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 Germany’s immediate and carefully planned retaliation. About one million Italian soldiers and officials were captured from Italy to the Balkans. If they refused to fight on Hitler’s side, they were deported  as traitors, subjected to forced labour and deprived of protection from the Red Cross.
My grand-father, Liut. Colonel Pietro Testa, was captured not far from Zadar, his hometown - a dazzling Roman settlement on the Dalmatian coast, which would be handed over to Croatia after the war.
On February 9, 1944, while Zadar was raided by yet another British bombing, he arrived in the tiny German village of Wietzendorf after a 4-month captivity in Poland which he would soon come to regret. Oflag 83, in fact,  - a cluster of narrow, overcrowded and unheated barracks, floating over the cold and humid moors of Lower Saxony - was  appalling even for a trained soldier, and it would turn out to be his home for the following 18 months...
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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 there in the cold winter of 1941-1942 due to the lack of basic necessities and had been hastily buried on site. 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 sensed that the daily humiliations and living conditions unfit for human beings were part of the Nazis’ plan to break them. And he decided that it would not succeed. For 18 months, he would spare no effort to lift the spirits of the men fate had made him 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, a surprisingly high number of those internees survived and were able to bear witness  to the Italian flag being raised on camp and start the long journey back home. 

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I never met my grand-father since he passed away long before I was born. He was my grand-mother’s hero and no day went by without her telling tales about 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 we all felt intimidated by. He was the beloved commander to whose widow his former comrades would come and 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 a no-speak rule we quickly learned to abide to.  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, I heard my grand-father’s voice 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.

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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 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 honor their memory...
Wietzedorf was silent when I arrived: a pretty countryside village, with lovely flower-curtained windows, like  in my grand-father’s war memoires. It was very cold and very few people were around, all very friendly however to my stranger self. I walked around in a haze. Soon I located the war cemetery in the woods and the abandoned station, from where my grand-father and his fellow internees had marched to Oflag 83 under the burden of their heavy backpacks and of the freedom they would soon be deprived of. There were no signs for the camp however and no matter how many websites I confronted, I couldn’t find its exact location. When the sun went down, I unwillingly regained the tiny room I had rented feeling like I was coming short.

*

The following morning I resumed  searching the surroundings with WWII  materials found on the internet and my car's GPS for the 100th time. Not resigned to giving in, I finally decided to drive again to a wood parcel squeezed among a few recent residential lots and suddenly saw a tiny path among the trees I hadn’t noticed the day before. I slowed down and looking back behind my shoulder, there it was: the memorial stone I was looking for. After almost two days of useless seraching, half an hour before I was due to leave, I found myself standing at the entrance of Oflag 83, at the exact sport where my grand-father  had stood on his first and last days at Wietzedorf. Behind the veil of tears that streamed down my face, I knelt down to arrange the flowers and candles I had brought with me to honor not only his memory but also that of all the forgotten souls who had walked down that path of suffering. As I drove back to the airport under a heavy snow, my heart shaking with mixed emotions, I realized I had found the spot only because I could read German, and it was my mother  who had strongly advised me to choose this language during my studies. There I knew I had come full circle.

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I hope these images move you and ispire you to cherish even more the light and beauty in your own life.

Wietzendorf -Paris, February 2018

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