This memoir spans 67 months, more than 2,000 days, starting from the ill-fated Sunday in March 1938 when Hitler’s troops invaded Austria and turned this Jewish family into nomads. Sixty-seven months of running, hiding, trying to stay alive and maintaining sanity is a compelling story, particularly as it is told through the voice and impressions of this young boy as he ages from 7 to 12. Scattered throughout the book are precious, vintage pictures of some of the people and places written about.
Eric and his parents flee the Nazis from their Vienna home in a suspenseful journey, leaving all they owned and knew behind. This little 7-year-old boy describes his heartbreak in leaving his teddy bear behind forever. They make it to Italy and the father separates to visit extended family in Poland. This trio does not reunite. The rest of this saga is about a mother and her son and their valiant life together. They run to France until it is no longer safe, and then back to Italy. When Mussolini joins Hitler, they become internees for the remainder of the war.
This poignant memoir highlights humor, and warm friendships, and love too among the internees — the confinati — in a very small, secluded Italian village. At the worst of wartime, you read of surprising triumphs of the human spirit. One little example is when the mother struggles to keep her growing son in clothes. He tells of his mother patiently taking apart a knitted sweater, scarf, gloves, and hats to re-knit the precious yarn into a larger sweater. He describes how this knitting project was a major topic of conversation with the internees, proof that any little diversion was creatively used to enliven and relieve the endless monotony of waiting for freedom from war.
They are able to smuggle a radio, and with friends they followed the battlefields on a map covered with pins. He speaks mischievously of his fascination with the BBC broadcast coded messages — “The monkey has gone home” or “The sheep has escaped from the barn.” –messages meant for the resistance fighters throughout German-occupied Europe inspired hope.
The internees lived in rooms and apartments among the remote village townspeople. They developed sympathies for these Italian families where most men had been drafted and sent to the front lines, many to Russia. When Italy surrenders to Americans, now the Italians and the internees find they are both enemies of the Germans. Other unique friendships also develop with this precocious young boy, including with an Italian army Lieutenant, and also with a Nazi officer who speaks longingly of his own 11-year-old son. And what was the gift from the enemy? I won’t spoil that sweet surprise for you.
Thereby hangs a tale . . . .
– By Wendy Kendall
Wendy Kendall is a writer, project manager and volunteer at the Edmonds Library. She’s enjoyed living in Edmonds for over 20 years. Follow her via her blog here or on Twitter @wendywrites1.