Italy’s Death Camp

Yet again, and just within the space of a couple of weeks, we wake up to the news of another terror attack in the UK. Six innocent people are dead, many are injured and three suspects are shot dead by the police. The area of London Bridge and Borough market is well known to both my wife and I. We’d both worked in the area in the past and enjoyed our leisure hours experiencing this lively and historic area of London, famous not only for the glorious gothic of Southwark cathedral but for being the capital’s original theatre land where Shakespeare ‘s ‘Hamlet’, for example, was first performed in 1609.

My thoughts clearly go out to the victims and their families in this utterly pointless act of horror. Italy has luckily been free of Islamist terrorism. But, as we all know it’s had dark periods in its history, largely involving extreme right and left wing fanatics. Only yesterday we hear on the news of seven assassinations in ten days of camorra-members, some killed in front of their own children.

The 1970s for this country was an especially violent era. Italians refer to that period as ‘gli anni di piombo’ (the lead – bullet – years).  ‘Strage’ is a common enough Italian word: it simply means massacre.  The Bologna station strage of 1980 killed 85. The strage of the 904 train in 1984 killed 16 including a 9 year old girl. I’ve mentioned this strage in my post at  . This is because we had to alight at the station at the entrance of the tunnel where the massacre occurred in order to attend to our wrecked car also done in within a tunnel last month – an incident which almost involved us in our own mini-strage. …

The list of stragi goes on and on. There’s a full list of the major post-war Italian ones at

Ironically, it seems that Italy is pretty good at massacring its own people without needing help from foreign sources.

When it comes to stragi committed during the Second World War the list is too horrific to contemplate. For Lucca Province and just for the years 1943-45 there’s the following list of ‘stragi’:

  1. Valpromaro, 30 giugno 1944, 12 victims
  2. Bagni di Lucca, 18 July 1944, 13 victims
  3. Monte S. Quirico (Lucca) – Montemagno, 27 July 1944, 6 victims;
  4. Nocchi di Camaiore, 27 July 1944, 3 victims;
  5. Mulina di Stazzema, 8 August 1944, 12 victims;
  6. Balbano, 11 August 1944, 13 victims
  7. Nozzano (loc. La Sassaia), 11 August 1944, 7
  8. S. Anna di Stazzema, 12 August, about 400 victims;
  9. Capezzano, 12 August 1944, 6 victims
  10. Seravezza, 16 August 1944, 7 victims;
  11. S. Maria a Colle, 23 August 1944, 6 victims;
  12. S. Lorenzo a Vaccoli, 24 August 1944, 5 victims;
  13. Camaiore (loc.- Matanna), 25 August 1944, 7 victims;
  14. Orto di Donna (Castelnuovo Garfagnana), 25 August 1944, 7 victims;
  15. Balbano-Compignano, 2 September 1944, 12 victims
  16. Massaciuccoli (Molinaccio), 11 victims;
  17. Certosa di Farneta, 2 -10 September 1944, 40 victims,
  18. Pieve di Camaiore, 4 September 1944, 10 victims
  19. Pioppeti (Camaiore) 35 victims
  20. Massarosa, 12 September 1944, 5 victims;
  21. Viareggio, 14-15 September, 6 victims;
  22. Pietrasanta, 15-16 September, 15 victims;
  23. Castelnuovo Garfagnana, 23 September 1944, 13 victims
  24. Seravezza, loc. Ranocchiaio, 27 September 1944, 5 victims;
  25. Seravezza, loc. La Cappella, 18 October 1944, 4 men 1 child
  26. Piazza al Serchio, 1 February 1945, 6 victims

Bagni di Lucca suffered thirteen executions during the guerrilla warfare between partisans and Nazi-fascist forces but this number pales before the horror of the four hundred victims of Sant’Anna di Stazzema, all women and children killed in cold blood by Nazi-fascists. (I’ve described this strage, one of the worst in the whole Italian civil war, in my post at )

My family also suffered a strage. My mother, of Italian origin, had her cousin and her newly-wed husband on her mother’s side slaughtered by Nazi-fascists in Piedmont in 1944.

I’d visited the Nazi concentration and death camps of Auschwitz, Birkenau and Dachau earlier this century and thought that they were all located in the territory controlled by the Third Reich. It came, therefore, as a hideous surprise that Italy too had its large-scale concentration camps. I was aware of collection centres for what in Nazi ideology were known as ‘untermenschen’ – sub-humans (i.e. Jews, gays, Jehovah’s witnesses, and LGBTs). There’s one centre commemorated by a memorial quite near Bagni di Lucca at Socciglia and one even nearer at Bagni’s terme. (See my post for those at ).

Italy had eight concentration camps .These were at

With the exception of the last all the camps were centres of deportation to the Reich’s killing centres at such locations as Sobibor, Belzec, Treblinka and Birkenau.

The Risiera di San Sabba, located in the industrial quarter of Trieste, was Italy’s only death camp where the detained were shot, hanged or gassed. After the 1943 Cassibile armistice, which theoretically ended the war between Italy and the allies, the country was divided into three parts.

The first, southern, part came increasingly under allied control as the Eighth army (in which my father was a tank driver) advanced like a red-hot rake up the Italian peninsula. The second part became the puppet republic of Salò under the restored dictatorship of Mussolini. The third part, which included the provinces of  Pordenone, Udine, Trieste, Gorizia, Pola, Fiume and Lubiana  (the last three now part of Slovenia and Croatia) became the  Operationszone Adriatisches Küstenland, otherwise known as OZAK, under the direct control of the Führer himself.

‘Risiera’ means a rice husking mill and, like so many things associated with Italy, and particularly with Trieste, its transformation from a factory into a death camp remained unmentioned until the truth came out in the 1960’s when the Risiera was declared a national monument to the memory of those killed by extremist ideologies.

