Today is the anniversary of the one of the worst war crimes in Italy – the massacre at Sant Anna di Stazzema, a small mountain village in the Lucca province, Tuscany, during the Second World War.
On 12th August 1944 the SS killed 560 people in Sant Anna and the surrounding villages, most of whom were women, children and elderly. The youngest victim Anna Pardini was only 20 days old but eight pregnant women were also killed with their unborn babies.
As the novel I’m writing deals with a secret connecting Villa Leonida to a wartime reprisal massacre I visited St Anna as part of my research. The museum there tells the story of what happened on that day.
It’s not a feel-good experience and if you’re only spending a few days in Tuscany on holiday it probably won’t be top on your list of places to go for a fun day out but for me, seeing how remote and inaccessible the village was really brought home how ruthlessly thorough the retreating German army was.
They had to go so far out of their way to get to such a tiny place and didn’t leave until they had killed everyone they could find although they could see the village was undefended. Many of the victims had been evacuated to St Anna to avoid the Allied strafing of the coastal plain.
The best way to get there is from the coast side, off the A12 following the signs from Pietrasanta or Forte dei Marmi which is the route the German army would have taken. You can also reach it by taking the road from Castelnuovo di Garfagnana across the marble mountains, the Apuan Alps. It is stunningly scenic but involves soaring climbs and dizzying turns so definitely not recommended if any of your party gets car sick.
(I took that route once by mistake, unaware that my husband had set the satnav to ‘avoid motorways.’ With four moaning teenagers, a stuck CD and a plane to catch, it wasn’t a comfortable journey!)
We visited the museum with our eleven year old son and it was very moving to see the photographs of all the children who died and some of the victims’ belongings that were found with some of them including a doll and some steel bands that the fascist government handed out to women in exchange for their wedding rings. Eight siblings from one family, aged from a few months to fifteen years, died along with their mother. The first hand accounts by survivors make harrowing reading.
Early in the morning the soldiers arrived in Sant Anna, having being told about some partisan activity in the area.
Many of the men had moved up into the hills in the belief that the soldiers wouldn’t harm innocent women and children but they were mistaken.
People were mostly either shot or burned to death in buildings when hand grenades were thrown in.
130 people were taken from the houses in Sant Anna, the primary school (now the museum) where about 50 evacuees were living and the neighbouring village of Il Pero and rounded up in the little square in front of the church at the centre of the village.
A survivor, writer Manlio Cancogni (who died in 2015), recalled: “They almost snatched them from their beds. They were half dressed, their limbs drowsy with sleep. Everyone was thinking they were going to be moved from those places to others…”
A pastor who was among the evacuees pleaded with the SS to spare their lives but when he saw there was no way he was going to be able to persuade them he knelt down with the villagers and prayed with them as they wept. After a few minutes the Germans loaded the guns and fired. There were no survivors.
Their bodies were burned on a bonfire made from furniture that had been ripped from the church. The SS sat there eating their lunch as the bodies burned.
They then moved on to surrounding villages so some people who had escaped and run to hide there had to go through the experience a second time.
Enrico Pieri was ten at the time and lost all his family except for an uncle, an aunt and another uncle who had been sent to Germany. He and the children of another family hid under the stairs when the Germans came and started shooting. But the soldiers set fire to the house and the children had to escape. They hid among some beans for hours. When they eventually crept out and went back to the house in the afternoon they found everyone dead.
“I have decided to forgive,” he said at 78 years old, “but I will never forgive the evil ideology behind it. I’ve stopped hating because hatred doesn’t solve anything. Because that period was a period of real hatred between people from the same village, the same family. Hatred is what led to the destruction of humanity – almost.”
Although a part of me feels uncomfortable visiting places like this just as it does the Anne Frank museum in Amsterdam as though it’s intruding on other people’s grief, the historian in me thinks that only by facing up to these past events and keeping the memory alive can we stop them happening in future.
What’s your opinion? I’d love to hear your views.
To find out more visit http://www.santannadistazzema.org