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Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Il Generale: A personal story of an Italian general abandoned by his government in World War II

Gen. Francesco Giangreco. Bologna. 1942
Chiara Midolo and Salvatore Giangreco, the General's
granddaughter and son, at his grave site on the Carso,
where he chose to be buried.  More photos of the Carso
and World War I are at the end of this post.
We are able to bring this story to light thanks to our good friends Chiara Midolo, the General's granddaughter, and her husband, Massimo Vizzaccaro, who assisted Salvatore Giangreco, the General's son, with the editing and publication of this remarkable memoir.

“Gen. Francesco Giangreco:  The Human Costs of an Armistice without Directive” is a fascinating and troubling first-hand account of one Italian caught in the turmoil of World War II.  
Today, the town square in Avola, the General's hometown, and to which he
 returned after the war.  The red wine, Nero d'Avola, comes from here. 
As Chiara quotes her grandfather, "we just called it vino."
It's hard for non-Italians to comprehend just how far Avola is from the Carso.
Born in 1891 in the small town of Avola in southeast Sicily, Giangreco was a career military man. He saw action in the brutal northeast Italian World War I campaign, fighting against the well-positioned troops of Austria-Hungary at the Isonzo River and at Gorizia, both places of horrific conflict that we’ve visited.  He’s buried at San Michele del Carso, at the top of the Carso--a forbidding landscape of limestone rock and sinkholes-- where some of the worst of the fighting occurred.  When asked by his grandchildren why he stayed in the military when Mussolini—whom he said he hated--came to power, he replied, “I’m a general. That was my job.”  
Giangreco was commanding a unit in the now-Croatian city of Knin on September 8, 1943, the day Italy signed an armistice with the Allies. Loyal soldier that he was—and, unlike many Italian soldiers, who simply went home—he stayed at his post.  Instead of the Allies arriving, the Germans were fast approaching.  He repeatedly asked his superiors what he was supposed to do, but he was given no clear instructions and issued no orders; he was simply left hanging.  When the Germans arrived, they tried to coerce him into joining his forces with theirs against Tito, in essence violating the terms of the armistice.  When he refused, they arrested him—a man who had been fighting on their side for years— “for having taken actions against the interests of the Reich.”
Gen. Giangreco in Turin at a war college 1923-24.
He also taught in war colleges around Italy.

Giangreco was sent to several local prisons and eventually to Nazilabor camps.” He spent a year at Schokken in Poland.  Asked repeatedly to join La Repubblica di Salò (The Salò Republic, the puppet government the Germans set up for Mussolini in northern Italy) and having refused, he was sent to the Flossenbürg labor camp in Bavaria, where he was interned for 6-1/2 months before the war ended.  He would remain a prisoner for another month and a half after the close of the war.  By 1947 he was in essence decommissioned.  As his son, Salvatore Giangreco, says in the book’s introduction, “’Democratic’ Italy after the war, obviously, no longer needed men like General Francesco Giangreco.”  After all this, his loyalty to Italy would be questioned.  In a challenge that might have implied he lied and abandoned his post, he was called on by the Commission for Examination of the Comportment of Generals and Colonels to prove he had been a prisoner of war.    

We know the details of Giangreco’s service and imprisonment through a diary he kept from April 15, 1945, when the details of his dehumanizing existence and bare survival were fresh in his mind and while he remained a prisoner, to June 15, 1945, when he arrived in Rome; from letters he
wrote from his home town of Avola in Sicily in January 1946, justifying his actions; and from his missives to the Commission. These documents, “Il Manoscritto” (The Manuscript or Diary) and “Il Memoriale” (The Testimonial), together with the letters to the Commission, photos of the original diary pages and historical photos of Giangreco, form the book, published in 2016 by
ABEditore (available at this time only in Italian).
At the book launch for "Gen. Francesco Giangreco" at Rome's Museo della
Memoria e della Storia.  Salvatore Giangreco at far left.

That a decorated general, who spent 2 years in Nazi camps would have to justify his actions, reveals much about the immediate post-war period in Italy.  If you weren't a partisan (and as some say, there were more ‘partisans’ after the war than the population of Italy), you were a Fascist and
to be denied all succor from your fellow Italians and the government.