I took the no 10 bus from Trieste’s Piazza Goldoni, alighting at Lidl, and walked to this gloomy place as I too wanted to pay homage to the victims of this saddest part of Trieste’s history.

The entrance to the death camp was nightmarish. I’ve never had such a feeling of inevitability and imprisonment. Here was the entrance to the abandonment of all hope for Trieste’s Jewish population, its political opponents, its Romanies, in other words its ‘untermenschen’.


I entered the death cell.


I also saw these specially built cells where up to half a dozen prisoners were crammed in each one awaiting their fate which, although it could be forced labour, always ended up in assassination in the Risiera or transportation to a more efficiently provided extermination camp like Treblinka with its more advanced extermination technology.


Other prisoners were kept in the block called the house of the crosses. It originally had three floors but the planking dividing the floors has been removed creating a poignantly stunning effect.


In the centre of the Risiera is a large courtyard where the furnaces used to stand. The retreating Germans blew them up at the end of April 1945 in an attempt to leave no trace of their holocaustic activities (just like they attempted to do at Birkenau II where the crematoria I saw there had collapsed but still discernible in their concrete rubble.

Execution was by three main methods,

  1. Firing squad.
  2. A blow on the head with this mace (only rediscovered during excavations in 1975)

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  1. Gassing, largely by placing the victims in a sealed hut which was then fed by a tube connected to a lorry’s exhaust. Zyklon-B may have also been used.

Not all detainees were killed here, however. Trains using the excellent Hapsburg railway system transported the prisoners, mainly to Auschwitz, Mauthausen and Chelmno.

In place of the blown-up crematoria there is a symbolic sculpture by Frattini.


In place of the gassing chamber there is a large metal-floored square with a memorial, always full of flowers.

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In another detention building there’s a museum which has been very well re-presented recently and displays the history of one of Italy’s most horrific places together with relics and witness statements.


There’s also a film of Mussolini inaugurating the promulgation of his ‘leggi razziali’ (racial laws) to keep up with his mate Adolf. Unbelievably, Benito declared this edict of shame from the balcony of Trieste’s own town hall in 1938. Trieste of all places! Trieste, cosmopolitan, welcoming, with a place of worship for every community that had settled in it: Armenians, Russian Orthodox, Valdensian, Greek Orthodox, Muslims, Anglicans, Catholics… Trieste where so many different communities lived in harmony.  And all this happened in the same year that the mayor of Trieste was Paolo Emilio Salem, a Jew!


The commander of the Risiera  was SS officer Odilo Globocnik, born in Trieste, who worked in close collaboration with chief co-ordinator Reinhardt Heydrich who formulated the ‘final solution’ at the infamous Wahnsee conference of 1942. (‘Operation Reinhardt’ exterminated around 1.2 million Jews).



Globocnik avoided capture and trial at the end of the war by swallowing a cyanide pill. Bastard!

I thought of the once-multicultural Syria, now a daily blood-bath, and my thought swam down into the maelstrom of the darkest dejection. And today I find that, yet again, another multicultural, multi-ethnic city – a city I was born and bred in, a city which gave me my education, helped me gain my daily bread, provided me with my beautiful wife, a city which still remains so essentially in my heart, is being newly threatened by tenebrous, evil forces.

Why? Why? Why?


Star Wars in North-East Italy

Of all Italian fortified towns Palmanova is, literally the country’s star attraction. Not only is it one of the world’s most perfect examples of a city’s defence system, it is actually built as a nine-pointed star as this aerial plan reveals.

Lucca has some fine walls but they were built to enclose an already existing city. In the case of Palmanova, however, which is in the north-east Italian region of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, the city was built as a new fortified location at the end of the sixteenth century on plans by the great architect Scamozzi who was inspired by neo-humanist ideas of the ideal city and sketches by Leonardo da Vinci himself. The actual construction was supervised by Giulio Savorgnan who also built the walls still standing in Nicosia in Cyprus. (Anyone who has read Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ will know of the battles that island had to withstand against the Turk).

Palmanova itself was not only another defensive post against the Turk but also against the Hapsburgs who had captured the Venetian outpost of Gradisca some years earlier. ‘La Serenissima’, Venetian republic had to safeguard its unsafe eastern frontier against two enemies and Palmanova was never actually attacked by either Ottomans or Austrians. Indeed, the city was like a renaissance equivalent of the H-bomb: it served as a deterrent and was only captured through internal treachery by Napoleon’s troops in 1798 –an action which led to the infamous treaty of Campoformio and the death of one of the world’s most illustrious republics – something which still grieves every true Venetian to this day.

Palmanova is built on mathematical principles and, in particular, on the number three. There are three concentric walls and within these walls there are three radial streets. There are three entrance gates:  (Porta Udine, Porta Cividale, and Porta Aquileia).

Each of the three roads leads to a central monumental six-sided square which has to be one of Italy’s most spectacular piazzas ever. Just to stand in the centre of this stupefying square was one of the greatest sensations I’ve ever had in any of Italy’s extraordinary cities.

Each of the three outer walls contains nine bulwarks and various state-of-the art fortifications which are ample proof of the increasing efficacy of fire-power throughout the seventeenth century. For example, there are ravelins – triangular free standing platforms – standing against the walls, a system of ditches and hidden forts and, above all, a high-standing steep-sided brick and earth rampart which actually hides the city from public view. Indeed, even the main square’s cathedral campanile is specially shortened so that it doesn’t stand out to view by any potential enemy. If you don’t look out for the signs leading into Palmanova chances are you’re likely to miss it!

I’d pored over maps of Palmanova years before I actually reached it last month during our peregrinations in Friuli and was quite stunned by this mixture of a starred fortified town combined with the ideals of a symmetrical renaissance Albertian city.

The cathedral is the most notable building in the main hexagonal ‘square’. Designed by Scamozzi it contains the body of Santa Giustinia, a beautiful maiden who is the town’s patron saint.

