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Living with the Enemy: Once Upon A Time There Was Prati Nuovi

This paper examines the perceptions of surviving members of Italian families who protected escaped New Zealand prisoners-of-war in German-occupied northern Italy after the Armistice. They lived at Prati Nuovi, a large farming estate in the Veneto region which, during the war years, housed both a working camp for interned New Zealand prisoners-of-war and, subsequently, a platoon of German soldiers.

I wanted to discover how surviving witnesses remembered what it had been like for their families to shelter and feed young men on the run, and what drove them to risk their lives for ‘the enemy’. What political affiliations, if any, did they have? For example, were they fascist or anti-fascist, and did this impact on their decision to assist the New Zealanders? How did they cope with living alongside the German ‘invaders’? And how did they perceive the partisan struggle?

Allowing people to speak for themselves in an unstructured format meant that my initial focus on the New Zealanders branched into a wider, although related, area involving the social history of Prati Nuovi itself. A sub-text of family loyalties and grievances, suspected informers and unsolved betrayals emerges where the ‘not-said’ and the implied are played out against the plain desire for survival and competing forces for Italy’s political future. My oral history project and the publicity given it became a locus of dissenting voices and contested truths as people vied to be interviewed to ‘set the record straight’, while others stressed their humanitarian, apolitical stance.

Recent interpretations of Italy as engaged in a civil war from September 1943 until April 1945 are here given a more complex reality. On the surface a back-water milk and honey paradise, Prati Nuovi becomes a microcosm of the ambivalences, tensions, resistances and collaborations operating among civilians in war-time Italy, a legacy alive in their contested memories today.

‘Once upon a time [there was a village], and now it exists no longer. Originally the property of a rich and enlightened Jew, a certain Orefice, and of a generous industrialist in the silk business, Giuseppe Cugnasca from Como, who purchased the property in 1931, [Prati Nuovi] became an example of social organization. Thanks to them the zone enjoyed a high standard of living. However, Orefice’s civil status as a Jew prevented him from staying in the zone to continue his worthy work, and therefore as soon he was able, he sold his share. The remaining owner, Cugnasca, continued the good work already undertaken. He kept on many workers even when circumstances did not warrant it, showing understanding for their personal problems and helping people in financial difficulties.

To champion the survival of Prati Nuovi, namely its social and environmental importance, comes a call from afar, New Zealand no less, on the part of Paul Day, a professor of English at Waikato University, who was an ex-prisoner-of-war in a working camp once located at Prati Nuovi. After having paid a visit here some years ago with the secret desire of seeing the place of his imprisonment flourish again, he sent his daughter Felicity and, most recently, the famous New Zealand journalist Susan Jacobs’. ‘Once upon a time there was Prati Nuovi’, Il Popolo, June 24 2001, p. 7. (Translation my own)

The article marks the consecration of the newly-restored church at Prati Nuovi which had been celebrated with a service and an open–air fund-raising dinner attended by 400 locals from surrounding communities. For some years Prati Nuovi’s deserted buildings had been under threat to make way for commercial development. Vigorous opposal to this was eventually successful on the grounds that they should be preserved as part of the zone’s historic and cultural heritage. My appearance in the story in the flatteringly erroneous guise as the ‘famous journalist’ links me to the Prati Nuovi story through its most distinguished foreign protagonist and establishes my (inflated) legitimacy to explore it further. It also indicates the keen public ownership of Prati Nuovi’s history, its place in collective memory for a large number of people, and its sweeping sanitising of the estate’s complex social history.

During the early war years Prati Nuovi housed a satellite working camp, 107/2, for about 50 New Zealand prisoners-of-war. On September 8 1943 when Italy, until then fighting on the side of Germany, surrendered to the Allies, thousands of Allied prisoners interned in camps throughout Italy managed to escape. Although the Germans, who within days had poured troops into central and northern Italy, soon recaptured the majority of prisoners and sent them to camps in Germany, a significant number remained at large and were fed and sheltered by Italian civilians, many of whom were peasants. Some passed through partisan units and escaped over the mountains into Switzerland but a large number of these men submerged themselves in the rural population, passing as Italians until the end of the war.

