In the dark and uncertain days that followed the Cassabile armistice of September 8, 1943 by which the Kingdom of Italy surrendered to the Allies, Italian troops were taken by surprise by Operation Achse, Germany’s immediate and carefully planned retaliation. About one million Italian soldiers and officials were captured throughout Italy, in the South of France, in the Balkans. If they refused to fight on Hitler’s side, they were deported to Stalags as traitors, not prisoners of war, thus subjected to forced labour, without protection from the Red Cross.
Liut. Colonel Pietro Testa was captured not far from Zadar, his hometown: a dazzling ancient Roman settlement on the Dalmatian coast, which would be handed over to Croatia after the war, forcing thousands of Italians to flee prosecution by ferocious Ustashias. On February 9, 1944, while Zadar was raided by yet another British bombing, Liut. Col. Testa arrived in the tiny German village of Wietzendorf after a 4-month captivity in Poland which he would soon come to regret.
His destination, Oflag 83, was appalling even for a trained soldier: a cluster of narrow, dark, overcrowded and unheated barracks, floating over the cold and humid moors of Lower Saxony. While digging sewage drains in an effort to sanitize the camp, Italian officials would come across the remains of the 16 000 Russian prisoners who had lost their lives in the cold winter of 1941-1942 due to the lack of basic necessities, hastily buried on site before mass graves were created a few hundred meters away.
Being the highest-ranking official on site, Lieut. Col. Testa, then aged 38, was charged of maintaining order among his fellow Italian internees. As of day 1, he knew those daily humiliations and living conditions barely fit for human beings, let alone officials, were part of the Nazis’ plan to break them. And he decided that they would not succeed. No matter what it took, he would lift the spirits of the men he was responsible for, in order for them to rise above the cold, the hunger, the lure of a shameful freedom, united in dutiful service to their Homeland, until the liberation day would come. Against all odds, he did.
Pietro Testa was my grand-father but he passed away long before I was born. He was my grand-mother’s hero and no day went by without her telling stories of his unique bravery and righteousness, her eyes lit with love and pride. He was the General in full attire staring at us from a large silver frame in her living room we all felt intimidated by. He was the beloved commander to whose widow his fellow survivors would pay their respects to, softly reminiscing over a world long gone. He was my mother’s father, a heavy memory she disliked to evoke and we quickly learned to abide by this rule.
Who he was to me, I never allowed myself to wonder. Until, one of my mother’s brothers handed me one of the few remaining copies of his war memoires, asking me to tell this unique yet universal story so that it would not be forgotten. I flew back to Paris with the book in my purse, heavy as a stone. For months on end, I would read a couple of pages and put it back on my night table, overwhelmed by a task which seemed far out of my reach. Then my mother’s illness started to precipitate and in the void left by her passing away, my grand-father’s voice started calling out at me, making me wonder if I had it in my guts to rise to the occasion, like he had done in much more serious circumstances.
And so it happened that on a chilly February morning, seventy-four years almost day by day after my grand-father set foot in Wietzendorf, I set out alone, before the light of dawn, for a 7-hour journey to find the remains of Oflag 83. I knew the barracks would no longer be there, but in order to dare try and tell the story of these men’s courage, I had to leave my certainties behind and get lost among the snowy fields and untended woods, scrambling to piece together cues in a foreign language, like they had had to in order to survive. Then only, could I aspire to honour their memory.
I hope these images move you and ispire you to cherish even more the light and beauty in your own life.
Paris, February 2018