not dozens, not hundreds, but thousands of Italian citizens—many of them poor farmers and laborers—risked their lives to practice the type of compassion resistance and civil disobedience Dr. King was later to embrace through their feeding and sheltering of escaped POWs who appeared at their doorsteps.
In a preface to Monte San Martino Trust founder J. Keith Killby’s memoir, In Combat, Unarmed, Giuseppe Millozzi writes of the courageous humanity of these Italians:
“They reached out despite this October 9, 1943 proclamation of Mussolini: ‘Anyone who helps escaped prisoners of war or any enemy by assisting them to escape or by offering them hiding places will be punished by death.’ An evangelical doctrine states, ‘There is no greater love than this: to give up your life for your friends.’ In light of the actions of these Italian peasants, this doctrine might be rephrased to read, ‘There is no greater love than this: to give up your life for your enemies.’ Even though fascist propaganda painted a gloomy picture of the Allied soldiers, these uneducated, simple, and poor farmers were capable of immense courage when they were confronted by these young men. Thanks to their alacrity and kindness, many escapees were saved from deportation. Their selfless actions helped to counterbalance the shame of Italy.”
Today, I remember these remarkable people, just as I pause to remember Dr. King.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day has a further personal significance for me.
It was on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in 2008 that I began camp59survivors.com. The website is 15 years old today!
To date there are nearly 500 posts on the site. Through my research, I’ve made dozens of wonderful new friends—former servicemen interned in P.G. 59, descendants of the POWs and of Italian helpers, relatives of agents active in the I.S.9 rescues, researchers, and archivists.
I’ve found that in spite of the fact 80 years have passed since the escaped POWs were on the run, there is no shortage of interest in this subject. Whereas in the beginning I was being contacted by children, nieces, and nephews of POWs, increasingly I am hearing from grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
My own interest in the POW stories is as keen as ever, and I’m looking forward to the next 15 years.