At Prati Nuovi, Paul Day, the camp interpreter, and his companions stayed put for a few weeks as many men were suffering from malaria. They continued to help with the farm work in return for food. Just before the group were about to escape to the mountains, a platoon of Austrian soldiers arrived and took the men off to further imprisonment in Germany. Day and Martin Hodge managed to evade capture by jumping out of a window and hiding in a huge haystack. For three months the two men lived clandestinely in houses around Prati Nuovi assisted by families.

My research was concerned with collecting testimonies about this experience not only from surviving veterans, but also from surviving members of Italian families who assisted the evaders. I was interested in what drove families to risk their lives to help young strangers, ostensibly ‘the enemy’, from a country many had never heard of. I wanted to know what political affiliations they may have had in a country torn apart by Mussolini’s German-supported fascist militia, and the newly formed partisan bands determined to expel the Germans and eliminate Fascism.

Prati Nuovi was originally a large farming estate stretching for 1000 hectares near the Adriatic Coast between Venice and Trieste. It was an example of Mussolini’s social experiment of land reclamation where malaria-infested swamps were cleared and sub-divided into the ‘new fields’ from which Prati Nuovi derived its name. As such, it provided work and accommodation to about 40 farm-workers and their families, about 400 people in total.

Organised along strictly traditional lines, the estate was a microcosm of hierarchical relationships headed by the absent landowner, the administrator who directed all operations, the assistant overseer, and a sub-strata of rapidly descending roles comprising the mechanic, the game-keeper, the stable-hands, and the field-workers.

My oral history interviews were conducted with members of these families who, now in their 60s and 70s, had been young adults or children at the time. Among them were the sons of the administrator, Ghirardelli; the son of the assistant overseer, Bisioli; the sons of Ciprian, the mechanic, and the sons of the farm workers, Blasigh, Perosa and Fraulin.

I am reluctant to call the unstructured conversations I had interviews. Although I had some specific questions based on Paul Day’s account, I preferred to let the participants speak for themselves, once they knew my general area of interest. Also, because I was often privy to information I was previously unaware of, as in the case of the Jewish landowner, I would weave this into my conversation with subsequent interviewees. In this way I tried to discover if and how people related their memories to the political and social climate of the time.

Narrators in connection with Paul Day’s escape always recounted their stories around the memories of their lives at Prati Nuovi. In fact, two interviews, at the participants’ request, were conducted there. We walked around the deserted estate, clambering over fences and through the rubble of ruined buildings, with my tape-recorder held as close to the narrators as possible. This was partly because they wanted to show me the spots where Day used to sleep, where he escaped, and where the haystack stood. But it was also clear that Prati Nuovi meant more than the location of an exciting escape story. I visited the stables, the cow shed, the padrone’s villa, the administrator’s office, the improvised rugby field, each place resonant with strands of social history and its remembered impact on lives today.

For Bruno Blasigh, who was 11 years old at the time, Prati Nuovi was a paradise where there was always an abundance of food provided by the produce from the fields and the prized cow. Roberto Perosa and Gino Fraulin who, along with Blasigh lived with their families on the third floor of the building which housed the New Zealand prisoners and their guards on the ground floor, also remember it as a happy time with everybody helping each other. All spoke of the festa held after the day’s work on Saturday nights, an occasion alive with music and dancing. The emphasis on Prati Nuovi’s self-sufficiency and having plenty to eat was an important source of pride and gratitude when there were widespread food shortages, especially in the towns.

The memory of Paul Day’s dramatic escape is still vivid for all the narrators. The Germans arrived unexpectedly one evening while the prisoners were having dinner and surrounded the building, holding people at bay with their tommy guns. The prisoners were ordered to pack up and be ready to leave in half an hour. Day narrates his escape as a grand adventure, punctuated with laughter. He attributes the notion of escaping to the secretary of the estate, who was Austrian.