It seems so ironical that this astounding city of Palmanova was built in the spirit of military enterprise. How could such a beautiful place be combined with all the engines of war in those ages? One has just to look at the present examples of nuclear missile bunkers and radar installations to realise that Palmanova, despite all its beauty, is on the same trail that has led to the terrible lottery of defensive mechanisms that the world now has. But, at least Palmanova is lovely whereas a nuclear bunker is not!

As we exited the triple arches of the porta Aquileja I could not help being reminded of those lines recited by the Moor of Venice:

O farewell,
Farewell the neighing steed, and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, th’ ear-piercing fife;
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!
And O you mortal engines, whose rude throats
Th’ immortal Jove’s dread clamors counterfeit,

War and Love

On the road from Florence to Pontassieve is what Rudyard Kipling described as a city of silence. It’s the Commonwealth cemetery for those who fell in the campaign to liberate the beautiful country of Italy from the scourge of Nazi-Fascism. I visited it last week during my visit to the city of the Lily. Among the English, Welsh, Irish and Scottish there were many from India and Nepal:

King George V said ‘One Could Truly Say that the whole world is surrounded by the tombs of those fallen in war. I’m convinced that even in the years to come there will be no stronger evidence of the need for peace than this multitude of silent witnesses of the desolation brought by war.’

These words never ring truer than today when over half the news we hear daily is about war. At this moment there are twenty conflicts happening the world which are defined as wars according the Uppsala definition (over one thousand deaths per year). Four of the them have caused over ten thousand deaths last year alone with cumulative fatalities of two million in Afghanistan, one million in Iraq and over half a million in Syria so far.

The cemetery near Florence has a particular resonance, not just because of its silent witnesses but because it collects together Commonwealth soldiers from the allied Fifth and the Eighth armies which worked their way up the Italian peninsula in often impossible situations of steep Apennines and bridge-destroyed rivers. My dad was a tank driver in the Eighth army and was lucky enough to survive although so many of his comrades didn’t make it.

Love and War is an oxymoron of strange power. Indeed, out of war for my father came love as he met and married an Italian Red Cross nurse. I would not be writing this otherwise…

Let us meditate in these difficult times on the names of those who died in these places so that we can today travel and enjoy the wondrous loveliness of Italy in tranquillity and happiness. As I spent my time walking by the lines of tombstones, simply but exquisitely carved out of Carrara marble with the names of those who died and their regiment and some whose name was known only unto God, all lined up in a beautiful greensward between the road and the banks of the Arno, I could only wonder at how the senseless and pitiful activity of war can still continue in so much of the world today.


Salt waves shall break but I won’t catch their sound:

the peace that comes to cease all war, all strife

will be a limpid lake in sacred ground

where flowers bud with sempiternal Life.







A Restored Soldier

Our man in Ponte a Serraglio is now whiter than white in his resplendently cleaned-up Carrara marble nudity. Yesterday we passed him and had to put on our sunglasses to avoid being dazzled by his effulgent glory. I’ve mentioned the soldier in a previous post at

To recap: the statue was sculpted by Alberto Cheli in 1923 and is in a markedly neo-classical style with leanings towards fascist grandiloquence. Its material is marble, and the steps are in pietra Serena.

Alberto Cheli was born in 1888 at Pieve Fosciana in the upper Serchio valley (where he also sculpted a war memorial). Cheli studied under Luccan Francesco Petroni. In 1932 he married Adalgisa Panconi, from whom he had twins, Giorgio and Lio. Among Cheli’s other monuments is one commemorating the poet Virgil in the Italian colony of Rosario Argentina (1930). He died in 1947 in Lucca.

It’s even more important today to preserve and conserve our war memorials for mankind has learnt nothing about the futility of war.

English war poetry is well-known to most of us. The patriotic myth of war as expounded by the likes of Rupert Brooke (If I should die, think only this of me; (…there’s some corner of a foreign field That is for ever England etc,’) was largely demolished by the gritty realism of the verses of Wilfrid Owen so full of poignant ironies. g.g. in ‘Strange meeting”:
“I am the enemy you killed, my friend. 

I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned 

Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed. 

I parried; but my hands were loath and cold. 

Let us sleep now. . . .”

But what about Italian war poetry of the same period? It’s clear the triumphal-heroic mode was elegantly expounded by the likes of D’annunzio (see my post on him at ). But was there anyone writing in Italy who approached the tragic reality of warfare in a way similar to that of Wilfrid Owen (who died just days between the armistice ended the greatest slaughter mankind has seen).

I can only think of Giuseppe Ungaretti who wrote disarmingly short poems, almost haiku like in form and sentiment, but which are full of cosmic resonances. Here’s one called ‘Soldati’ (soldiers).


Si sta come
sugli alberi
le foglie

(We are here

as leaves from

trees in autumn)


I wonder whether the restored statue at Ponte a Serraglio will be regarded in future years as a glorification of war heroism or as a poignant aspect of the greatest and most tragic aberration of the human psyche?

Bagni Di Lucca and the Lie of War

2017 commemorates the hundredth anniversary of perhaps Italy’s greatest military disaster, certainly its most costly one: the Great War’s battle of Caporetto, otherwise known as the twelfth battle of the Isonzo. The Italian army’s front line, under the command of General Cadorna, was broken and had to push back to the Piave river. Only the battle of Monte Grappa stopped the Austrians from entering wholesale into the Adige and Po valleys. It was the great resistance at the Piave that stopped the Austrian reconquest of Italy, a fact that is still recognized today when we crossed this river – which ran red with the blood of soldiers in 1918 – while driving on the A4 motorway through Veneto.

The Italian army comprised 874,000 soldiers as against 350,000 Austrians. The Italians also had 6,918 artillery pieces against just 2,213 Austrian. So what went wrong?

