Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Rome, Open City 1945

On my return home, I walked through the narrow streets on which I had once travelled in a carriage pushed by my German nanny, Maria. I would go by the door of “the Witch” who ate bad children, then by another door of the Morabito family, with whose children I once played and fought with for possession of a spinning top. Mother recalled that I slammed the toy on the boy's head! I was not a wimp at age three!  And not even at age seven.Yet, mysteriously I turned into a wimp at age seven and a half. Something appeared to tell me that life was not worth fighting for any more since I was at the mercy of a chaotic inward awareness that made me feel that I had no longer any control over my life.
The spring waned into summer. July 25, 1925 arrived as Valeriana and I were seated in a very small garden just across from the King's Palace known as the Quirinale. There were swings, but no cats to place on swings as I had done with my friend Nerina, our farm's cat. For a while Nerina had also lived in Rome (to save her from possible bombings over the farm), but she had returned to the farm a few days before. The radio rang with triumphant news. It meant nothing to her.  I missed Nerina, although the cook did not!
The cat's ability to obtain food was unrivaled.  While on the villa-farm, which had a coal-stoked hearth, but no refrigeration, the young cat had learned the way to the cave. She climbed a wall and found the string attached to a pulley to which meat and other perishable foods resting in a basket were attached. The pulley went over a hook that was quite close to the wall.  All the cat had to do was to climb the wall and pull the string just as the cook did, and the basket would be hers.  Needless to say, it had taken us some time to discover the perpetrator of the meat's theft.
After Nerina was taken to Rome, her skills sharpened. She was then capable of pulling down the oven's door and could get to the meat inside!
Nerina had to return to the farm. She had a long life, which was aided by extra meat from baby rabbits as she infiltrated their penned up enclosure. The last time I saw her was just before my departure for the United States of America.The cat was thirteen years old and was then being fed with fresh liver, which she guarded fiercely from other contenders.
Yes, on July 25th, as I sat in the park with Valeriana, a storming noise was driven towards us from the Quirinale square, where the Greek marble sculpture of Castor and Polluce protected the King's palace.
The noise was from vehicles, as many of them were approaching, from people screaming, and from loud speakers. The scene was bedlam!
The girl and her nanny drew closer to the street and watched as the slow armored vehicles drew closer. Open trucks filled with waiving people in uniform followed, but the people did not wear blue uniforms. They drove on along Via XX Settembre, towards its end at Porta Pia, the famous portal to ancient Rome. This was the wall through which Benito Mussolini entered Rome with the intent to seize power of the city.  But in July of 1945 Mussolini (whom I had never seen, but only listened to on the radio) had been captured by the Italian Partisans and hung near Mantova by his heels, flanked by his young mistress Claretta Petacci.
I did not know nor remember any of this.  Later on in life I would bemoan the fact that I had never been taken to Piazza Venezia to watch the DUCE (Benito Mussolini) work the adoring and shouting crowd from the balcony of Palazzo Venezia in the center of Rome.
Twenty years later I would return to Rome again for my “exile.” My landlord would be, as a fate would have it, the head of the cabinet under Mussolini, the four star general Domenico Chrieleison. He would grin while remembering Mussolini drawing an adoring female behind the heavy drapes of the Quirinale (The King’s Palace) windows to produce one more True Fascist! Yes, I had known Mussolini without having ever met him. They were memories then. They are memories now.
On the jubilant day they entered Rome, the wind of power had shifted, and the Italian crowds on that day yelled worshipful songs and screamed towards the new LIBERATORS. Just a few months before this day, these liberators had been their enemies!
I picked up the jellybeans and the lifesavers and stuffed them in my summer dress pocket. I didn’t really know why the crowds jeered and the solders waved, and I felt as apart of one of mother’s strange stories in which heroes defeated dragons. Yet, I saw neither heroes nor dragons. Within me, the war had just shifted from one state of awareness to another; from anxiety to depression.
My father said that within a few weeks it would be safe to return to the villa-farm because the battle at Anzio was over and bombs would no longer be falling on the villa. Rome had been saved from destructions in so far as it was walled by the ancient Roman walls. Outside of the walls, buildings were in rubble, and refugees were squeezed into shanties like canned sardines. Water was scarce and the sun was broiling.
The return to the villa farm was swift. The furniture was brought back from the house of a friend of my grandmother Ometti. The peasant refugees had returned to their own houses speckling the land. The grain heaped for the refugees was no longer in my bedroom and the Venetian hand-painted furniture was again in place, and so was the Persian rug. The German soldiers in their blue uniforms were no longer there, but we did have new neighbors in the villa across the street, which was taken over by American forces after the Germans withdrew.