‘She was a big tall blond girl, very handsome, self-contained. The whole platoon was clustered around her. There was nobody on guard anymore. Ilde came up to say goodbye, greeted me then said sottovoce “è tempo di scappare” [it’s time to escape], and I saw she had twigged the guards weren’t doing anything’. Day asked the ‘frazzled’ captain if he could go back inside to get some things and then looked out the window, saw there were no guards around and took his chance. ‘I stood there thinking, do I want a bullet in the back? And then I threw a window open, jumped out, and ran across to the hayloft, a huge structure with hay piled on top, scrambled into the hay and put it over my head’.

Bruno Blasigh and Benito Ciprian saw Paul Day’s escape from their window above the prisoners’quarters. They started squealing ‘Day scappato, Day scappato’ and received a belt over the head from the mechanic, Ciprian’s father. Franco Ghirardelli, who was 13 at the time, recalled the event with a sense of excitement. He lapsed into the immediacy of the present tense and accompanied his account with gestures. ‘It was 6pm and it was hot. I was sitting astride over there. I was a kid of 12 or 13 with a ball. In that moment I hear the noise of trucks, no. I get down and I look out like this to see who’s arrived. I run back and from the window I give a great yell inside. Escape the Germans are here, escape the Germans are here I shouted!’

The Germans arrived towards evening in three trucks that crawled hidden from view behind a cart piled with hay, returning after a day’s work. Benito Ciprian remembers, ‘If there hadn’t been those hay carts we would have seen them arrive and they could have escaped. They [the Germans] were cunning. They came behind the hay carts and no one saw them. They got down from their trucks with their tommy guns - alt alt alt! We were all so upset’. I asked one of the men how he thought the Germans knew the prisoners were there. Fraulin: [laughter] Ehhhh, people .…there were fascists around!’.

The Ghirardelli brothers, sons of the administrator, a noted fascist, were keen to meet me to set the record straight. They had heard that Paul Day suspected their father of tipping off the Germans. Day believed that the administrator had been informed that the New Zealanders were preparing to flee to the partisans. His POW report written in June 1944 documents how their employer Ghirardelli after the Armistice had threatened to hand over the entire camp to the Germans if even one man went away.

Franco Ghirardelli: ‘Let me explain. After my father learned the reason… he found out and he was very angry’. Ghirardelli explained that an Italian colonel who was in charge of the prison camps told the German command that there were prisoners out of his control at various working camps, among them Prati Nuovi. ‘He was the one who told them to go and get them. This is what happened. Do you understand? My father only knew about this after they arrived’. He continued that, after their escape, Day and Martin often came to his house. ‘My father gave many suggestions to Day when they came at night. He taught them everything they needed to do and how they needed to act. Never move in the day, always at night, he said’. When I reported this to Paul Day, he denied ever seeking out Ghirardelli. He remembers a severe man, a committed fascist, whom he did not trust. Day still believes that it was highly likely that Ghirardelli called the Germans in, but he had no evidence. Yet, by all accounts it was Ghirardelli who pacified the Germans when, discovering that two prisoners were missing, they threatened to burn down the farm. And he may have known of the presence of the two escapers in houses round Prati Nuovi, and chosen to ignore it.

The brothers told me how they had entertained Day and his wife at their home in 1974 and gave me photos to prove it. They insisted Day had requested to visit their father’s tomb, thus showing in what high esteem he held him. Curiously, Day has no recollection of ever visiting the grave, nor asking to. The question of accuracy in oral history accounts is addressed in Alessandro Portelli’s statement that ‘the importance of oral testimony may often lie not in its adherence to facts but rather in its divergence from them, where imagination, symbolism, desire break in’. (Portelli 1981,100) The brothers’ desire was to restore their father’s (and their own) good name through creating a story that challenges Day’s own recollection. Day may have indeed viewed the tomb out of courtesy but attached so little importance to it that he promptly forgot about it. But there was a larger issue at stake, namely what really happened at Prati Nuovi.

The notion that Ghirardelli, the committed black-booted Fascist, who practised weekly ‘Saturday Fascist’ martial parades, was being represented as a helper of the prisoners enraged Bruno Bisioli, the assistant overseer’s son. A journalist had recorded my visit to Prati Nuovi with the Ghirardelli brothers, and subsequently an article appeared in the newspaper. As a result, my contact received a furious phone call from Bisioli who exhorted him to bring me round to him for ‘the truth’. Infuriated that ‘those fascists’ were publicly taking the credit for saving the prisoners, he immediately inserted his discourse into a political framework.