By the end of the battle there were 305,000 Italian casualties as against 70,000 Austrian, more than four times as many… In addition, over half a million civilian refugees poured into Italy escaping from well-documented rape and pillage (in the town of Portogruaro alone there were over three hundred illegitimate children born nine months later).  Many refugees were welcomed by Bagni di Lucca. Indeed, the companion of Evangeline Whipple, (the author of ‘A famous corner of Tuscany’ about Bagni di Lucca) died as a result of contracting Spanish flu while nursing the refugees. (See my post at for a fuller account).

The ‘disfatta di Caporetto’ was notorious for the Austrians’ use of what would later develop into the Hitlerian Blitzkrieg: intensive fire with highly mobile units and widespread use of machine guns, flame throwers and light trench mortars. Notoriously too, arsenic-chloric and diphosgene poison gas canisters were launched causing devastating effects on Italian casualties and morale.


(A trench at Caporetto)

The defeat was blamed on Cadorna, a martinet and an incompetent commander who brought a new level of ineptitude to the management of the Italian army. Cadorna was infamous for his application of military discipline. For example, Italian soldiers made prisoners-of-war were termed deserters and were not allowed any Red Cross food parcels or medicines. Thousands literally died of hunger or disease in Austrian camps such as Spielberg and Mauthausen. Those who were not captured by the enemy but retreated when ordered to advance were decimated i.e. one out of ten were selected to be court-marshalled and usually shot. It’s been estimated that 6% of the Italian army was found guilty in this way. Unsurprisingly, Cadorna was relieved of his command after the rout of Caporetto and the Italian army was placed under the command of General Diaz who led it to final victory at Vittorio Veneto the following year.


(Luigi Cadorna)

Bagni di Lucca played a role in the Great War out of all measure to its population: over 250 young men lost their lives in action out of a total population of just 5,000.  I’ve written a post on the part our comune played in WWI  at and local historian prof. Natalia Sereni has also written a fascinating book on the subject titled ‘Bagni di Lucca nella Grande Guerra. (See )

There’s nothing, however, more poignant than to focus away from the broad perspective of WWI and delve into its effect on individual young men. The Uni-tre’ lezione’ this week was delivered by Prof Marcello Cherubini who read and commented on letters written by two soldiers from Bagni di Lucca, Arnaldo and Amos Contrucci. Censorship is a major issue in any correspondence during a war situation and these letters were no exception to the rule. Specific places could not be mentioned – just an ‘area of operations’ or ‘zona di guerra.’ Some soldiers got round this by writing where they were stationed underneath the postage stamp (and then sometimes adding on the envelope ‘please find where I am by looking under the stamp…!) Furthermore, soldiers could not say they were freezing to death or dying of hunger on the front. Everything had to be couched in positive terms. Indeed, Cadorna would cancel soldiers’ leave with the excuse that soldiers returning home might tell friends and relatives what conditions were really like at the front. Another problem with writing home was that almost half the Italians at that time were illiterate. So even if one could write a letter, who, in the family would actually be able to read it?

The letters of Arnaldo and Amos, two local brothers,  describe not only their military conquests – they were part of the first regiment to march into the newly conquered city of Gorizia ‘la Maledetta’ – the damned – otherwise known as the sixth battle of the Isonzo and in which 20,000 Italian soldiers lost their lives as against just (!) 9,000 Austrians. The letters also describe amorous conquests too with a ‘bella goriziana’. All letters state that the soldiers are in the best of health (even though the true situation might be utterly the opposite) and winning every battle they fight in. They conclude with best wishes to their family members all listed by name in highly concentrated sheets of densely-written paper.

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Sadly, in the twelfth battle of the Isonzo – the terrible defeat of Caporetto (now Kobarid in Slovenia) Amos was taken prisoner by the Austrians and languished in the concentration camp of Mauthausen – which subsequently became the notorious extermination camp under the Third Reich). Now the letters make desperate pleas to send food especially flour. Clearly, Amos was still being retreated as a ‘deserter’ like so many other Italian prisoners-of-war. The letters finish with a note from a fellow prisoner to Amos’ family poignantly describing their son’s last moments and death through – probably – Spanish flu and a follow-up letter of condolences from the military authorities.

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(From left, Profs Natalia Sereni, Marcello Cherubini, Valeria Catelli)

Cherubini’s talk was captivating and moving in equal measure. Statistics of thousands missing or dead may often be too enormous to comprehend by the individual human mind: read out, however, the correspondence of named soldiers from Bagni di Lucca, now stuck in atrocious condition of mud, cold and sleeping in water-logged trenches often filled with excrement and unburied bodies of previous fatalities from ‘over-the-top’ and attacked by vermin of all sorts and then war and the pity and the lie of war come out to the forefront in massive measure. As that greatest of war poets, Wilfred Owen, wrote:

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.

PS On a lighter note I’m giving a ‘lezione’ for Bagni di Lucca’s Unitre on Thursday April 6th at 4 pm. The subject is “Giovanni Battista Cipriani: un artista Toscano in Inghilterra” and is about the famous painter of the royal gold coach, co-founder of the Royal Academy and ancestor of my wife.






Nuts About Chestnuts

Castagnate (chestnut feste) abound at this time in our part of the world. They are places where one can meet up with friends, enjoy products made from the chestnut (including, of course, roast chestnuts themselves!) and they are also places where old memories are remembered and traditions revived.

If Dr Johnson demeaningly said of oats that they are ‘a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people’ then more proudly and happily one can say of chestnuts in Italy ‘they are a fruit which today give pleasure and joy through festivals and the many food and drink products they are the basis of but which once supported the entire population of the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines.’

Where would one be without marrons glacées, chestnut jam, necci (chestnut pancakes made with chestnut flour), mondine (roast chestnuts), chestnut cakes (delicious!), and pan di legno (literally ‘wood bread’) chestnut bread?

