Monday, July 15, 2013

War in Val d'Orcia

Iris Origo's classic
Published 1947
It is remarkable that one of the finest memoirs to come out out World War II was written, not by a soldier, general, politician, nor even by a man.  I refer to Iris Origo's classic War in Val d'Orcia: An Italian War Diary 1943-1944 (, which was first published in 1947.

Marchesa Iris Origo was an Englishwoman married to a Italian landowner with an estate in southern Tuscany.  Her father was an American who had died from tuberculosis when she was eight years old.  As a girl, she had lived for a time on Long Island. Her husband, Antonio, was committed to bringing modern farm techniques that would transform Tuscan agriculture.  His ambitions were interrupted by Mussolini's fatal entry into the war on the Axis side in 1940.

In 1943, seventy years ago this year, Allied forces invaded first Sicily, and then the rest of Italy (see earlier post  Origo's diary conveys with a startling immediacy the manifold threats faced by those living in Italy during the Second World War.  Italy endured devastating Allied bombing, particularly of its Northern industrial cities.  Origo's Tuscan farm took in child refugees whose parents were working in cities such as Genoa and Turin.  Later the war came directly to her own world as the fighting raged through the Tuscan countryside.  Germans and Italian fascists were suspicious of Origo's English connections, while communist partisans suspicious of her family wealth.  There were German soldiers and, later, German deserters hoping to survive.  There were downed Allied airmen seeking food and refuge.  In spite of the risks and costs the Origo farm took them all in.

The Origo household was not untouched by the war.  A stray shell kills their beloved gardener Gigi.  Many nearby Italian women are raped, allegedly by coloured troops of the French Fifth Army.  The Origo farm, however, managed to deal with them all and to survive.

Iris Origo, 1902 - 1988
Iris Origo was neither a historian nor a journalist; she was a compassionate woman, a keen observer, a diarist  and a survivor.  She was a witness to history and her diary offers a daily phenomenology of the Second World war.  It also contains a psychology of the lies soldiers often tell themselves in order to endure.
Duomo Florence, Italy
Origo takes note of the ongoing holocaust against Jews in Italy during the war.  She relates the courageous tale of the Archbishop of Florence, Cardinal della Costa.  "When some of his nuns were arrested, in consequence of having given shelter to some Jewish women in their convent , the Cardinal, putting on his full panoply went straight to the German Command. 'I have come to you, ' he said, 'because I believe you, as soldiers to b e people who recognize authority and hierarchy -- and who do not make subordinated responsible for merely carrying out orders.  The order to give shelter to those unfortunate Jewish women was given by me: therefore I request you to free the nuns, who have merely carried out orders, and to arrest me in their stead.'  The German immediately gave orders for the nuns to be freed, but permitted himself to state his surprise that a man like the Cardinal should take under  his protection such people as the Jews, the scum of Europe, responsible for all the evils of the present day.  The Cardinal did not enter upon the controversy. 'I look upon them,' he said, 'merely as persecuted human beings; as such it is my Christian duty to help and defend them.  One day,' he gave himself the pleasure of adding, 'perhaps not far off you will be persecuted and than I shall defend you!'"

On February 8, 1944 she tells us that the German Consul opposes the looting of Florence that some German soldiers soldiers favor.  This is the very same heroic Gerhard Wolf who may have saved the Ponte Vecchio (

The Greek poet Aeschylus wrote, "In war, truth is the first casualty.  In 1943-44 Origo and her family, unsatisfied with the propaganda spewed out by Mussolini's Fascist state, were desperate to learn the truth about the progress of the war.  They listened clandestinely and at great risk to BBC radio broadcasts.  They also digested reports from various Axis and Allied combatants.

On June 16, 1944, soon after D-day Origo comments on the morale of German soldiers who have been billeted on her farm. "As to the general morale, they are all quite frankly tired of the war and of five years away from their houses and families, appalled by the bombing of Germany, and depressed by the turn of events here and in France.  But there is not one of them who does not still express his blind conviction that Germany cannot be beaten, and their equally blind belief in a terrible Vergeltung ("Retribution") against England, which is close at hand.  What form it will take, they say, they do not know, but the Fuhrer has promised it to them and he has never yet failed to keep promises to his own people."
Hitler's Vergeltung
V-2 Rocket, Flying Heritage Collection,
Everett, WA
On June 18, 1944 Origo is disturbed to hear "terrible news from England".  "In the late afternoon, as we are standing by a trench, a sergeant comes up and tells Antonio with glee that die Vergeltung is going on splendidly.  The details, he says, come from the neutral radio, Swiss and Swedish.  They say that it has been going on steadily since the 15th, and that the whole of London and the south coast is aflame.  There is no possibility of the landing in France continuing, and the troops there will be encircled. 'What wouldn't I give to see it!' he cries.  I feel sick and blind with misery, and go back to the house.  Oh, England, England!" 

More Vergeltung
V-1 and Piloted Test Rocket, FHC, Everettt, WA
On June 29th, 1944 her farm was finally liberated by British troops from the Eighth Army.  She was reassured to learn from an officer that damage from the flying bombs in London "is too erratic to be considered a serious military menace."

In spite of the death and destruction that swirled around them, Origo's diary is ultimately an affirmation of the power of life and the resiliency of humanity enduring the chaos of the most terrible war in history.  In spite of everything life somehow finds a way.  Origo was pregnant and delivered her second child at a hospital in Rome while Allied bombs were falling.

Siena 2013, Italy
Origo concludes her diary as follows, "The Fascist and German menaces are receding.  The day will come when at last the boys will return to their ploughs, and the dusty clay-hills of the Val d'Orcia will again 'blossom like the rose'.  Destruction and death have visited us, but now -- there is hope in the air."
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