‘But if one must live a bit according to ideals and give a hand to society one can’t be right-wing. So if we are going to tell a story you need to tell it truthfully. My father was never a fascist. Those fascists took him on because he was good at his job…not for his political ideas. But they always kept an eye on him because he didn’t have the fascist card’.

Bisioli interrupted his narrative on several occasions to emphasise that his was a story of worker’s rights and struggles against Fascism. The escape tale is, in fact, subsumed by his desire to contest the presumed distortion of Ghirardelli’s narrative, and establish it as an ongoing battleground of left versus right, oppression versus power.

‘This story is not a trivial one. It is the truth. Let’s be frank, this story should be written in favour of the left not the right. The words to believe in my view are those spoken by the worker, because one who has suffered tells 90% of the truth. The person who instead doesn’t know what poverty means and has always been on top of things tells what suits him. The bosses change themselves to suit the new power base’.

His claim to the truth is similar to early Resistance memoirs where an insistence on ‘authenticity’ is opposed to ‘fiction’, unaware of the complex re-workings of memory and the problematic relationship between memory and history. (Perry 1998) For Bisioli the present revisionist climate allows a lot of ‘fascists’ to come out of the woodwork with their self-serving versions of the past. Yet, perhaps unconsciously, he shows awareness of the textual nature of memory, a construct whose re-working of meaning through time is open to question and re-interpretation.

Both the Ghirardelli brothers and Bisioli in their ‘truth-telling’ mission were anxious that their narratives correct perceived misconceptions about their fathers’ involvement in helping the New Zealander escapers. But there is a larger discourse here, one that involves a struggle to appropriate and control the current meanings of Fascism and the Resistance. What are at stake for Bisioli, are the values of the Resistance embodied in the class struggle and the ideals of the communists, who led the militant anti-fascist Resistance. In this he reflects the post-war leftist insistence on its predominantly populist, working class roots although, as Rusconi states, the fact that this was not borne out in the post-war election results has questioned the simplicity of this view. He goes on to suggest that ‘populist’ can also refer to conservative, monarchist and Catholic forces that distanced themselves from the communists and often aligned themselves with ex-fascists in order to oppose the ‘red’ threat. (Rusconi 1995, 25) The remembering of these events by the narrators tends to correspond to the prevailing controversy. While Bisioli speaks of his father in terms of his politics, for the Ghirardellis it is about an individual whose fascist politics did not impinge on the fact he was a ‘good man’.

To some extent this bears out Alessandro Portelli’s observation: ‘The conflict is increasingly represented not as a contest between different politics, but as a contrast between “who is political” and “who is not political”, and to be involved in politics is always disruptive’. (Portelli 2001, 440)

However, this distinction reveals its own internal ambiguities. My question to other participants about their families’ political leanings brought, after some probing, responses that addressed the issue of power. Fraulin and Perosa: ‘The administrator at that time had all the power. You had to say yes even if it wasn’t right’. Blasigh: ‘You had to work and keep quiet. If something went wrong the landowner could send you away. Our families didn’t know anything about politics. You worked and you ate’. A family’s economic dependency could be a key factor influencing their disassociation from politics. Eschewing politics was clearly a strategy to avoid the disruptive economic consequences of being ‘political’, that is, against the fascist regime. The families of the farm workers were in no position to challenge authority.

It was Ciprian, the mechanic, who at nightfall went to the haystack and called to Paul Day and Martin Hodge that it was safe to come out. He took them back to his house, fed them, hid their uniforms, and found them clothes. His son, Visentin, remembers: ‘We were scared because we didn’t know if all the Germans had left. He had a fever of 40 degrees. I put him in my bed’. Although this may have been on a different, later occasion, the memory of the ill prisoner he had relinquished his bed for serves to evoke the sincere efforts his family made to assist the evaders, despite feeling afraid of the consequences.