It is sobering to think that without the chestnut tree many Italians, especially ‘gli sfollati’, those escaping from the second world war-ravaged cities into the woods, would have literally died of starvation. One of my favourite books is intrepid traveller Eric Newby’s ‘Love and War in the Apennines’ (made into a film in 2001 starring Callum Blue) where he describes his experiences as a British soldier. Having escaped from an internment camp in Italy Newby manages to survive in the forests of the Apennines surrounding us and where he met hospitality from the locals and his future wife too. Sadly Eric died in 2006 – I would have loved to have met him! Now I won’t even be able to meet his wife, Wanda who died last year. For, when asked if there was one thing he couldn’t travel without, Newby replied: “My wife.”

There are so many castagnate happening now and they are all as unique as the little villages where they take place.

Last Sunday, for example, there were the following to choose from near us and this is just a selection!

Our favourite one has always been the one at Lupinaia in the comune of Fosciandora (see my post at on that one. Bagni di Lucca was supposed to have its castagnata soon  but, regrettably, it has had to be cancelled this year. However, there are still the following to get to:

You’ll still be in time for the castagnate at Bolognana and Trassilico on October 16th. the ones at Mont’Alfonso Castelnuovo di Garfagnana, Careggine and Pieve Fosciana on October 23rd, the Pontecosi castagnata on October 30 and the Lupinaia one on 13th November. There will be others in our area of course. You’ll just have to look out for them!

We’d never been to the castagnata at Cascio, so plumped for that one this year. The weather however, looked ominous with very stormy, dark clouds. It turned out, indeed, to be a somewhat wet castagnata but visitors were out in droves, the umbrellas added a colourful touch and, luckily, the locals didn’t postpone the event.  For when it rains in Italy it’s truly a serious thing and, unlike the UK where precipitations seems more the norm, rain in Italy tends to completely reschedule open-air events.

We queued up to get our tickets and I obtained an excellent platter of local products including biroldo – a sort of blood-sausage -, pecorino cheese, bread, crisciolette (see my post at to find out what those scrumptious items, unique to Cascio, are), wine and water, and even managed to find a dry spot under the ruins of the fortress. The views from this part of town are stratospheric.

Meanwhile, the serving department was busy at work.

This year the chestnut roasters were saying how lucky they were to have a warm toasting fire before them. It was getting a bit nippy with all that rain! Last year, evidently, they were complaining how unnaturally hot it was at this time of year and what a sweaty job roasting the caldarroste.

Cascio has a charming church dedicated to Saints Lawrence and Stephen. It contains a sweet Della Robbian Madonna:

The village’s gatehouse had two fine local photographers displaying their art.

The ciambelle (doughnut) makers were busy at work.


Two wandering minstrels gave us a medley of favourite songs including that perennnial ‘volare’ by the great Domenico Modugno and now almost sixty years old!


The upper part of town had the necci makers hard at work with their ferri (waffle irons) and there was also a desert course included.

A sign tempted to a metato (chestnut drying hut) deep in the surrounding woods where further goodies awaited us including a delicious liqueur made out of chestnuts. I was told that I could find places that sold it in and around Barga.

All-in-all it was an exhilarating day with the rain diminishing in the afternoon. Congratulations to all the Casciani for their great efforts to make this Castagnata another success in their annual calendar of events.




Lest we Forget the British Salonika Force

I found myself in Salonika (now Thessaloniki) without any money to take the ferry across the Adriatic to Italy where I had a return air ticket back to London from Catania. I would be able to hitch across northern Greece and then round southern Italy’s instep but money was definitely needed for the ferry…

It was the end of my first truly epic journey and I’d travelled through twelve countries, including Syria, Iraq and Kuwait to get to the hippy Shangri-La of Kathmandu. Now a little thinner but a lot wiser I was raring to get home and start my year at uni.

The British consul at Thessaloniki was very courteous although he gave me a ticking off about all those young people that want to travel round the world without proper financial preparations. He arranged money to be cabled to me from home but warned me that it might take a couple of days for it to arrive.

My grandfather was still alive, although increasingly suffering from dementia. I also remembered that as a boy scout I’d helped assist the British Salonika force veterans of the campaign at Horse Guards parade. My grandfather had been a member of that contingent – a diminishing but still stalwart band, alas now all long since vanished.

These thoughts came to my mind today since the Balkan field of military operations formed another part of that human tragedy called World War One and, in particular, of the start of the bloodiest battle of them all, the battle of the Somme where over a million lost their lives on both sides and where the flower of a whole generation was lost. (This battle is eloquently described by expert writer and guide on these matters Stephen Liddell in his post at )

Stranded in Salonika, I slept under the walls of that ancient town. I also visited some very beautiful byzantine churches and the iconic watch tower on the sea front.

(My remaining photographs of Thessaloniki )

I also discovered that there was a military cemetery (Mikra) just to the north of the city.

I walked to the cemetery with the intention of taking a few photographs for my grandfather in the hope that it might wake him up a little from the dementia he was fast slipping into. After all, old memories, however painful, are able to achieve some kind of therapy, I thought.

The cemetery was very large and contained the remains of First World War soldiers from Serbia, France and Italy. Always open, I spent a night there among the tombs of the fallen. It was an eerie but very poignant experience.

What were the British doing in Salonika anyway? The Greek Prime Minister Venizelos had invited three French divisions and the 10th Irish Division from Gallipoli in October 1915. These forces were joined by Commonwealth, Italian and Russian troops. (How ironic that Italian forces were then involved as Axis forces against Greece in the next war – yet another tragic episode so eloquently written about in that magical-historical-fiction book ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’.)

