The best way out is always through - Robert Frost
In March of 2020, we woke up in a world where the freedoms that we had always taken for granted were being taken away. It seemed that we had awoken into a nightmare. Although this has become the new normal, it still feels unreal at times. We are growing fatigued of this in Australia. Things seem to have ramped up and we don't know when they're going to end. Today, all of a sudden, I thought of my Grandpa, now 96 years old and living with my Grandma in Adelaide. From the ages of 18 to 20, during World War Two, he had his freedom taken away. A few years ago, I recorded my Grandpa's stories of this time, transcribed them, and compiled them into a book for our family. Although there are many stories of courage in challenging times, it is my Grandpa's attitude towards his situation that I have always found so inspiring. He remained positive through it all. Because of this, I would like to share some of his lessons for life here.
Photo: 2016, at the end of my 7 years in Melbourne, just before I moved back to Queensland.
My Grandpa grew up in Naples, Italy. During the war he was recruited as a ‘Gastarbeitnehmer’ - a guest worker, and was taken to Germany for two years to work in the Deurag-Nerag oil refinery in Misburg, east of Hannover. He had no warning, no belongings, and no contact with his family during this time. My research for the book taught me that he was right to be concerned about his family in Naples. Naples was the most bombed city in Italy. There were approximately two hundred air strikes by allied forces between 1940 and 1944, and one hundred and eighty raids during 1943. Between twenty thousand and twenty-five thousand civilians were killed. Hannover was also far from a safe place to be. Hannover was a major railway junction at the intersection of two important east-west and north-south routes. It was one of the most active industrial centres in the Third Reich. Hannover was bombed eighty-eight times by Royal Air Force Bomber Command and United States Army Air Forces during World War Two. Almost seven thousand people were killed, and ninety percent of the city centre was destroyed.
Through my conversations with my grandparents, and in transcribing these recordings, some distinct themes emerged - lessons for life. These are:
1. Have a positive mindset
Grandpa has maintained a positive mindset throughout his life, and this was evident in his time in Germany. It saddened Grandpa that some of the young men at the refinery lacked the resilience that he had, and became depressed and unable to accept their situation. He mentioned two of the men who didn’t survive, one who had hanged himself and another who had died in hospital.
I was never depressed. I always faced the day as it came. And, trying to prepare myself for tomorrow. I never feared anything. I was confident that tomorrow is another day.
2. Be prepared and think on your feet
Grandpa has said that he liked to be prepared for any possible eventuality. He was able to stay calm in a crisis and think on his feet.
When we arrived north, after two days of travelling in a cattle wagon, fifty or more people stacked in there, with no facilities in there, can you imagine? We finally arrived to our destination in the north and the first morning after arrival a guard / soldier said, “Whoever has got a container, you can have some soup.” Almost nobody had one. I did. I had one. Why did I have that thing? Because second day, while still in Italy in the hands of the Germans we finished in Caserta, north of Naples. While there, the Americans came dropping bombs. Everyone went in the basement, hiding. Most of the people were much older (I was eighteen), and were screaming like scared turkeys. Ah, yes, bom om bom om bom. I had spotted in the corner of the basement a pile of rucksacks, a canteen for water, and an aluminium container for lunch. While the bombs were falling, while the people were screaming for fear, I spotted that stuff. I thought if I survive that day I might need something. So I equipped myself with the canteen, the container and the rucksack. When that soldier said “Anyone has a container?” (for some food), I was one of the few.
Grandpa told us that he had put his hand up for any job that was going, showing his willingness to be helpful. Instinctively he knew that this would work in his favour and help him to protect himself, as those in charge would be more likely to treat him favourably. One day he volunteered to work on a farm, picking carrots. After the day’s work the farmer invited him to fill his bags with as many carrots as he could carry. Grandpa brought the carrots back to share with the others in his quarters. Because he had access to so little, he learned very quickly that it was worth his while to make the most of any opportunity that might arise, never knowing how it might benefit him and make things a little easier to endure.
3. See the best in people
My companions were always complaining about the Germans. There were quite a few good Germans. That was my conviction. Not many people had that opinion. But it was easy to make that opinion, and I did.
Grandpa viewed the German people with whom he came in contact as fellow workers, rather than as the enemy. Germany and Italy were allies when he began working in Germany. He regularly defended them to his friends. He has often told us about a life-changing experience that he had while working at a railway station. He believes that divine intervention was involved.
I went to work with a rope and pulley at a railway station, bags of coal up to the second floor. Cold, I had a shirt, summer trousers and shivering, and pulling up, and if I had left that thing for one split second it would have pulled me out to the edge of the overhang. No barrier. That’s why I was always saying to my friends, “Yes, there are bad Germans, but I tell you there are good ones too, better than Italians.” In fact, suddenly while I was shivering and doing that job, I never saw that man, he put nice jacket on my back and disappeared. I still feel emotional now thinking of it. I never saw him. I think it was a tweed, a nice jacket, on my back. When finally I had a chance that I could look up, I looked around and he wasn’t there.
4. Work hard
Rather than resenting his situation, Grandpa worked hard.
I was strong too, whew! Once I had to change the bottle of oxygen from empty to a new one. I had to go to the store and get one with a special trolley for those bottles. They were heavy empty and they were doubly heavy full because they were liquid oxygen or liquid gas. They became like water, and heavy. I could not find a trolley around and I decided “Let’s see? Yeah, I can make it” and I went to the store with that thing on my back, on my shoulders. Then I got the full one, “Oh, let’s try this too.” And I was coming along the road. And the German leading hand had a baby face, very tall, and every time he was joking, “Italians, marmalade, Italians, marmalade” (Grandpa was squeezing his arms when he said this - indicating that the German man thought the Italian men were lacking muscles). And I came back along the road to the point where we were working, with this bottle on my shoulders. “Jung, jung, jung Vincenzo. You?” An expression of marvel. He didn’t call me marmalade anymore.
