June jottings with an Italian connection:
Barilla, the world’s biggest pasta maker, recently invested 400 million euros to develop new types of pasta and boost sales in North America.
Bologna University, in 1776, hired Laura Bassi, who became the first woman in history to be hired as a salaried college professor, teaching anatomy, mathematics, and physics. Bassi was awarded the chair of Experimental Physics at Bologna, the highest position ever obtained by a female scholar.
Composer Harry Warren was born in 1893 in Brooklyn, New York. His parents emigrated from Calabria and Harry’s name at birth was Salvatore Antonio Guaragna. He wrote the musical score for over 80 movies and published over 500 songs, among them were “I Only Have Eyes For You”, “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe”, and “You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby”. He died in 1981.
Giugno (June) 10th, 1940, Italy declared war on Britain and France because German troops were taking over most of Europe and Mussolini thought that in a few months the war would be over. He also did not want to miss out on the spoils of war or look like a lesser figure than his friend Hitler.
Il Duce’s fatal miscalculation brought much “miseria” to millions of people on both sides of the Atlantic. In his book, “Growing Up Under Fascism in a Little Town in Southern Italy”, author Dr. Nicholas La Bianca (born in Giovinazzo, Bari, Italy in 1930, published by Xlibris, Tel. 888-795-4274 or www.Xlibris.com, with additional info on author’s website www.drnicholaslabianca.com) offers a simple chronology of events and a description of their impact on the life disruption, deprivation and destruction brought by WWII to the people living in the small “paese” of Southern Italy, many of whom were friends and relatives of our parents and grandparents living in the United States and Canada:
“Mussolini joined the Fuehrer and both of them created the “Axis” which after victory would rule the world. He sent troops to occupy Albania, and since there was no resistance, this feat was accomplished quickly. He also sent some troops to occupy France which already had surrendered to the Germans.
So he decided to push his luck and try to invade Greece. That was another big mistake. The fierce opposition and the lack of war material and preparation by the Italian Army created for him a nightmare. Soon the wounded soldiers started coming back from the front lines, and for lack of space our elementary school was converted into a hospital. To avoid bad publicity the wounded soldiers were kept out of sight.
Meanwhile we lost our colonies Eritrea and Somalia, and for lack of arms most of our soldiers had been taken prisoners. In Libya we were almost taken over by the British army, and only the intervention of the German Troops prevented a total defeat.
The lack of any success on the front lines clearly showed that Italy was to go to war. While Germany for decades had been working on rebuilding the armed forces, the Italian government had been busy taking care of the infrastructure of the nation and the production of agricultural products to meet the needs of the growing population. All of a sudden the military leaders realized that the only arms available to the army were those left over from WWI, which were obsolete for modern warfare.
The government had expected to join the war only as a gesture of goodwill, hoping that at the end of it, being on the side of the victor, he would receive part of the spoils. Many new modern weapons such as planes, tanks artillery, and warships had been built, but they were more for show in parades than for actual warfare. As soon as the critical deficiency in arms became a sad reality, a feverish attempt was made to make the necessary adjustments. It was too late, and the task was made possible by the fact that Italy had no steel, coal and oil of its own, and these commodities could not be imported from anywhere, since the British navy was very well positioned in the Mediterranean and would sink any ship crossing that sea.”
“A nationwide movement was initiated to collect anything that could be used for the war effort, and all young people were encouraged to search for anything made of steel or other needed material, and turn it in to the authorities to help the war effort.
All gates, fences, metal scraps, and even some statues made of metal were turned in to the receiving centers, and everyone was proud to do his part in the war effort and help the Motherland.
Rations for food were established, and all civilian goods became scarce and difficult to find. Everyone was hoarding everything and even my mother decided to buy as much food as possible to make sure that we could survive two or more months of war. Among other things she bought a whole sack of flour, about one hundred kilos (or un quintale), which along with the rationed food, she thought would meet our needs to the end of the war.
The town began to get ready for all sorts of emergency. On three very strategic locations some contraption had been set up. These machines were supposed to capture the sound of aircrafts approaching the area so that a warning could be passed on to the population. A siren had been installed on the roof of town hall, and frequent tests went on to make sure it would work.
Shelters had been established in the basement of all tall buildings in every corner of the town, so that people could take cover in case of an aerial attack. They even appointed a civil defense leader to coordinate and direct the evacuation and proper use of each shelter.
But the most important and eerie change was the elimination of all street lights and the covering of all windows so no light would be visible from the air, and no aid would be available to enemy planes flying at night in search of their targets.
The military authorities were authorized to shoot up your windows if you did not follow orders. Even those few cars and trucks still available for civilian use had some special covers on the headlights to limit the spread of light while traveling during the night. We really did not have any significant target for the enemy to destroy, but we were close to Bari, where there was an air base with a few small military aircrafts, and a seaport mainly for merchant ships.
And right across from my uncle’s farm they had built a rail parking depot, and many convoys with war material and troops sometimes were parked there. Later on, a hospital train took permanent residence in that rail depot.”
Food became increasingly difficult to obtain. My mother even tried to put some humor into our lack of food. During the winter months, one of the popular dishes for evening meals had been “la zuppa di baccalà”. It was dried cod fish soaked in water for at least twenty-four hours, and then cooked in a gravy with onions, olives, tomatoes, and spices.
It was customary to dunk stale bread into the hot gravy and that would warm us up from the inside in addition to filling our stomachs. The baccalà was a dried cod fish that used to come from the Scandinavian countries. During the war it was impossible to find any, but my mother would make the same meal, and call it “Il baccalà scappato”, which means the “escaped cod fish” soup.
At a certain point during the cooking, she would call us and point in the air and say, “there goes the baccalà! and we all would laugh…”