Field marshal Kesserling, who had fought the allied forces with General Chirieleison, had negotiated a safe withdrawal from Rome with Churchill, which occurred at night before the Allied forces had entered the city in order to avoid the destruction of the Holy City.  Kesserling also wanted to avoid a bloody confrontation with Field Marshal Clark, who was particularly interested in preserving neither lives nor antiquities, and neither was Churchill.
Preserving antiquities and art appears to have been the only worthwhile concern of “ little Adolph.” Since he was not able to make “good art,” he became intent on acquiring and preserving the artwork of others. It just so happened later in 1963, as I shall further describe elsewhere, that I shared with my little daughter Hildegard, the home of General Domenico Chirieleison for two years. He even read fables to her at night in his bed so that I could to see a movie sometimes. No. He was no pedophile. During my last year in Rome, in 1964, he actually acquired a young mistress.
The "general" as I would refer to him in the future, was a four star general; and the head of the cabinet under the "reign" of Mussolini and Victor Emmanuel.  He became like a grandfather- friend for us over those two years in Rome and reminded me a couple of times that it was HE who had saved Rome from destruction through his secret negotiations. I probably owe him my life.
“Little Adolf,” as I came to describe the Teutonic German leader (Kesserling) left a permanent imprint on my life as well, although I never saw him in person. It all started with those radio messages aired at dinner on the farm in 1943-44 and earlier.
As I recall from our dinner times together at the long dinner table waited on by a maid with white gloves, my father was a vehement fascist and a Hitler fan, while Grandfather Peter was pro Jewish and not politically inclined either way. He kept a low profile during the war because of his Jewish friends hidden in a Cistercienses, where Father had also taken the cow.
My mother Hilda kept a silence regarding politics.  We heard about Hitler’s offensives, his losses, some problems with Jews, then about Italian partisans, the German killings of Italian civilians at “le Fosse Ardeatine,” Hitler’s last stand, and information filtered through about possible enemy concentration camps, which interested Mother because her parents had been interned into the Russian Zone after the Allied Forces invaded Europe.
I could not relate to anyone's interests or psychological positions because no on spoke to him about it. One thing I did know: concentration camps were bad and at the end of the war my German grandparents were in a concentration camp. Somehow I placed them in the same contest as the Jews, although they were not such. The tensions at the dinner table had increased from arrows to poisoned arrows between my mother and grandfather.  But they did not argue about the War. It was about how to raise me.
Mother and my grandmother Ometti just kept silent for most of the time when the conversation was about politics. Just like the time when my father had accused president Roosevelt of being a Jew (because of his name and policies). My father vehemently wished for all “DIRTY” Jews to be exterminated as soon as possible.
I only knew that Jews were considered "God Killers," yet I did not like to hear Father's commentary and I disliked it less and less as time went on.
A few years later, my mother told me more about her life in the Sudetenland, where she was born (Kaden to be exact). I became acquainted, through my mother’s memories, with mother’s friends. Her closer friends were Jewish. They were integrated Jews and free-thinkers (whatever that meant). The best friend of all was Anne Marie Bondi with whom she spent some time in Hungary at her summer estate. Mother came to know gypsies and listen to their magical music. She would always remember the steppes where the eye gazes into the vast expanse of space…and also how their refrigeration worked. It would work by placing butter in the cool water of a toilet (I always wondered if that particular toilet was ever used for other purposes rather then refrigeration!).
When I returned to the villa-farm, which at that time was more of a farm than a villa, things had not changed. The cat Nerina was there. So were the dog Pietruccio, the nameless cow, the donkey Cadorna, and the nameless horse.  All of these animals were still there.  I was gone for the nine months during in which Europe was being transformed by the presence of its new victors: The United States, Great Britain, and The Soviet Union. Whatever was left shifted between the Soviet pole and the Allied one. Japan was still at war, but it would not be for long.  The African situation was in limbo. India was going through its own crisis, and China would start its own ascension. Those were the days of grand espionage and apparently friendly communication among the Great Powers.
Sixty-five years later I would discover at the funeral of my astrologer, Jacob Schwrartz, that he had also been a part of the struggle for world supremacy. He had been stationed in the Philippines and the Far East. My father had once felt that his heydays had been when he was 14 and he had traveled incognito from Rome to Paris to deliver a message (secret of course) to the dignitaries involved in the Peace of Versailles!
