They are all dying. Slowly but surely. The memory banks of my mother’s interesting and troubled family are disappearing, the ones who keep the war secrets, the stains, the individual pains.
At a book presentation my cousin Lucilla organized a while ago, I come across relatives I hadn’t seen in years, all gathered together in the Town Hall of this paese in the Padania plains to celebrate and remember the life of an ancestor, born at the end of the 1800’s, whose life spanned almost a century and who wrote poetry, painted, became mayor and founded a local high school. And seeing three generations in one room, reminded me that time is running out and that if I want to finally put black on white the story of my mother’s family I better get going and interview the eldest of the tribe before it’s too late. The repository of the best information has already passed, unexpectedly, a few years ago.
My mother was only 7 when, towards the end of the war, one Autumn evening, she was sitting around the dinner table with her sister and her parents. There was a knock on the door and I always imagined the fog outside, the mist descending on the square and the partisans walking in, interrupting the dishing out of the food, their faces covered by bandannas, rifles slung across their shoulders, demanding to speak to my mom’s uncle. I can feel my grandmother’s fear, serving spoon in hand, telling them “He is not here” and I can see the partisans’ gaze wandering towards my grandfather, whose only fault was the blood relation to the man they were looking for, a well known local fascist and possibly German informer. With a resigned air, I see his tall, thin frame move to the hallway, put his raincoat on despite his wife’s protestations, telling her not to worry, he’ll be back soon.
He never was. That night, the partisans, hungry for revenge, the German troops astray and defeated, rounded up all the local bourgeoisie: the pharmacist, the bank manager, the brother of the man they were really looking for, regardless of party affiliation, their crime to be somewhat better off in that great equalizer that is supposed to be a war. Personal vendettas, petty revenge had in many cases more to do than Fascist cleansing – it happens at the end of every war, and not just in Kosovo or Afghanistan.
I can imagine my grandfather sitting on the truck, next to other men in his same shoes, thinking that everything will be cleared up, he will be back to the three women he left behind. Was he really that trustworthy, did he really have faith in mankind? Did he really think that his political inaction would see him through? For better or worse, sometimes it pays to take sides. Unless you are Switzerland, neutrality is not recognized in the waning hours of a conflict that was blind to individual abstention.
With the naivete of someone who, in 47 years, never had to take sides during a war, who feels entitled to her opinions without fear or threat, I would like to think that my grandfather was swiftly shot with the others and forgotten in a ditch, loosely covered with fresh earth.
My grandmother recognized the clear eyes of one of the men who came to take her husband away that Autumn night, one of the laborers who worked on the family land and who lived to a ripe age, alongside what was left of my family, up until a few years ago. In vain, she asked to know where her husband’s body was, to give him a proper burial, to be able to take her daughters to a marked grave every Sunday, some white tulips in hand. Tears, supplications and bribes where to no avail.
That time, so little studied, so little discussed, too full of shame on all sides, might be best forgotten or so everyone involved thought. Gianpaolo Pansa, a noted journalist, had the courage to reopen that door a few years ago with a book that paved the way for my own questions. My grandfather’s disappearance left a void in my mother’s life and became a personal ghost of mine – it might be time to give him proper burial.