If you were a grandchild of “the General,” growing up in post-War Italy when the Left was on the rise and all who participated in Fascism were painted with the same black brush, his past was embarrassing.  You wanted your grandfather to have been a partisan.  Only in reading these accounts can one have a sense of the bravery, loyalty (though one might consider it misguided), and dignity of Giangreco. There is more recent historical work focusing on “passive” resistance: military men such as Giangreco and thousands of others; of civilians who gave shelter to Jews, soldiers, and persecuted people; of civilians who knew and did not report to Nazi-fascist police.

As his son Salvatore writes in dedicating the volume to the General’s grandchildren, the book will help them “understand the price their grandfather Francesco paid for remaining faithful to his oath of loyalty to a king who didn’t deserve it.”  King Vittorio Emanuele III supported Mussolini—until he didn’t.

Giangreco’s account offers a window on the dehumanization that was characteristic of the German camps.  It is all the more searing because Giangreco began his ordeal with a strong sense of his own self-worth as a general in the Italian army.  
Survivors of Schokken gathering at the Altare della Patria in
 Rome May 22-23, 1960, almost 40 years later.
Gen. Giangreco is in the far right corner.

“…[W]e were suffering from hunger, filth, and above all the indiscriminate mixing of people of every race and kind.  There were Poles, Frenchmen, Hungarians, Russians, Belgians, Czechs, Jews, Yugoslavs, gypsies, ex-military, workers, whatever profession, criminals…. General Grimaldi [his colleague] and I (modesty is here out of place) were of a more elevated social condition and, without a doubt, the oldest.”

Giangreco describes the gradual stripping away of, first, his luggage, and then his meager remaining belongings, then his clothes, and then his title, and then even his name.  He became a number - 35305.  We have seen this sequence in many of the survivor records of the Nazi camps.  Giangreco’s stands out as a particularly devastating story, in part because he is a talented writer and in part because he writes this so soon after his experience, in great detail.

On September 9, 1943 (the day after Mussolini was dismissed), he writes "we were led to believe, because of our commitment to the alliance to the end, that almost certainly we would be sent back to Italy, where we thought the Badoglio government would have been returned to power (we were in the dark about everything that had happened, knowing Mussolini had been imprisoned and thinking that the royal government would have taken control of its own house)." [In fact, Mussolini was imprisoned but then was 'liberated' by the Germans, who set him up in his puppet government of the Republic of Salo'.] "At Wietzendorf [between Munich and the Netherlands], the scene changed completely. Before entering a prison camp we were stripped-searched and our weapons and items in our luggage were taken away."

The first camp, where he spent almost one year, is what he called "Schokken," likely "Oflag XXI-C," also known as "Lager 64/Z," a German prison camp for officers near what is now called Skoki, in central Poland, north of Poznan. Wikipedia's entry refers only to Norwegian officers in this camp.

Transferred to another camp and in preparation for the required shower, he writes: "A young Pole called me over and ordered me to put all my things in a large paper bag, leaving me with just two strips of cloth on which was written the number 35305, my camp registration number, telling me that I could keep only that which could be considered toilet articles. I set aside only what was considered "necessary" for shaving and personal hygiene, toilet paper, etc. Excluded from these necessities were personal linens, even hand towels. Then I had to put all the rest in the bag, including my personal documents, receipts, correspondence, visas, family photographs. They left me with 3 small tins of food and 4 biscuits....After several hours, two SS men entered to finish the operation. A table had been prepared for them, close to which was a huge empty bin. We were ordered to pick up the things we had left in the locker room [before the shower]. I understood that I had to take out of my bundle all the food except for one little tin of salmon and some other objects. I was ordered to open my bundle. The military men watched and, for each article, gave a signal. The Pole took the objects one by one, examined them and then, shouting, threw almost everything in the bin. It seemed to me that he threw the best things there. He saw my roll of toilet paper and furiously held it under my eyes, yelling phrases incomprehensible to me, blue with anger and almost horrified: 'In Konzentrationslager...!In Konzentrationslager!' As if to say that it was unheard of to take something of such 'luxury' into a concentration camp....In the final analysis I was left with only a safety razor, the tin of salmon and some Gillette blades. I was totally and legally fleeced. I returned to the ranks, holding in my hands the two strips of cloth with the no. 35305, that by now was my only document."

