CHIAVARI, Italy – I’ve always been struck by how little the Italians talk about what happened here during the WWII. They remember, they celebrate war related holidays, they march in parades and listen to speeches but for the most part they just get on with things and unless you (meaning me) ask, you don’t hear many stories.
That’s probably why I was so fascinated when I discovered a small book by Giovanni Rinaldi called ITreni della Felicita. The Trains of Happiness is the true story of thousands of Italian kids, mostly from southern Italy, and what one woman did that changed their lives, and the lives of those who joined her, forever. Then I discovered that film maker Alessandro Piva had made an award winning documentary about those same kids, and where they were today. But let me back up a little for this is a story worth telling.
The story starts in the winter of 1945. The Allies had landed, Italy was liberated and now cities and towns were searching to find solutions to the immediate problems of food distribution and removal of war debris. The national priorities were those. The woman, Teresa Noce, a Milanese partisan and leader in the National Communist Party, had just been freed from the woman’s concentration camp in Ravensbruk, Germany and was now back in Milan. From her experiences in the concentration camp, Signora Noce was well aware of other problems other than those the politicians were concerned with. She was concerned about the children who were suffering from hunger and abandonment, particularly those in the towns of southern Italy that had been hit the hardest by the war, and she decided to do something about it.
|Teresa Noce in Parliament|
The first thing she did was contact the women members of Communist groups in Reggio Emilia. She asked if they could find families who would be willing to take in some children from southern Italy for a few months so they could recuperate their health. The positive response she received was overwhelming, and from that first approach the UDI, the Union of Italian Women was born.
The UDI was so successful Sig.ra Noce, and the other women working with her, decided to expand it and anchor it in southern Italy. And so it began. There was a lot of work to do. The women began by traveling to Naples, Cassino, Rome and into the small towns of Puglia looking for children who would be eligible for the program. After their families had given their permission the children had to be examined by a doctor to make sure they were able to make the long train trip. In those days, with the frequent interruptions of the railroad lines, it took up to 14 hours to travel from Naples to Rome, a trip you can do today in less than 2 hours.
In the two winters following the end of the war, thousands of children left their homes in the war torn Southern provinces to stay with families in and around Modena. They were clothed, sent to school and cared for, but those were merely the superficial benefits, what happened to them was so much more.
Not all families were receptive to the help being offered though. While the majority of the mothers the UDI contacted had never been beyond the boundaries of their small villages, they had heard the horror stories about the Communists “devils” in Alt’Italia (northern Italy) who ate children for lunch or threw them into boiling cauldrons of lye and turned them into soap. The idea of putting their sons and daughters on trains, which none of them had ever been on, and transporting them straight into the hands of those very “devils”, must have kept many a mother pacing up pacing the floor at night, torn between wanting her child or children to have this opportunity and wondering if they would ever see them again. And the kids were worried as well.
|Babies on the Menu in Milan|
One man told the story of a little boy who had been put in his care who, for the first week wouldn’t eat and wouldn’t to go to sleep. He would always say, “I’m not hungry, I’m not sleepy”. But of course he would eventually fall asleep and the next day he would wake up and just keep looking from side to side, as if expecting something to happen. After a few days he finally confessed that he had been told that the people in Alt’Italia were all Communists and everyone knew the Communists ate children. When asked if that was why he was so afraid to go to sleep he said yes, he had wanted to be very watchful.
They were probably all afraid but there were others who told stories of discovery. “Being on that train was like being in a fairy tale,” said one woman. “I remember one night seeing all these lights sparkling in the distance like bouncing stars. I woke my brother and said look at what is out there, and we stood with our noses pressed against the train window looking out. Then, one of the women with us said, that is the sea. I had never seen the sea.”
|Heading for the Train of Happiness|
Days later, when that first train finally got to Modena, it had snowed. The mothers had done their best to dress their children for the trip, but the truth was the kids were dressed in rags and many were barefoot, but not all. One mother had taken the only shoes in the house, her husband’s shoes, and put them on the feet of her son just before he boarded the train. When the boy arrived in Modena he stood there shivering in the train station, in his father’s shoes and his sister’s moth eaten sweater and waited to be picked up by his new family.
And family they were, to all of the kids. They treated them like their own, there was no difference. One by one they told of the marvel of sleeping in a clean bed by themselves, of having a whole room to themselves. It was very different at home where they shared beds with three, four or more brothers and sisters in rooms with more than one bed in it. Then they all laughed remembering their first bath in a bathtub, something none of them had ever experienced before.
They all talked about eating three times a day for the first time in their life, of salami and pasta and meat all at the same meal, their first taste of a croissant, of a cookie, treats for kids who usual diet was bread and tomatoes with maybe a drop of oil, for oil was expensive. And in the afternoon they would go for gelato, which they likened to cold ricotta as none of them had ever heard of, let alone tasted gelato before.
There were many adjustments that had to be made by both the kids and the sponsors. For example, many of the sponsors only spoke the local dialect, Romangnolo and the kids spoke the dialects of the south. Some spoke Neapolitan others Barese and still others spoke dialects of isolated mountain villages, and so communication was tricky. “But we managed,” said one man talking about the young boy who had lived with him and his family, “in the end we mixed a little Neapolitan with a little Romangnolo and made our own language.”
The children stayed with the families in Modena for two years and, when they left to return to their families and homes in the south, it was a tearful parting. It had been an experience that had changed an entire generation of Italians, not just the kids but their sponsors as well. And long after the kids went back their Modena families continued to send them packages of clothes and pasta and bread. As one woman put it, “even if the bread was 15 days old, for that’s how long it would take to get to us, we would open the boxes and smell the smell of Modena and all our memories would come back to us.”
While I Treni della Felicita’ only focuses on the families of Modena and Reggio Emilia, the UDI program actually reached more than 70,000 kids. Many of them lived with families in and around Modena, but many others lived with families in Milano, Torino and other cities in northern Italy. It’s difficult for us to fully understand how this experience affected them for it was a unique time in history when the extraordinary value of human solidarity prevailed, one of many examples of the generosity to the less fortunate that has always characterized the Italians.
Film maker Alessandro Piva tracked down some of the people who had been hosted in Modena and put together an hour long documentary called Pasta Nera. Here’s the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v5zph62IdCY Pasta Nera