Narrated and translated recollections of the widow of an Italian woodman who received the Alexander Certificate for aiding POWs to escape after the Armistice. Maria De Luca and her family fed and sheltered them and her husband, who became the leader of a group of partisans guided them to Isernia to the Allied troops. The retreating Germans mined and totally destroyed her village.
The full story follows, in two versions. The version in the first window below is the original scanned version of the story. In the second window below is the transcribed version in plain text.
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Castel di Sangro, September 26th 1995
To Mr J. Keith Killby, Honorary Secretary of Monte San Martino Trust, with all my gratitude and my grandmother’s, for having granted me a Bursary by which I could attend a four week English Course to improve my English and spend a lovely holiday by visiting such a splendid city as London is, so rich with museums, ancient monuments and other very interesting places.
[Handwritten note] Account of Grandmother’s memories of helping P.O.W.s in Castel di Sangro.
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REVISITING MY MEMORIES OF THOSE WAR DAYS
My name is Maria De Luca. I still remember those terrible days in a certain fear, but I like to satisfy Mr Killby’s wish. So I will relate some events to my grand-daughter Agnese who will translate them into English.
We were in August 1943 and as my husband ran a wood concern and was cutting a wood in San Pietro Avellana – a village not far from Capracotta — he lived there in a country-farm. My children and I lived in Castel di Sangro and in our building also lived a family from Naples and four Jews who had escaped from Germany.
When these two families knew I was going to reach my husband because it was better for us staying away from Castello they begged to join us and we all moved to San Pietro Avellana. On September 8th the Italian Government signed the Armistice with the Allies. On that occasion the prisons in Sulmona were opened and all the war prisoners escaped. These prisoners directed their steps towards the Sangro River so that they could move along the sheep-track which would lead them to southern Italy.
One day, while working in the wood, my husband met eight English prisoners. He took them to our farm and we gave them something to eat because they were very hungry. The same night they decided it was better for four of them to leave the farm. As they wore prisoner clothes we gave them some trousers and
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jackets and my husband took them to the wood. As I said before, my husband used to work in the woods so he had two revolvers. He gave them to the prisoners and showed them the way to the mountains towards the southern Molise area so that they might reach and cross the front line.
The other four POWs [prisoners of war] spent the night with us. I remember that among these there was a paratrooper — he was an NCO [non commissioned officer]— and had been captured in Puglia. He was very tall and handsome and showed us all his gratitude. I suppose that thanks to him my husband received the Certificate of Gratitude I’ll talk about at the end of my account.
Anyway, the day after my husband took them to the wood and they could run away.
Another episode which I will never forget is about the Jews who lived with us in Castello and followed us to San Pietro Avellana.
One day two German soldiers came to our farm and asked us for arms and munitions. We said we had nothing of what they were looking for, but they went on searching. Fortunately the Jews were well hidden in a room which had a tumbledown wall so they didn’t go beyond the ruins. If they had found them we should have been shot. It was really a miracle.
Then, as if it were not enough, while the two were searching in the barn, one of them lost his revolver. They thought we had stolen it and pointed their guns at us. My husband said that
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probably it had fallen into the straw and we all began to search. At a certain moment my husband saw it in the straw and showed it to them. They took the revolver and went away.
Since then the four Jews didn’t feel safe in the farm. It was dangerous for everybody and so they decided to go away. My husband took them to Madonna degli Eremiti — a wood near Castello — where a Jewish shunting Centre acted. They were sent towards Isernia where the Allied Army had already arrived. When the following day some German soldiers came again and took all the farm animals with them we realized it was no good for us to go on living there and on the same night we went back to Castel di Sangro.
Once in Castello, as we had got a radio we used to listen to an English Programme called London Radio. It broadcast news in Italian about the war against the Germans. It was strictly forbidden to listen to news from this Radio Station and the Germans went from house to house and took the radios with them. I came to know that so, during the day, we took off a valve from the radio. When the Germans came to my house I showed them the radio and said that it didn’t work because a valve had burnt out. The Germans went away but left the radio so, in the evening, we put back the valve and we could go on listening to the news.
This is another sad event. I think it was October 17th when the Germans were ordered to mop up men and young men. Some of them were taken to Pescocostanzo — a small town a few miles from
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Castello — where the Germans were building trenches and others were sent to Germany. Those who were lucky — my husband was one — could escape and took refuge in the nearby Madonna degli Eremiti Wood. There my husband joined some partisans who had gathered in the wood and he became the leader of the group.
Among them there was a messenger who came to my house at night. I reported all that happened in Castello every day so the partisans could know everything about the Germans’ shifting of troops. Now and then my husband came home disguised as a railway station master and with the help of other people he took the prisoners they met into the wood where they stayed. From here they were sent to Isernia through the woods, following the road at a certain distance.
Towards the end of October all the women and the children were ordered to leave Castello and go to Sulmona where the German troops had settled their Headquarters. My husband let me know to go to Montalto — a very small village three miles away from Castello — where we stayed one month. While we were there Castel di Sangro was completely destroyed by the mines laid by the Germans. lt was November 7th.
Things went worse and it was dangerous to stay even in Montalto. Winter was coming and we had nothing to eat. The German soldiers in the area were fewer and fewer so my husband and I decided to move to Isernia. He started from the wood and I started from Montalto with my two daughters to meet at Forli del Sannio, a
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village half way from Isernia. Here we stopped an English jeep which took us to Isernia. I remember the English soldier gave my two daughters some chocolates and biscuits. By the way, Agnese’s mother was only twenty months old and the elder one was four years old. My husband gave the soldier his silver cigarette-case as a present. Then we could get to Capriati al Volturno — near Venafro — my native town, where my father and mother lived. It was dangerous because the roads had been mined by the Germans but two English soldiers were so kind to take us there. At last we were safe!
We spent the whole winter in Capriati and in the spring of 1944 we came back to Castello. Very few people were here, the town was a heap of ruins and the situation was really bad. Our house had been destroyed and we had lost everything but our lives. When the following year the war ended, little by little the Italian Government began to rebuild towns, roads and bridges and also thanks to the Allies’ help LIFE started again.
Now, beyond all these sad war events, the sacrifices we suffered from, the risks and dangers of being killed at any time, there remains the joy to have helped people and, at the same time, the satisfaction to have received the Alexander Certificate, granted to my husband Giuseppe De Luca, as a reward, together with a sum of money (20,000 Lira), which, at that time, was good money.
My husband was so proud and jealous of that Certificate, which he kept as a relic.
I’m enclosing a copy of it and one — even if it isn’t quite
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readable — of the letter sent to my husband when he was invited to meet an Officer of the Allied Committee at the Town Hall. My husband died several years ago. I’m sure he would have been very happy and proud if he could have seen his grand-daughter leave for England in order to improve her English thanks to his Alexander Certificate.
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[Photograph of a certificate issued by Comune Di Castel Di Sangro, Provincia Di Aquila on 21st November, 1946. It states that Guiseppe De Luca met an official of the Allied Screening Commission as a person who had given aid to Allied Prisoners of War.]