The Greeks were worried about an invasion from the Ottoman Empire, which was then an ally of Germany and Austro-Hungary. The Greeks, however, did not commit themselves to the allied side until August 1916 when revolution broke out in Salonika and the Greek national army joined in the slaughter of World War One on the allied side.

You’ll remember how the tinder that began the bloodiest war the world has ever known was the assassination by a Serbian nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, of Franz Ferdinand, the Austria-Hungarian archduke, in Sarajevo.

Serbia was invaded by the Hapsburgs with the assistance of Bulgaria and an allied force had to be sent out to prevent the total collapse of Serbia. (Again another irony – how the allies of Serbia changed in that bloody part of their history at the end of the last millennium…)

Salonika (Thessaloniki) became the base of the British Salonika Force under the command of General Bryan Mahon; succeed by Lt General George Milne, as part of the allied effort to defend Serbia. The Salonika base housed headquarters, barracks and eighteen hospitals for war casualties.

Actually, the real threat came from pro-German Bulgaria which still had a corridor of land linking it to the Aegean (lost after the Versailles peace treaty).

By the end of the war there were one thousand eight hundred Commonwealth soldiers buried in the cemetery in addition to French, Serbian, Russian and Italian combatants

These are the faded pictures I took of the cemetery all those years back.

Regrettably, my grandfather was too far gone to really react to those photographs. Perhaps, the pain of those years was anyway too harsh for him to remember much.

In any case, although in an often forgotten theatre of conflict in World War One, the British Salonika Force should never be forgotten. My grandfather survived the slaughter and without that survival I would not be here to write this unlike, so tragically those potential grandfathers who lost their lives, loves and hopes in such a useless and unnecessary but sadly so humanly endemic aberration that is war.


(Dead soldier in the snow on the Salonika front, 1916)



(Don’t) Put That Light Out!

‘Silenzi di Guerra’ – silences of war – a moving monologue by Renato Raimo and acted by the writer and actor Raimo closed Bagni di Lucca’s theatre season last Friday, the 18th of March.

A hundred years ago this year the Battle of the Somme began and Italy had already been at war against the Austro-Hungarian Empire for a year. ‘Silenzi di Guerra’ did not overplay the heroic rhetoric so often associated with war but emphasised the long silences that accompanied the waiting-game before ‘going over the top.’

It was something that several veterans told me. War isn’t a Germanic Blitzkrieg with perpetual fighting, It’s, in fact, a time of long anxious silences – waiting for news from home, waiting for orders, waiting for the next water and food ration, waiting for medical supplies, waiting for death. And waiting doesn’t promote much talk. It’s a time of silence to think about one’s family, children, friends, loved ones.

The play started with the call-up papers and the encouragement by the recruiting sergeant that the young soldier-to-be would ‘make friends’ on the front. I thought of that inexorably powerful line ‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend’ from Wilfred Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’. ‘You are going to do an honourable thing fighting for your country’, continued the generals. But the novice couldn’t quite reconcile this with the fact that his main job was to kill other humans. Then he remembered the last words from his mum: ‘be a good boy. Behave yourself well’ …. yet another ironic slant on the soldier’s main job of either to kill or to become cannon fodder.

At several points in the play a lone accordionist Marco Lo Russo walked slowly on stage to play his poignant music leading to further reflections on the audience’s part – an audience which was pitifully small as if to suggest that too many of us had heard enough of the whole bloody business.

Incidentally, Renato Raimo, who was born in Puglia 1963, is a well-known and highly respected actor on television crime and ‘fiction’ – Italian for mini-series – like Don Matteo, Un Posto Al Sole d’Estate etc. so there was really little reason for the poor attendance.

War is a waiting game. During the Great War it was waiting for orders to leave the trenches and go over the top into the barbed wire and grenades and wonder how many more minutes one might still be able to live. During the Second World War it was a wait for sealed orders for a major tank and artillery campaign. At home it was a wait to see whether the drone of the enemy air fleet announcing the next bombing raid would hit one’s home.

As so appallingly demonstrated yesterday in Brussels (a beautiful but under-rated city where I spent memorable days as a teenager) today is yet another wait to fathom out where the next terrorist attack might take place. Some Italians believe we are now entering inexorably into a Third World War. Unprepared for the consequences of the first, and certainly for the second (gas masks were still being issued for that) we appear to be unprepared for the third where the enemy is acting ever more presently within our own society.

In a minor way I, too, have experienced the waiting game and the uncanny silence of war. I was an overseas student at Delhi University during the Indo-Pakistan war when East Pakistan broke free and became Bangla Desh. I happened to be in Orissa at the time and managed to find my way through a crepuscular subcontinent to my room in Delhi. I was immediately told to black out my window and shown where the nearest air-raid shelter was. Every night was the personification of silence and darkness. Delhi was completely in the dark and I even imagined I’d come across local equivalent of Chief ARP warden Warren Hodges (remember Dad’s Army?) shouting ‘put that light out!’ Fortunately, Delhi wasn’t bombed although Agra and Amritsar were.

Whatever will happen one thing is certain. Death is the only conqueror in any war and as much as we shall say ‘let’s lead our lives like we’ve always led them, with friendships, love, work and joys’, there will now be, regrettably, throughout the civilized world, a feeling that we’ll have to make many new excuses because ‘there’s a war on’, as Captain Mainwaring would inevitably say when people were frustratedly kept waiting in silence.


I am sure we will all have our moments of silence today to remember the victims of yesterday’s atrocity which will not dim the light of our great European way of life to any degree.

Amazing Find in Greenlees Archive at Bagni di Lucca

Yesterday wasn’t just Saint Patrick’s Day. It was the day when the newly united kingdom of Italy was proclaimed in 1861. It wasn’t until 2012 that this seminal day in the history of Italy was declared a national holiday – a day dedicated to the celebration of a country finally united after years of division under despots, foreign and otherwise.