Ciprian’s sons spoke to me at the garage they owned. The conversation became a two-way avenue of competing voices as the brothers interrupted each other, often finishing off each other’s statements, and looping back and forth in time. The mechanic, who helped Paul Day and Martin Hodge that first night and whom Day remembered fondly as an amiable, trustworthy person, seems to have had a darker side to his past.

Visentin: ‘Now let me tell you. My father was a fascist.’ Ciprian: ‘But one of the good ones. He worked’. Visentin: ‘When the war ended the partisans came and took him to prison. Martino arrives with the Third Army – “where is papà Giovanni? In prison? Why on earth…?” Do you know what he did? He left Prati Nuovi and went on his bike to Portogruaro to the prison and brought him back home. He set him free. This is a true story. Martino went to get my father who was in prison. It was full of lice. They would have killed him’. Ciprian: ‘The partisans were really wicked. All they did was steal’. They share the Ghirardelli’s tendency to justify their father’s politics, here insisting on his status as a worker and simultaneously criminalising the partisan movement.

The fantastic story of Ciprian being saved by Martin Hodge, the New Zealand escaped prisoner who had eventually joined the Allied troops in the south, was verified by three other narrators. But missing from the brothers’ colourful account was why this occurred, and the part the anti-fascist Bisioli senior played in saving their father from the gallows. Bisioli testifies it was his father who accompanied Martino to Portogruaro, and while the New Zealander used his influence with the Allied command, Bisioli negotiated with the partisans. Bisioli stresses that it was his father, actively involved with the partisans, who saved the mechanic’s life. When I asked why the partisans came for Ciprian, the response was cagey.

He explained that the mechanic was a blackshirt who used to participate in hit squads attacking anti-fascists, beating them up and administering doses of castor oil. The hit men would travel to towns outside of their zone. Carrying out ‘actions’ on strangers spared people from beating up their friends and coworkers. In the immediate aftermath of the liberation partisan reprisals on known fascists were common.

The glaring contradiction of why a fascist risked his life to help escaped ‘enemy’ prisoners begs exploration, yet it was not uncommon. The story of the assistance given by ordinary Italians to escaped prisoners is legendary. Roger Absalom has attributed this willingness to the humane, anti-authoritarian values of rural society, to adherence to Christian principles, to the sense of pride in being able to help those from ‘advanced’ countries, and, not least, to keeping on the good side of possible victors. (Absalom, 1991) One widespread reason is echoed by Perosa, who recalls his mother telling his father they had to do something because she would hope another family would help their older son who was a prisoner of the British. Absalom has described how a moral economy operated among peasants in relation to prisoners they sheltered with an implicit system of exchanges, based on mutual respect and support. (Absalom, 1980, 140) Given that it was often women who insisted on keeping the prisoners, it can be extended to encompass a maternal exchange economy that relied on mothers across geographical and political boundaries to look after other ‘sons of mothers’.

The prisoners had worked alongside the Italians on the farm, shared out their Red Cross parcels, attended church every Sunday and the prolonged contact had established a sense of belonging. The ‘ethos’ of not denouncing one’s friends overrode political affiliations in some tight-knit communities and may have applied to the New Zealanders at large, while their status as outsiders meant they were divorced from internal politics. Absalom maintains that the desire to survive the war was the key motivation shared by all and that, for the great majority, economic and psychological strategies of survival overrode participation in the struggle for liberation. (Absalom 1980, 112) However, Portelli states that survival strategies nearly always violated laws set down by the occupying forces, for example buying on the black market or women storming the bakehouses in Rome to feed their families, thus establishing a continuum between acts of individual survival to participation in the Resistance. (Portelli 2001, 439) This desire for survival can also be linked to the concept of attendismo, literally the strategy of awaiting the outcome of the war without overtly taking sides in the hope of emerging as unscathed as possible. Although attendismo has been criticised as being opportunistic and ego-centred, Rusconi believes this is narrowly and unjustly used as an instrument to control interpretations of the partisan movement. He affirms that the threshold between passive or civil resistance and attendismo is very subtle and not easily categorised. Behaviours can be motivated by a sense of moral outrage at the invasiveness of war, the need to protect others from reprisals, anger at enforced deprivations and a sense of solidarity with those in danger than by specifically political motives. (Rusconi 1995, 24)

While Fraulin rationalizes the help given to a Marxist ethics of working class responsibility: ‘If you can’t help people you don’t deserve to call yourself a worker’, the descendants of the fascist families emphasised their individual goodness of heart to fellow human beings. Glossing over their fathers’ support of Fascism, they were scornful of the partisans, ‘who were ruffians and went around stealing’.

