VICENZA, Italy (May 7, 2020) – A small, virtual gathering of Italian eyewitnesses occurred last week in the U.S. Army Garrison Italy public affairs office to recall the liberation of Italy and the 75th Anniversary of Victory Day in Europe.
A simple request and digital technology provided the stage where four Italians -- who vividly recall April 28, 1945, when American troops arrived to liberate Vicenza and the surrounding region from the Nazi regime—shared their memories of that day.
Remembering the taste of chocolate
Sergio Scaroni of Sandrigo, a town 15 km north of Vicenza, was a 15-year-old boy, when in the early hours he watched Soldiers from the 350th Infantry Regiment arrive.
"I was living and still do in the same house, which dates back to 1640," he said holding up a 1900s era photograph to the computer camera.
One of his vivid memories is how people cheered with joy after the column of tanks with Soldiers entered the town. He also remembered the tasted chocolate he missed after a long time without it.
"Next to the house there was the stable, but it was empty at the end of the war because everything had been plundered. Americans moved a big truck there and used it as a field kitchen. Some 50 Soldiers slept in the big attic, while nine officers found room in three bedrooms located on the first floor," Scaroni explained.
"The next morning, breakfast was provided to the Soldiers and one of them ate a whole pan of fried eggs," he added.
Throughout the years, his relationship with Americans became stronger. His daughter married an Army officer from Caserma Ederle in 1992.
Scaroni has been to the United States several times with his wife, Caterina. In 2005, he visited the American Cemetery in Florence with his son-in-law. Since then, he regularly visits each Memorial Day to pay a tribute to the Soldiers who "came from a free and democratic nation to fight for our freedom and democracy."
Escaping from the Nazis
Another significant memory is the one shared by Francesco Zattra, who just turned 96, April 6. He was born in Monte di Malo, but he has been living in the town of Isola Vicentina for many decades.
"I don't remember a lot of my first ten years," he said during the interview, but he remembers how he was forced to enlist at 19 years old in April 1943, and served with the Alpini (Brigata Julia). He fought on the front lines in Tolmino, which is now in Slovenia, against the Russians. He said he was there when the Armistice proclamation of September 8, 1943 was announced by Gen. Pietro Badoglio. The Armistice of Cassibile stipulated the surrender of Italy to the Allies which triggered the German invasion of Italy.
"I remember a stampede of people by foot or with mules when we were trying to escape from Germans," he explained sharply describing all the details of his and his fellow soldiers' flight in a corn field and then in a barn.
After a daring series of events, he evaded capture by walking to catching a train. He made it back home and was served as a guard in the town hall of Isola Vicentina where he was on the night of April 28, 1945.
"I remember seeing a big tank for the first time, so I asked if I could take a look (at it)," Zattra said. "Inside, it was full of candies and every good thing."
He spoke about other vivid memories, of people coming out of their homes with flasks of wine to celebrate the end of one of the darkest periods in human history.
"After years of dictatorship by Mussolini, liberation was a huge change," he said.
After recalling other atrocities that happened near his hometown, Zattra wants younger generations to remember something from his 96 years of wisdom.
"Young people should think about it. If possible, it is really important to remember what happened. Americans are and will always be welcome to me because they have built something very positive."
Hiding in the barn and a missing birthday cake
Another local resident near USAG Italy who remembers events here 75 years ago is Meri Mion.
Mion was born in San Pietro in Gù, about ten miles northeast of Vicenza. On her 13th birthday which fell exactly on the night of liberation, she and her 48-year-old mother spent the night hiding in the attic of their farm along the main road of town.
That night, they were alone as her father was away to get the food for the livestock and could not return until the next day after being stuck in the center of the town.
"One of my brothers had been imprisoned by the Germans, while the older one had to run away and we didn't know where he was. There was a lot of fear, we didn't know what was going on. We had only seen the column of Americans go by," said Mion.
She remembered that night as the Germans retreated, they fired many shots at her house. The two women were afraid something horrific might have happened had the Nazis found them hiding. The memories of that night still haunt her.
"During the War, we had moved to a room under a porch and brought the radio with us; at the time, there weren't many radios. In the evening the neighbors used to come to listen to the news at our house. My mom also brought a bottle of grappa to keep us warm and cheer us," she continued.
On a brighter note, she described how in the morning she woke up to discover an American command post was only 150 meters from their house.
"Once we were happy that the Americans had liberated our town, my mom and I prepared a cake because it was my birthday," she added. "Everyone in town was really happy with the liberation."
After taking it from the oven, they left the cake outside the window to cool off. Later on, she discovered it was gone. As a young girl she remembered being a little sorry but at the same time, happy because she reasoned someone else deserved it.
Mion likes tells these stories to her grandchildren. Like other Italians who lived through the war, she wants to pass to younger generations the gratitude she feels.
"Since then, every year on my birthday I always think about everything that happened that night. I still want to eat that cake, but I'm happy anyway because it had such a happy ending," Mion said.
Fighting with the partisans and losing a brother
With fewer veterans and witnesses able to share personal memories, the surviving Italians who are grateful to those who fought for their freedom are more determined than ever to keep alive the memory of Liberation Day and its significance for the future.
One of them, who actively participated in the Resistance and fought as a partisan earning a Gold Medal for Valor, is Paola Del Din.
Her name is quickly recognizable in the Vicenza’s military community because she is the sister of Renato Del Din, an Italian infantry officer and partisan, who was killed during a raid in World War II on April 25, 1944, and posthumously awarded the Italian Gold Medal for Valor. USAG Italy’s Caserma Del Din was dedicated in his memory on July 2, 2013.
Her memory of what happened exactly one year after her brother's ultimate sacrifice, is that Friuli and Venezia Giulia regions were still at war, occupied by Nazis, Russians, and Yugoslavian troops near the Tagliamento river.
"At that time, I had to take special care of my two companions from the Bigelow mission, who had been captured and injured in a clash with Cossack troops (fighting with the Nazis)," she explained.
Since the radio operator had a head injury, he could walk and stay in a "safe" house, but he no longer had the transmitter to communicate with the base in Tuscany. Even in such a difficult situation Del Din managed to retrieve a spare transmitter and get it to the radio operator, so it could go back on the air.
"On April 28, I was asked to bring two messages to two transmitting stations. I went and delivered them; the insurrection broke out in the area and I had to wait until May 1 to be able to return to Udine," she said.
Just when she was entering the city, she had the chance to see the allied column arriving, while on the castle of Udine two young men from the Osoppo (partisan brigade active in Carnia and Friuli), hoisted the Tricolor flag.
"But in Udine people were still dying from Yugoslav patrols in the city suburbs," she continued.
Del Din, who was in her 20s at the time, has a message especially to the many young soldiers, Italians and Americans, who 75 years after the end of the Second World War make the defense of the country their life mission.
"I'd recommend reading the history of western civilization and primarily of your homeland without preconceptions. Along with mistakes you will also find wonderful cultural facts, continuous progress and great ideals, the first of which is the recognition of the human value and humanity necessary to build the future. Do not lose sight of the ideal and real values that you are defending, because they are the reason behind your mission," she said.
Del Din feels strongly about the ideal value of liberty and encourages everyone to defend it to avoid any form of dictatorship.
A year after Liberation, the Italian people voted for a republican form of government. More than 2000 years prior, Roman statesman and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero said: "Memory is the treasure and guardian of all things."
For these four local residents, inspiring younger generations to persevere under harsh conditions, such as now under COVID-19, are a message of hope and resilience.