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Italian history has certainly not been plain sailing since that auspicious proclamation of unity. In particular, the continuing divisions created by the mafia and associated quasi-political gangs, the long way still to go towards a truly stable and mature democracy (Italy has had sixty-four different governments since 1945 and only one of them has succeeded in surviving more than five years.) Corruption is endemic. On yesterday’s news, for example, yet another example of contracts obtained by bribery and the usual game of double and even triple time-card punching by governmental employees so that some of them might enjoy a day off boating or fishing or on the golf-course was again brought to our attention.

At least, however, there is the freedom to report these offensive situations without undue censorship. Italy under the fascist yoke between 1922 and 1945 was certainly starved of freedom. It took a bitter and bloody civil war between 1943 and 1945 to re-establish anything approaching the high ideals of liberty and equality so eloquently described by such visionaries as De Tocqueville and Mazzini. Women, for example, finally got the vote in 1945 and universal suffrage finally reached the country. (Switzerland had to wait until 1971!)

That’s why the extraordinary find of a ten-page sketch for a broadcast on Bari Radio by the great Italian philosopher, man of letters, political figure and poet, Benedetto Croce, among the papers left by a great figure of Bagni di Lucca’s recent past, Ian Greenlees, is so important and so fittingly presented on yesterday’s auspicious day for the Italian republic, thanks to the initiative of the comune’s cultural association, Fondazione Michel de Montaigne, under the presidency of Prof. Marcello Cherubini.

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To understand why what has been found in Bagni di Lucca’s Greenlees archives is so important it’s essential to say more about three subjects. Benedetto Croce himself, Ian Greenlees and Bari Radio, while at the same time understanding the historical context in which all three came together. It is, in my opinion, a key moment in appreciating why Italy’s ideals are what they are today.

First, Croce. Benedetto Croce, (1866-1952) wasn’t just an Italian philosopher, historian, and political leader. He was also an opponent of organised religion, indeed he was an atheist. He became a senator in the Italian government in 1910 and served as minister for education from1920 to 1921. When Mussolini came to power in 1922 Croce became a strong opponent of fascism.


This is not the place to expand on Croce’s philosophical ideas, which were based on Hegel, except to say that he had an infinite faith in man’s creative powers and the belief that art could make the world a better place. Croce believed that one should learn from history (unfortunately a lesson still barely learnt now) and was a defender of free will. I suppose the nearest equivalent of such a person in the UK in terms of the bravery of his convictions of liberty would have been Bertrand Russell.

Second Greenlees. Ian Greenlees has been amply described by me in my post at which should be referred to at this stage.

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(Copy of portrait of Ian supplied by grateful thanks to Laura Chanter)

The important point, however, about this multi-faceted, very-well-off, smoothly elegant, highly socially connected, renaissance-wise learned, rather eccentric, highly practical and eminently decent resident of Bagni di Lucca occurred when Ian was appointed Director of Rome’s British Institute in 1939 and evacuated his staff courageously across a Nazi-invaded France back to London in a style reminiscent of certain episodes in Olivia Manning’s “Fortunes of war”.


Greenlees was put in charge of Italian language broadcasts for the BBC precursor of the World Service and also took part in the allied invasion of Sicily in 1943 which led to the armistice and the terrible two years of civil war which followed.

Undeterred, Ian ran a free Italian anti-fascist radio station from Bari (where the Italian Royal family had fled to) and was promoted to Major.

Deeply involved in intelligence operations and with establishing allied-partisan coordination, Greenlees played an important part at the end of WWII in setting up a new government free from Fascist influence.

Third, Radio Bari. The radio Bari broadcasting station was used during the fascist regime to diffuse propaganda to listeners in Arab-speaking countries which, in effect, meant the whole of the southern Mediterranean, at that time still largely under British and French mandates. When Word War II started a ‘radio war’ began too and axis and allied radio stations did their best to jam each other’s broadcasts.

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After the landing of the allied forces in Sicily under operation Husky in August 1943 and the gradual advance (Churchill’s ‘hot-red rake’) of the liberating forces up the Italian peninsula, the Bari radio station was liberated by local partisans in sympathy with Benedetto Croce. With the assistance of radio technicians and anti-fascist liberal sympathizers Radio Bari was set up and Ian Greenlees was appointed to administer and programme it. On the 11th September 1943 the first message of King Victor Emmanuel was broadcast from it – it was the first broadcast of Free Italy. (Naples was still too close to the German forces for it to be considered a safe haven, not just for the King but also for broadcasting from.

On 23rd September 1943 Bari radio station became the central Allied headquarters for broadcasting news about liberated Italy to all parts of the peninsula. The main programme was called Italia Combatte (Italy fights on) and special coded messages were sent to partisan groups and, of course, the allied forces stationed not just in Italy but on the North African coast.

Radio Bari wasn’t just propaganda but it was also entertainment. Thanks to the capture of a record store listeners were entertained to a variety of music ranging from Glen Miller to Mozart. Furthermore, the topical items and discussions were not in any way specifically politically slanted. This is where Benedetto Croce’s recently discovered notes on the first broadcast of Italia Combatte comes in. These notes which Croce donated to his friend Ian Greenlees, (who’d translated Croce’s poems), have the keynotes of Liberty and Freedom of speech interweaved. There would be no right or left or centre wing parties dominating the programing but all anti-fascist sides would be able to have a voice. The only rule was that all those speakers should have liberty inscribed in their hearts and that the news reported on the front should be accurate without (clearly!) giving too much away to the Axis powers.

A vision of a new Italy freed from fascist oppression and totalitarian dictatorship was thus presented. At one stage during this incredibly intense conference held at Bagni’s ex-Anglican church (normally Thursday afternoons are dedicated to the terz’età (university of the third age) ‘lezione’ in which I have contributed for over eight years but this was a special occasion for a special day in Italian history), it was suggested that Benedetto Croce night have been somewhat disappointed by several aspects in which post-war Italian liberty has been interpreted but this aside was fully understood by the very ample audience present.

