This year marks 70 years since the end of World War II. We study the events in history class, perhaps have heard stories from a veteran, we can travel to concentration camps and other memorials and museums. These are all things I experienced but which, afterwards, returned to being detached from my existence. Of course they lived on in my memories as images and in the emotions I felt about them, but they were not part of my daily life.
In my area of Milan are two buildings that still carry the signs of having been bomb shelters during the war. The arrows have likely been repainted through the years to keep their memory alive, but even with such obvious signs, many people I point them out to are shocked that these arrows once indicated bomb shelters. The war, even when the Festa della Liberazione on 25 April comes around, has become a far off memory.
Being a writer with a colourful imagination, when I pass these buildings, I have a rush of images of what it must have been like on the same street all those years ago… The sounds of a siren and airplane engines, the ground shaking, the women running hand in hand with their children, thinking only of survival, perhaps making plans to escape the city as sfollati to extended family in the countryside.
But nowhere was safe. Movies like 2009’s L’uomo che verrà (The Man Who Will Come) show us the dangers that lurked along the front after 1943, when Italy was divided between the Allied forces coming up from the south and the German army keeping hold in the north. That was when the real Hell began. The Italians were divided: Il Duce’s army together with the German, and the partigiani following the updates of the Allied forces and fighting for the freedom of their land. All of them were human, none of them were innately evil. I often wonder what it must have been like to just kill, be ordered to kill, because you were following orders, because you didn’t think you had a choice or because you believed killing was helping you fight for your cause. I judge no one, but recognise that children witnessed incredible violence, were confused with conflicting images and opinions about the different adults they saw, all based on which uniform they wore and perhaps which language they spoke, and whether they shared their bread with them or ordered their mother to hand over the last chickens and remaining meat.
And although the location has changed, what we witness as part of War has not. Below is a painting by my husband depicting the massacre caused by Allied bombs mistakenly dropped on an elementary school in Gorla, just outside Milan. This image with the dead bodies of children lined up could easily be in Gaza (the painting is entitled Da Gorla a Gaza [From Gorla to Gaza] for this reason). World War II remains a timely reminder of what man is capable of and the present-day has proven that man is still capable.
Every time I pass these two bomb shelters, I touch the arrows. (Yes, I am the crazy woman caressing the cement!) I could be one of those women, running hand in hand with my daughter, thinking only of survival. And in that moment, I am one with all those living in war-torn areas, hoping that something will change.
“Once you bring life into the world, you must protect it. We must protect it by changing the world.” – Elie Wiesel