5. Take risks
Grandpa said yes to many of the riskier jobs, as they often came with benefits such as better accommodations or food.
When there was no one around, the girls said, “Eat some more”. So sometimes we went one, two, three times for breakfast. At that time stomach was more important than the girls. And when they came around we were at the last table. The Germans had their fill and went back to work or went out to have a smoke if they had cigarettes. We were the last ones so all the solid stuff in the soup was left. Was less water, was more meat and potatoes, and they put two big containers on our table. And, the girls had fun and had a big laugh because those soups disappeared in no time, ‘cause we were skinny. “Where they put all that food?”
6. Have confidence in yourself
The war ended, but the guest workers were retained in the refinery in Germany for several months. The German workers had disappeared, and the Italian workers waited for the British soldiers to come and send them home. They didn't come and food was scarce.
Finally, after a week or so, things were still the same. Nothing had happened with the leadership of these people. So, one morning, to my surprise, they walked over to me. They said, “We have decided to make you the leader of the camp.” “Me? I’m the youngest! What about all the others?” “We don’t trust them. Haven’t done anything.” “And what do you expect me to do?” “Ah” they said. “You will do it.” They convinced me that I would do it. First I thought, "That’s impossible'', but then suddenly my mind went ''Yes, I think I can. I know what I have to do''. Call it desperation, I accepted the position.
Grandpa was able to find food for the people in the camp. After several months he became impatient, no longer having work to do and being concerned about his family in Italy. He and some Italian friends escaped, running through fields, hitching rides on trains, and slowly making their way back home. He knew that it was risky, but he was willing to take the risk. Grandpa arrived home to find that his family were all safe and well. This excerpt describes the final leg of the journey home:
I marched myself with my rucksack, shorts, the hat that I had, shirt, very rough terrain, and went to the railway station. That was the private railway from Naples that goes around Vesuvius to take me home. I was all by myself then. My friends had gone. On board they wanted a ticket. I said, “Look” to the controller. “I come from Germany. I been in Germany for two years. I have no money, no food, no ticket.” People heard. Nearly kicked the controller off the train. “Let him go! Let him go!”
7. Trust in a higher power
Grandpa had some near misses, like when he slept through the alarm that was alerting the workers to go to the bunker to prepare for a bombing.
That was around midnight or more, but there were so many lights that had dropped that the sky was like midday. No shadow formed. The trees had no shadow. “Ah, you done it this time my boy.” But I didn’t fear or anything. I thought, “Well, they will see me now, because if they are low enough they can see me moving. I might be shot from up there. Who cares?” I tried to run under the trees. There was a line of trees along the road. I could see the bunker at a certain distance. No bomb drops yet. No other sound except the aeroplane and those lights. And just like that I found myself in the bunker. I don’t know how I covered that distance. With my legs? I don’t believe that. Inside the doors were open. I was inside. Then after that, boom! One bomb. I don’t remember that bit of road. I don’t remember it then or now, how from here I got inside. I don’t even remember going through the door. Was my brain playing tricks? I was still wide awake. I still believe that God had a plan.
8. Value every moment
Grandpa had longed to become an engineer, but due to conditions in Italy after the war, he became a teacher instead. He and my Grandma moved to Adelaide in the 1950s - a month-long sea voyage.
I mentioned again to Flavia. “This is my decision. Coming to Australia?” And that was proof that she loved me so much (laughs). I don’t know what went in her mind, but I said to myself, “She loves me so much, or she wouldn’t have come.” End of the world with me she came. You want a proof better than that? No.
Holden, in Adelaide, was looking for workers from overseas. Grandpa worked there as a toolmaker, drawing on the experience he had acquired in his father's workshop in Naples and in Germany during the war.
At that time Holden were paying a monthly bonus to people that brought people in. Not enough (skilled tradesmen) people. There was a shortage, besides Holden wanted their first really Australian car......... The Greeks and Italians were still ‘the Wogs’.
Life in Australia had its challenges, but my grandparents learned English as quickly as they could and tackled their new life with enthusiasm. Grandpa worked in the Holden factory for 25 years and they raised three children. My grandparents have so much appreciation for their life here and the opportunities that they had available. Grandpa always says that he wouldn't change a thing and that he has no regrets. Grandpa has recently broken his hip and is recovering, but up until a few months ago he was still driving his car. They also own and maintain two houses without help.
There is so much more to the story, this is just scratching the surface, but I hope it has provided some inspiration. So much happens within one lifetime. Nothing is forever. We will come through our present circumstances and out the other side, and there will be so many more experiences in the future. Sometimes, like in my Grandpa's situation, we can't know what will happen. We just have to live for the day and try to make the best of things. As Grandpa said:
Yes, I was disappointed, but I never despaired. Never despair.
Ghiringhelli. (2003). http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/03/a1993403.shtml
The Bombing of Naples. (2018). http://www.naplesldm.com/Naples%20bombing.php
Sofrep News. (2017). https://sofrep.com/80802/50000-evacuated-hanover-germany-world-war-ii-bombs/
Visit Hannover. (2018). https://www.visit-hannover.com/en/Press/Press-Information-sorted-by-topic/The-History-of-HannoverHannover became a British occupation zone
Wikipedia. (2018). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bombing_of_Hanover_in_World_War_II
Wikipedia. (2018). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bombing_of_Naples_in_World_War_II
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