On arriving at Flossenbürg, he and Grimaldi were put in Block 23, which was one of two considered “euphemistically ‘infirmary’ or, more openly, the ‘antechamber to the crematorium.’” Everyone was near death there.  As Giangreco describes the block, “Most of its inhabitants looked like zombies; there were about 50 who couldn’t get to their feet and seemed about to die any moment....As soon as one of them died, he was immediately stripped of the few pieces of clothing on him, his number was written in red pen on his chest or back (according to the position in which he was found) and he was taken away.” [Giangreco’s term “larve” is more directly translated “larvae” or “worms,” but it is also colloquially translated “zombies,” which seems more apt here.]

He describes those assigned to work in the rock quarry.  “There were intellectuals: students, professors, doctors, lawyers, etc., those who—not accustomed to hard labor—died at their posts.”Partly from luck, partly from being able to speak languages to those internees who had a modicum of power (the “Blockmann”), the two generals managed to obtain work in the clothing facility, where clothes were sorted and somewhat cleaned and redistributed—a relatively easy job.  And they moved, block by block, up to Block 2, away from the constant reminders of death.  Each block housed about 500 internees, with the three last blocks of death housing 1,000 each.

The "blocks" of Flossenbürg,

Giangreco describes going from the hell of Schokken to Flossenbürg, but on seeing what was happening in Flossenbürg, he recasts Shokken as “an Eden.”  He describes “the most pitiful procession that the mind can imagine, that the human eye has even seen.  One, two, three at a time, came forward these beings that could not have been human: zombies that got to their feet, covered with rags, with their eyes fixed on nothing, emaciated beyond belief, faces forward, eyes black and deep, covered with festering wounds.  These unfortunates tried to support each other; all with mouths
half-closed, thin lips from which their teeth protruded, and from which often issued laments.  One in particular I remember, who had a wound on his head from the front to the back, large, deep, pustulent. The puss, mixed with blood, streamed from his forehead; it had filled his eye and ran along his nose to his mouth.  This unhappy man didn’t have the strength to wipe it off, he couldn’t raise his arm, and rid his lips of that pus with his tongue….I thought I was in a nightmare; I couldn’t bring myself to understand that this haunted scene – a haunting not of the devil, but of martyred human beings--was reality….I pinched myself to wake myself from that horrendous dream.  Unfortunately, I was awake.”

For those who read Italian, “Gen. Francesco Giangreco” is a deeply moving account of a camp survivor, as well as the story of a participant in, and a victim of, Mussolini’s war.

Remains of trenches in the Carso, which today is ironically
verdant.  It was white rock, without any green cover,
when the brutal battles of World War I occurred.


The trenches in World War I, from  the Museum
of the Great War in Gorizia, Italy, on the border
with Slovenia.

"Peak #4 - On this peak as in all the other 3 peaks
(1, 2 and 3), unfolded the gruesome and bloody
fights in the battles of Monte San Michele,
contested between the Italians and Austro-Hungarians
in the first year of the 1915-1918 war,
battles the Italian troops won in 1916.
Salvatore at the monument to the "Brescia
Brigade," in which the General served in World
War I, at the cemetery at San Michele dal Carso.

Brescia Brigade officers 1917. Giangreco is seated in the front row, third from the right.

1939. Tripoli, where he was the Colonel
in charge of the 20th Infantry Regiment.
Giangreco's post here documents
Italy's imperial ambitions in North Africa.

This was the General's home on the town square in Avola.
On the town square in Avola, a  plaque to the "unknown soldiers"
who died on the Carso.  A little hard to translate literally,
 but loosely and in essence: "Their sacrifice on the Calvary of the
 Carso shines on later generations, helping to form a new Italian
consciousness from the virtue of  these soldiers' military sacrifice."
Massimo and his uncle-in-law, Salvatore, at Gen.
Giangreco's grave site on San Michele dal Carso.

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