In the Spring of 1944, well after Paul Day had made his escape over the Swiss mountains, a platoon of German soldiers occupied Prati Nuovi. At this point the ‘civil war’ between the partisans and the fascists loyal to Mussolini and the Germans was at its most brutal. Yet everyone I spoke to, regardless of their political affiliations, testified that the Germans on the farm estate were ‘good’ and did not hurt anyone. In a backwater environment like Prati Nuovi accommodation to changing circumstances and uncertainty was necessary if the war was to be survived and getting on with everybody a crucial factor. The sons of the fascists made no distinction between the New Zealanders and the Germans, and stressed their distance from politics.

Ghirardelli: ‘My father tried to get on well with the Germans and to help the prisoners who were here’. Ciprian: ‘We got along well with everyone – English, New Zealanders, and Germans’. Visentin: ‘We were on neither side. Everyone here got on with his job. We were friends with everybody’.

Here attendismo seems to best serve those of fascist persuasion but even the communist, Bisioli, had little quarrel with individual Germans. In fact it was a German he had befriended who told him there was an order out to kill his father because of his association with the partisans. The degree of turning a blind eye is evident in his tale of one New Year’s Eve where Germans and Italians at Prati Nuovi joined to celebrate the New Year. The German commander, who had been drinking, turned on Bisioli’s father, who was also drunk.

‘I know you’re a partisan and you gave food to the prisoners’. This last accusation may have been added for my benefit, as the escaped prisoners were long gone before the Germans arrived. But Bisioli probably wanted to emphasise with this the very real danger of assisting escaped prisoners, as an activity guaranteed to bring severe reprisals. This was true but both sides could put aside their disagreement for the odd celebration. In fact, cases of pacts between German commanders and partisan leaders to avoid civilian bloodshed were not unknown even to a furious Mussolini. (Lamb 1993, 219)

Luisa Passerini observes that such ‘testimonies help to look anew at the terms consent/dissent and their application to everyday life under Fascism. They reveal a world of mediations connecting the subjects and fascist authority that allow the latter’s domination to be simultaneously accepted and modified. (Passerini 1987, 139)

This is borne out by anecdotal tales indicating that resistance to the tenets of the regime could be conveyed in deliberately ironic, symbolic gestures which mediated between apparent acquiescence to authority and individual expression. Two of the most significant are about men of opposing political persuasion.

Visentin: ‘My father had a picture. When the Germans arrived to take away the prisoners - this is funny - the SS Commander arrives - upstairs we had a prisoner hidden with a fever. So my father turned the picture round. And Mussolini appeared. On one side there was the King and the Pope, and on the other side there was Hitler with Mussolini. When they saw it…”Heil Hitler”…and away they went. They didn’t know there were prisoners hidden upstairs’.

Bruno Bisioli: ‘My father loved his boots – he always wore black boots for love of them not for the [political] party. He would go without food but he was always elegant. The day Franz said “Bruno tell your father if he doesn’t escape we have an order to kill him”, that day he put on his red shirt, red scarf, his riding pants, and his black boots and got on his horse’.

Both tales are told very effectively, establishing the individual identity of both men. The tale of the two-sided picture serves to portray a sly accommodation of and humorous resistance to perceived control. The symbolic ownership of colour is both mocked and appropriated in the depiction of Bisioli’s deliberate, ambiguous mixing of his boots to express his fashion sense and red attire to declare his politics.