Historical background is, for all of us, the great and continuing landscape over which our lives evolve; with which we grow and make decisions, even if we consciously want to ignore it.
My mother had decided to ignore her background. We both had developed liver disease from eating too much fried food and high stress. Mother was no longer reading Bible stories, but was instructing me in the English language while also forbidding me to speak German, which actually is my native language.
Fortunately, my mother knew perfect English, Italian, French, Czech, and she could understand most of the Slavic languages. I started learning English and within months I could even read it. A family friend, Anna Orecchia, who was living in New York City, sent me books during the next two years. Pamphlets owned by the American forces now stationed where the German Command had been, across the Appian Way and the grand Baroque gate. Father also spoke English, since Mother had also taught him. He enjoyed bartering with the troops: wine in exchange for gin, cigarettes, Agatha Christie mysteries and booklets in self-improvement. He passed the letter over to me to practice English.
The booklets were about self-help. The one that readily caught my attention was titled something like “How To Know Your Personality” or “Know Your Type.” In the booklet, a person had to answer a series of numbered questions with “yes” or “no.”  Then that individual had to add up the scores in each category. At the end of the exercise, he or she would have to look at the index in the booklet and read a few paragraphs about one’s “personality” in regards to where the highest score happened to fall.
I did read, supposedly, who I was, how I felt and how I thought.  I was apparently an “introvert” among other not very good personality traits. I was not happy with this and attempted to see whether I could have a “better personality” if I answered the questions differently.  Would I be capable of getting a different score? Of course I was if I behaved in a different manner than usual and thought differently about myself!
This awareness of my handicaps made me hate myself and at the same time it gave me a reason to improve.  Yes, the booklets were good to me. So was the gin. Every morning, I mixed one raw yolk from an egg that had been plucked while still warm from under a chicken, and separated the yolk from the white. I would then place it a glass, add a good shot of gin and a lot sugar and beat it to a light yellow cream. I consumed one-third of the mixture myself, and would add more gin and sugar thus increasing the volume and bring it to my father for breakfast. Since the mixture he received was the same every day, I was safe!
Around my 8th birthday (but after August 29,, a few weeks after the radio announced the explosion of an “Atomic Bomb” ( whatever that was) it was decided at home that Don Husselbring, an American solder from Omaha Nebraska and his friend Peebles would take me and my parents for a drive  in their enormous green car to see  the vast cemetery of the Allied Forces near Anzio. My family had often driven to Anzio, the Italian beachhead of WWII, to enjoy the beach, driving in front of a town called Andria.
This was a special occasion for the two men.  As the car passed near the town of Andria, I happened to look out of the window, noticing that not only the town looked strange, but also the landscape did. There were no trees left, but dark stumps erupting from the hardened soil, and torn limbs stretching towards a sky…no grass…I could see THROUGH the town. It had become almost transparent since most houses  consisted of only one wall standing , the opening of the windows  revealing  either the blue sky  or other parts of houses…The car sped along. No one seemed to notice.
At the arrival to the cemetery, rows upon rows, almost to the horizon of white crosses, I did not feel anything.  The view of Andria had scorched my mind.
I was not aware that a few weeks before, a much larger town across two oceans had been scorched and turned into a wasteland much larger than Andria. Two pilots at the simple pulling of a lever had exterminated Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The trip was meant as a celebration of victory for the two American soldiers. For them, the War was now over since Japan had surrendered.
I would not be aware for many a decades that a message from the Emperor Hirohito had reached the State department before the first bomb was dropped. The American State department had decided to ignore it , or perhaps it had been lost.  It was about total surrender to the Allied forces.  Had the message been acknowledged in time, Hiroshima and Nagasaki would have been spared. Yet the games of power required that the two towns and hundreds of thousands of people be sacrificed in an unprecedented cataclysm worthy of the Goddess Kali, as the physicist Teller would remark at the sight of the first glorious mushroom cloud after the grand test in the New Mexico desert.
The bombs were not really exploded to defeat the Japanese, but to impress Marshal Stalin about the power of the new American weapon!—The display was useless. Within more than a year the Soviet Union had created its own atomic weapon.
Before his death president Truman regretted the incident. Later Oppenheimer was accused of perhaps spying for the Russians! And could no longer work on classified material.—Those are the  wages of War. No one ever wins.

Story Number 8 is going to follow in my autobiography, but not on the blog.

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