This article was originally published on the Medium magazine Lessons From History. After deleting my Medium account, I moved it here.
I’ve always known about my maternal grandfather: he deserted the Army during World War II because of his refusal to support the fascist policies of the Italian totalitarian government. He ran with his wife and two toddlers (my mother and my uncle). For several years, they stayed in hiding in the countryside marsh. I couldn’t imagine how harsh a time that was, but these tales made me proud, even when, as a child, I couldn’t fully grasp the context.
What I didn’t know was the ordeal my paternal grandfather went through at the same time. He was never keen to talk about the War, and everyone respected his wish. Until one day, in the summer of 1986, when we had a family lunch at the restaurant. After a glass of wine too many, he started talking about someone who got caught by fascists and sent to a concentration camp in Germany. I didn’t realize straight away, but he was talking about himself.
Both my father and my uncle kept a stunned gazed look throughout. It looked like they were hearing this stuff for the first time too. Potsdam was a name that came up, along with a German word that we didn’t grasp. During my research, years later, I found out the camp was Sachsenhausen, close to the small town of Oranienburg, 35 kilometers from Berlin.
In the early days of December 1940, a fascist squad kidnapped my paternal grandfather from the hospital where my dad was born a few hours earlier. They sent him to Germany, where the Nazis kept him in captivity for four years.
He wasn’t a Jew: the reason for his abduction was exclusively due to politics. Nobody in his family was a member of the PNF (National Fascist Party), and he too refused to become one, adhering to the PRI (Italian Republican Party) instead. At that time, the PRI was a left-leaning movement, where strong anti-fascist feelings where predominant. Mussolini banned it in 1926.
All the inmates wore an upside-down red triangle, with the initial of the country of origin, sewn on the infamous white and blue striped clothes.
A skilled shoemaker, the SS kept him in the konzentrationslager working on military boots. Each new pair had to be “tested” by other inmates, forced to walk for hours on a concrete strip, close to the camp entrance. The guards often forced the prisoners to wear smaller sizes, which made their feet swell and the walk an agony. The strip is still there.
Wave upon wave
of Faceless strangers
Put in the line to the chambers
He was spared by the guards
Only because of his craft
After a while, the SS allowed him, and others, to work outside during the day. It was a common practice at Sachsenhausen. Although we cannot be sure whether he was moved to a subcamp or not, we believe he spent the latest months not far from Potsdam. During his time there, he befriended a German citizen. My granddad was adamant in describing this person as someone “working for the office of the local Mayor”. Based on his witness, this was the man, or woman, who suggested when and how to flee.
He managed to escape and come back home in the summer of 1945. It took a few months from there to our family house in the north-east of Italy.
Unfortunately, we only have little details about the escape: first and foremost is the fact he did it together with a fellow Russian inmate. They had been forced to climb on trees and tie themselves to the most vigorous branches to sleep and avoid checks overnight.
There were two of us
We left in a rush
We stole a gun
Some clothes and ran
We kept going all night all day
Until Berlin was far away
A Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot On A B-29
To survive, they stole clothes, food and at least one weapon. In fact, he carried a Luger pistol with him when he came back. After a thorough cleaning, he buried it in the courtyard of our home. Years later, someone erected another building on top of the original hiding place, thus making it impossible to retrieve.
They hitch-hiked, disguised as either Germans or prisoners of war, depending on who they met along the path. Nobody knows precisely where he and the Russian parted ways, but it was somewhere in Switzerland. Nevertheless, my grandfather coincidentally entered our hometown during the funeral of his committed fascist father-in-law. He went on to live a quiet life, working as a beloved local artisan in his cozy shoe shop. He died a month after the opening of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
No man’s land
Two years later, in the summer of 1991, my friends and I bought an InterRail ticket and visited Eastern Europe, nine months after the German reunification and three weeks after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact.
We went to Prague, Dresden and Berlin, before visiting a few towns in West Germany. I wasn’t ready to dig into my family story at the time and given my obsession for the Cold War, the idea of observing the divided city as a historical place was way more compelling to me. Even though the dismantling was moving at a decent pace, long strips of slabs from the Wall were still standing. The city hadn’t changed much yet, and the scars were visible. Potsdamer Platz was still a no man’s land, the buildings clearly showing their remarkably different styles, and I vividly remember how I watched in dismay at the bricked windows in the Eastside, facing the West.
I’m twenty again
On a noisy bus
No matter where we are
The breeze, the vane
A Trabant passes by
Naked sign of time
My travel card in Berlin, 1991
One late afternoon we went for a walk around East Berlin. Lots of Trabant parked around, a very few shops: the differences with the western side was striking. In the evening we stopped at a small fast-food, where we had bratwürst and chips.
The owner was the only person there, so he decided to sit with us for a chat. We spent an hour listening to him passionately complaining about the changes they were incurring with the dissolution of the DDR, and his fears of this seismic shift in what looked like an uncertain future. He even cried at the end, which caught us off guard. Right before we left, he patiently suggested a quick way for us to go back to West Berlin, because in his opinion that area of the Eastern side was not safe for youngsters at such a late hour.
Us in Berlin, summer 1991. Photo: Ornella Domenicali
It took me two decades to finally find the will to go to the bottom of this story. For years, I painstakingly collected pieces of information: small details that each one of us in the family might have heard, from private conversations with him or elsewhere. The endpoint was always Sachsenhausen. My father showed me several artifacts his dad brought home after the journey back from Germany. A spoon (pictured below), a plate with a swastika on the bottom and several tins and bowls.