Professor Marcello Cherubini, the president of the praiseworthy Fondazione Michel de Montaigne, gave a lecture which was both highly interesting and hugely informative. This was followed by a fascinating analysis of why the notes were definitely by Benedetto Croce on the basis on his annotations made on the typewritten ten pages by expert graphologist Doctor Maria Laura Ferrari, whose highly tuned skills are also used by the legal profession. I do not need to go into her detailed description of general and specific details of the analysis of Croce’s penmanship except to confirm her opinion that they are definitely by his hand and, moreover, reveal psychological insights into his dynamic and polymathic character.

The conference was not short but my ears were glued to every word I heard. I do not feel that a more apt celebration of Italy’s emergence as a nation one hundred and fifty five years ago could have been presented. The finds of a speech by one of Italy’s greatest philosophers, Benedetto Croce, broadcast on Italy’s first liberated radio stations, Radio Bari, under the directorship of one of the greatest promulgators of harmonious Italo-British relationships, Ian Greenlees, could not have been presented at a more opportune moment than now when such essential concepts to liberty and the pursuit of happiness are being more and more dangerously questioned and, indeed, threatened by current world events.

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(The precious find placed on the Italian Tricolore flag yesterday at the conference)

More About Liliana Urbach from Silvana Bracci

I was moved to discover this comment made by one of my Facebook (and real-life too!) friends, Silvana Bracci, (sister of the great wine expert and Bagni di Lucca Enoteca – wine shop – owner, Guido Bracci), to whom I give sincerest thanks. I felt her comment should be also translated into English so that it could reach a wider public. The note deals with the story of Liliana Bracci. Those of you who have read my post at will understand more about Liliana’s situation. Indeed, I thank Silvana again for allowing me to share this tragic story on my blog and for being the first to appreciate my post for yesterday which included a section on the same subject:

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Silvana writes:

I found a note written in 2011. I was telling the story of Liliana Urbach (1942-1944), the only citizen from Bagni di Lucca who died in Auschwitz. I wrote it because many seemed to have forgotten about her. I myself knew about her only at the end of the nineties thanks to a journalist from the ‘Tirreno’ newspaper and from a report by Lucca’s Resistance Institute, when Bagni di Lucca dedicated a Peace Park to the little girl. However, little was said about the incident. An expert in history even said to me that it was an exaggeration to define the Bagni di Lucca Cardinali villa as a concentration camp (the old Terme hotel) as if it were somewhat exaggerated by a particular ‘political’ viewpoint. Not so, there are documents to prove it.

I’m again publishing the note because I’m satisfied with it: in recent days some primary school classes have gone to the park to remember Liliana. Teachers, thanks so much!


26 January 2011 19:54 Article

Tomorrow is Holocaust Remembrance Day, and I want to remember a story from Bagni di Lucca. It’s the story of Liliana Urbach and her family.

The Urbach were Jews who’d fled from Vienna to avoid racial persecution. Leo Urbach, and his wife Alice and his son Kurt 4 years old, arrived in my country in 1942, and took lodgings in Via Vittorio Emanuele, Ponte a Serraglio, Liliana was born here on October 19th 1942 and was registered as a citizen of Bagni di Lucca.

The family felt tranquil. They were “free internees” with many personal limitations, but were not prevented from working, and Leo was a watchmaker. Other Jews sheltering in the municipality had the same conditions: no radio, monitoring of correspondence, no political activities, minimal relations with the rest of the population, twice daily reporting to the police. But they were alive…

In late 1943, after an order of November 30, Jews in the Lucchesia began to be rounded up, and a provincial concentration camp was opened at Villa Cardinali at the Terme Calde of Bagni di Lucca. It was a transit camp for inmates and aimed at their deportation to the death camps.

The Urbachs were arrested and taken to the concentration camp at Villa Cardinali. In January, a convoy set off with about ninety Jews, including Leo, Alice, Kurt and Liliana Urbach. They were taken to Florence, then Milan. From here on January 30th of 1944 they left by truck for Germany. Leo, pushed by his wife (who told him “get out, they won’t do anything to me and the children!”) jumped from the truck and fled. He was later recaptured and interned in a prison camp, from which he was freed at the end of the war.

Alice, Kurt and Liliana, arrived at 6 am on February 6th at Auschwitz.  By noon they had already been murdered in the gas chambers.

Liliana was 15 months old. When I remember her, I think of the fact that she never managed to attend school, never kissed the boy of her dreams, never got her driving license, never was awed before a flag …… she didn’t die in her bed while the children knocked back their tears so as not to scare her. Maybe she didn’t even die with her mum, because the Nazis often divided their prisoners by age. I hope she wasn’t frightened and that her brother Kurt took her by the hand.


Thank you so much Silvana for sharing!

I would like to know what happened to Liliana’s father Leo. And was there ever a photograph taken of Liliana? It must have been quite unendurable for Leo to realise that he’d lost his wife and children contrary to their last words to him. Anne Frank’s father was also in a similar position after the war. When one of us survives a terrible situation and our loved ones perish we clearly must feel unimaginably devastated. Primo Levi, another survivor, found his situation unbearable as anyone realises who has read his poignant book about his experience in ‘Se questo è un uomo…’ (If this is a man).  Indeed, I’m quite sure that this fine author’s – we’d met him when he came to England to attend an opera based on his libretto which had been translated into English – suicide in 1987 was to be explained by another survivor, Elie Wiesel’s words: “Primo Levi died at Auschwitz forty years later”.

The truth is we all die a little bit more when we hear about atrocities perpetrated by humans on humans for ‘whoever kills a person unjustly it is as though he has killed all mankind. And whoever saves a life, it is as though he had saved all mankind’.  (Quran 5:32)

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