On April 25, Liberation Day, Larry and I are sometimes thanked by Italians for liberating Italy. It feels strange. First, we personally did nothing; we weren’t even born in 1945. Secondly, Brits liberated central Italy where we live. American soldiers fought mostly on the coasts.
But the appreciation also feels good. My Uncle Herbert, whom I never met, was barely 20 when he was shot down over the Bay of Naples in 1944. Though his body was never found, a grave marker in his name is in the American Cemetery south of Florence. We sometimes pass it on the train. When we moved to Cortona and were thanked on Liberation Day, I felt connected to WWII, my uncle, my father’s loss and his family’s loss, and I understood how devastating it was for our Italian friends to have Cortona (and so many other towns we now know) occupied by Nazis.
Liberation Day commemorates the day Italian radio announced that power had been seized by the Resistance, with the help of European and American Allies, and the death sentence had been proclaimed for fascist leaders including Mussolini (executed three days later). By May 1, in less than one week, all of Italy had been liberated, putting an end to twenty-three years of fascist dictatorship and five years of war.
Italians have not forgotten. During the occupation in Cortona, Nazis threatened to shoot ten townspeople for every German who was killed. We were told ten schoolboys and elderly men were lined up before the firing squad to pay for a Nazi’s death. As the Nazi soldiers raised their guns, a priest stepped in front of the boys and said, “If them, me first.” The Nazis backed down. When we moved here twelve years ago and first heard the story, that priest was still alive. He was in his nineties, a small and quiet man, which made him seem all the more a hero.
My other favorite story is told by our dear friend Ludovica. Her father, uncle and grandfather were high-ranking Italian aristocrats holding military and political positions under Mussolini and, before that, the Monarchy — true patriots pledged to support Italy’s government, regardless of personal misgivings. Every Liberation Day until his death, lest anyone forget, Ludovica’s father retold his memory of that first Liberation Day celebration.
“That day,” her father would remind his children and grandchildren, “I called the barber to the house and had the best possible shave. That day, I chose a white, starched shirt to wear with my very best suit. That day, I selected my walking stick with the sterling silver ends and, instead of driving, I walked to town. And that day, I stood with my family and friends and, as they passed, I celebrated the Americans against whom I had fought.”
When Ludovica told me her father’s story, we were standing in her living room. With tears rimming our eyes, we held one another’s hands, bonded by a memory of something that happened before our lifetimes. Something that allowed us to be born and to live in freedom.
This year, seventy-three years after that first Liberation Day, I was in Piazza della Repubblica in Cortona with my cousin Carolyn and her husband Tom, visiting from Kansas. We stood solemnly as the band played the Italian national anthem. Then the band and a parade of Cortona dignitaries and citizens marched to the other end of town where a wreath was laid at the base of a bronze angel holding a dying soldier. Some years, war vehicles with American and British flags are driven through town, men and women wear their war uniforms (carefully packed away for such occasions), and old photos of the first Liberation Day are on display.
Today, as we walk past the statue and wreath, I am reminded to honor and thank those men and women who give their lives to protect people all over the world from tyranny, to preserve my freedom, and to insure the freedom of my loved ones and of our descendants.