Bruno, Babí and, Bruno’s father, Oronzo, at the port of Ancona, September 1938
Can the enigma of Italy ever be understood, especially by a foreigner?
How can the complex war experiences of even a single Italian family ever be told?
On the birth of his eldest child in a medieval hillside town in central Italy in 2007, Irishman Paul Martin first heard a troubling two lines about his Italian family.
His wife’s grandfather, Bruno, had been denied his war pension because it was suspected he had sided with Mussolini’s extremist Salò Republic after the 1943 Armistice. How could more be learnt if Bruno had been killed in 1956 and his wife, Babi, would never discuss the war up to her death in 2015 aged almost 100?
Was this suspicion linked to Bruno’s remarkable, though undocumented, journey home on a stolen bicycle after liberation from a German prison in 1945? Or had it something to do with Babi’s origins in Alto Adige, the German-speaking region in Northern Italy? And why had Bruno’s father, Oronzo, attempted suicide immediately after the war?
In the decade after 2008, as Europe faced into the seething consequences of the global crash, Paul would unravel this complex family – and unexpectedly national – story.
In conversations with remaining members of the war generation, this tale would wind through the former Austro-Hungarian empire, to a Jewish internment camp in the Marche, to Italy’s disastrous Albanian campaign, to vile wars in Russia and the Balkans, to a prison in East Prussia and a forced labour factory near Leipzig, to an impoverished and troubled post-war Ancona before arriving at its conclusion in today’s Italy.
Faced with the unrelenting question of “what is the truth of history?”, this intriguing story ultimately uncovers some of the buried past and deep humanity of Italy’s extraordinary people. But above all it reveals the character of one Italian family and how – rather than Bruno’s suspected Fascist sympathies – something far more nuanced and painful lay behind Babi’s decades-long, dignified silence.