The spoon my grandfather brought home from Sachsenhausen
I went back to Berlin in 2011, a few months before I moved to the UK. It was a completely different beast, compared to my memories from two decades earlier. The fascination stayed with me for a while and didn’t wane until a few years later. I visited several times in the last eight years. More recently, I’ve filed requests for information: the first with the people responsible for the archives at the camp; later with the International Tracing Service in Germany.
The responses arrived within 24 months. This I received from the Gedenkstätte und Museum Sachsenhausen:
I inform you that no documents have been found in our archives. Most of the files of the administration of concentration camp Sachsenhausen were destroyed by the SS before the evacuation of the camp. Among those were nearly all of prisoners’ files with exact personal data and photographs of the prisoners. Those records which have survived are kept in various archives, mainly in archives of the Russian Federation.
This plaque was erected by the Communist GDR government, to commemorate the Death March undertaken by the prisoners of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp under the Nazi government. The GDR placed emphasis on political prisoners over the other groups held at Sachsenhausen (Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Homosexuals); hence the pictured prisoners are wearing red triangles (the symbol for political prisoners, particularly communists).
I was born at the beginning of the 1970s, so I have never had direct experience with war. I can’t imagine the kind of ordeal that people must have lived in that place. I had to see it.
The first in my family, and with crucial help from my wife, I eventually went to Sachsenhausen. The S-Bahn train from Central Berlin to Oranienburg served as a silent contemplation, where the rhythmic noise of the gear helped me thinking about all the connections. War, imprisonment, the great escape, freedom, the Cold War, propaganda, fear of a different holocaust. A cynical loop. Ironically, the youth hostel (Jugendherberge) where I stayed in 1991 was located precisely in-between two of the S-Bahn stations from the route: Waidmannslust and Hermsdorf.
In my mind, the tannoy system calling each subsequent station was like reading a different chapter of the story. From 1945 Berlin to 1991 Berlin, when I first made the other way round. Eventually, the last stop anticipates a walk in the countryside towards what is now a memorial and a museum. The infamous Arbeit Macht Frei is written on the gate. I crossed it with a heavy heart, feeling all the weight of a personal watershed moment.
We saw there the very same artifacts he brought back with him: the spoon, the plate, the tin cans, and the wooden last he used to make. My family still own a few of them, and the ones found at the camp look identical. As a kid, I used to play with them in the courtyard.
Wooden last found in July 2006 during renovation work in the former prisoner’s kitchen
To find the same familiar objects I’ve had in my house for so long, in what is now a memorial and a museum, was horrific. Walking around the concentration camp and see the barracks, the medical facilities, the execution trench, the gallows, the ovens, was a challenging task. Yet, I still can’t fathom what his days could have been like, back then. Even the food, which is something he described in detail, matched with what is represented at the museum.
A spoon exhibited at Sachsenhausen
In hindsight, I now understand why some of the objects he kept throughout the odyssey of travelling from Berlin to Italy — with the War still ravaging Europe — were tins, bowls and a spoon. From the description at the Museum:
An eating bowl and a spoon were two of the very few possessions that prisoners were allowed. A prisoner’s daily rations generally consisted of one litre of watery soup with a little potato or swede (rutabaga) and about 300g of bread. Prisoners who were without a bowl and a spoon would not be able to get even this meagre food allowance. Above all, in the years 1944 and 1945, when the tens of thousands of inmates were not even issues with the most basic of items, a bowl and a spoon became valuable belongings to be guarded at all times.
I keep wondering what kind of friendship he had with the Russian inmate; if they were — in fact — friends; how exactly did they manage to escape: was that in Sachsenhausen or at a labor camp outside? Did he manage to go back to the Soviet Union? Did the Cold War make them enemies?
I stand up to my fears
After so many years
Walking towards your jail
Chasing your trail
Then I saw the gate
No future, no fate
‘Work sets you free’
Next time you might be free
Making ends meet
My research became a music concept album. Both the synopsis and the music stayed with me for quite a long time before I could find the best way to communicate the story in a relatable form. It’s a tale of pain and hope. Although it wasn’t easy trying to convey my sentiments about a family story while inscribing it in the context of my time — the Cold War — it became a process towards personal liberation.
That was me watching the no man’s land, that was me
This is me changing the life I planned
That was me thinking of where to stand, that was me
This is me walking the no man’s land
In the summer of 1988, I was reading a comic book, when my granddad went to open his artisan shop like every afternoon. The shop was inside our courtyard; therefore, I used to hang around with him a lot. Someone parked a white Volvo station wagon car just in front of our gate. It blocked the entrance in such a way that his customers could not get in. He was never angry, always looked jolly to me. That time, he seemed pissed off. He grabbed a chair and decided to sit there and wait, for as long as it took for the car owners to come back.
The car attracted my attention because it was the same model used by Russel Oakes in the film The Day After. I checked the back and noticed the familiar white oval sticker with a “D” letter. Plenty of tourists from West Germany used to come to our seaside town for the holidays. An hour later, an elderly couple arrived. My granddad jumped up and walked straight towards them. He started shouting in perfect German to the guy, who was quite tall and looked sturdy to me. The man, which I estimated was around the same age as my grandpa, stood still, nodding, without saying a single word. After a full minute of ranting and finger-pointing towards them, the couple got in the Volvo and quietly left. Amazed by that performance, I approached my grandfather, who was finally able to open the little gate and welcome his customers. I asked, “what did you tell him?” His response was: “he knows”.
My grandfather working outside his shop in the summer. Some of the objects visible on the crate came from Germany