Yet scratch the surface accommodations and humour and the political tensions and potential violence of war were lurking. As reprisals increased spies were an ever-present threat. Paul Day knew he had to leave the area and reach the partisans, actively fighting against the Germans and liaising with Allied Special Forces. Bisioli escaped extinction at the hands of the Germans as a partisan, Ciprian was an alleged blackshirt hitman targeted for a reprisal execution by the partisans, and Ghirardelli the administrator was a committed fascist who seemed to play a shadowy double game.

This is indicated in the story of the previous owner of Prati Nuovi, Max Orefice. The article quoted earlier misrepresents or glosses over the fact that Orefice fell victim to the anti-semite laws passed in 1938, according to which no Jews could own property. Instead of ‘selling his share’, he was dispossessed.

Paul Day had never heard of him, even through his contacts today, but my position as an outside researcher meant that it was one of the first stories I encountered. I subsequently tried to introduce the subject of Orefice to all narrators, meeting with a variety of responses. Usually there was a reluctance to elaborate, a slight embarrassment, a dazed look, or the reference was ignored.

Bisioli, however, was forthcoming. ‘They began to send away all the Jews. Because Orefice was a Jew - he had a lot of money - he was rich and intelligent - also someone whistled from these parts - he left for South America’.

In 1939 Orefice was arrested and, while in custody, suffered beatings and was forced to drink the ubiquitous castor oil. Among his documented crimes was that of having declared in front of dependants at Prati Nuovi that his horse Pasquina was ‘more intelligent than Mussolini’, and of having told jokes mocking the regime. He was put on trial, imprisoned and sentenced to five years in exile at Lipari. However, a month before Italy declared war in June 1940, he and his family immigrated to Latin America where he set up a business selling, ironically, castor oil. In the meantime, the confiscation of his property at Prati Nuovi meant that his share was taken over by his colleague. (Pellegrini 2001, 179)

The existence of documents and letters detailing this event has also given rise to much speculation on who at Prati Nuovi orchestrated the downfall of Orefice and was responsible for the denunciations. A witness testified that after the war Orefice’s son paid a visit to Prati Nuovi and threw some punches at the administrator. Further testimony alleges that the administrator both organised the beating and then assisted his escape to South America. If this was the case, then the administrator probably saved his life. Being sent into domestic exile did not save Italian Jews from being sent to concentration camps in 1943 after the Armistice.

Like all intensely experienced stories/histories, Prati Nuovi’s has a multiplicity of versions. Oral history testimonies reveal that degrees of attendismo operated amongst civilians living in every day situations alongside both Allied escaped prisoners and occupying German troops. That spontaneous acts of human kindness occurred on both sides of the political spectrum is evident and can be examined within a continuum of attendismo, survival strategies, and civil resistance. However, while narrators who identify with leftist thought amplify the political significance of their assistance in terms of the left-wing ideals of the Resistance the descendants of the fascists emphasise the individualistic, apolitical nature of intervention while simultaneously undermining the legitimacy of the Resistance. This stance according to Rusconi is the legacy of a post-fascist attendismo which, distancing itself from the Resistance, became an active platform for the development of the centre-right parties. (Rusconi 1995, 25)

Therefore, testimonies indicate that the socio-political undercurrents operating at Prati Nuovi during the war years are still alive in the contested truths and dissenting voices among descendants today, and are linked to current arguments on how to interpret the period. Claudio Pavone’s division of the Italian Resistance into three separate although linked conflicts - a civil war, class war and war of liberation (Pavone 1994)- are borne out in these narratives, but the complexities of how these conflicts were understood and negotiated in ordinary lives need further analysis. Prati Nuovi’s unique situation of ‘living with the enemy’, both external and internal, reveal there are no pat answers.

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Interviews Paul Day, Interview with Susan Jacobs, 18.8.2000. Franco and Dario Ghirardelli, Interview with Susan Jacobs, 28.4.01. Benito Ciprian, Interview with Susan Jacobs, 27.4.01. Gino Fraulin and Roberto Perosa, Interview with Susan Jacobs, 27.4.01. Bruno Bisioli, Interview with Susan Jacobs, 4.5.01. The ‘tessera’ is the Fascist Party membership card, without which it was nearly impossible to find work.