“The Forty-Three“ – a book by Angelo Maria Scalzitti

“Forty-three” is a historical date which needs no explanation. It is also a ‘snap shot’ – a scene of men and women in a time of war with a way of life out of the norm. That’s why the title given to his book by Angelo Maria Scalzitti takes on the sense of a noun, written deliberately in letters. It’s not a number, nor a date, but a novel. It’s a story of life that contains nothing imagined and nothing invented – it’s all documented truth. From the first few pages he writes: “We wanted to publish immediately, before any other documentation, the official list of all the families from Sulmona and its immediate surroundings, who both took into their homes and helped by all means possible, the former prisoners of the ‘Campo 78’ Allied Prisoner of War camp at Fonte d’Amore.

scalzittiThe story of that list in Scalzitti’s book is one of the most beautiful and moving stories. Whenever relatives, friends and acquaintances of the former prisoners – who fled the camp and hid in Sulmona and the surrounding area – return here, they first check that list to find the Italian family names which correspond to the Anglo names of those prisoners. Many such reunions have ended in tears.

The book’s list starts at page 19 and continues to page 98. It is this list published by the Allied Screening Commission which Scalzitti had the insight to include in full in his book. Such lists aren’t generally included in history books and certainly don’t take up nearly 79 pages!

Scalzitti however had an extraordinary sensitivity which came not only from being an intellectual but also because he was closely tied to the feelings of the people. If the historian “is not one who knows, but one who seeks” (Lucien Febvre), Angelo Maria Scalzitti, with his “The Forty-Three”, successfully made history by describing both the general situation of the German invasion of Abruzzo and also a more analytical and detailed report of the situation in Central Abruzzo. His was therefore a unique study of the Peligna area. It was the first book that dealt with the subject of ‘Campo 78’ and the escape of the prisoners of war, and through the many interviews with the key characters of these stories he provides a careful and accurate overview.

History is not a science and it’s not new. The only truth is that man strives to seek the truth by all means available. For this reason, Scalzitti tried to make use of both archival records and oral testimony.

Interviews account for about half the book – and these are the people who feature prominently in the narrated events. Scalzitti knew however that oral memory is only ever a reconstruction or an interpretation, in which “the subjective overlapping of components relative to the incident are obviously much more marked” (Constantino Felice). For this reason the character profiles are always placed within the personal context of each individual.
The first in the series was William Di Carlo, who facilitated contact between the various Allied generals who were being held prisoner at Villa Orsini on Via Gorizia. Then came the barber Vincenzo Pistilli who, while carrying out his activities in the camp, was able to evade Henri Payonne of “Free France”. There are also the stories of Rocco Santacroce, the adjutant at Campo 78 who opened the gates, urging the allied prisoners to safety before the arrival of the Germans on Sunday, September 12, 1943 and Domenico Silvestri, one of the mountain guides who accompanied the various groups of prisoners and refugees across the Morrone mountain from Sulmona, over the ford at Coccia, to the town of Casoli.

It was to him and his family that John Fox dedicated his book ‘Spaghetti and Barbed Wire’. The book is also dedicated to Gilberto Malvestuto from the Maiella Brigade, to Claudio Di Girolamo and to Luca Agapite. Other notable publications by former prisoners are John Furman’s ‘Be Not Fearful’ and Uys Krige‘s ‘The Way Out’.

The characters in the book end with the story of Iride Imperoli Colaprete, whom Scalzitti defined as “an energetic, generous and courageous woman, who often put her own life at risk to help the Allied prisoners” and also in his record entitled “The day of the return and of remembrance“ from November 1973.

We do not know if Scalzitti followed the suggestion of the historian E. Carr who said that “the historian has the future in his blood” but his research certainly inspired a variety of other activities and publications which have helped to define the wider picture – both in their detail and the size of the task.

In the 1980’s at the ‘Fermi’ High School in Sulmona, following a proposal by an association of former prisoners and as part of a history workshop, a book entitled “E si divisero il pane che non c’era” (And they divided the bread that wasn’t there) was published by the students as a translation of various works by Fox, Jones, Simpson, Derry, and Verney from the original English. Some years later in 2001, the annual International “Freedom Trail” March,
was inaugurated by the President of the Italian Republic, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, in the presence of several veterans of Campo 78. To commemorate that occasion, “La Sentiere della Libertà” (The Freedom Trail) – Ciampi’s own diary of the mountain crossing which he made himself on March 24, 1944, from Sulmona to Casoli – was published by Yale University Press. It is a piece of historical research that has found both soul and substance at the High School and in the Freedom Trail Association,.

In historiographical terms it poses a question on the meaning of the word “Resistance”: not only armed resistance, but also “Humanitarian Resistance”, as has been defined by various historians such as Pepe, De Rosa, Pavone and Felice. Citizens of Sulmona, together with those of the villages in the surrounding valleys were highlighted as giving both help and hospitality to thousands of fugitive Allied prisoners and thus ran the risk of being shot by the Germans, as was the fate of the shepherd Michele Del Greco. If it were analysed today, “the Forty-Three” by Scalzitti with later works based on it, the citizens of Sulmona & the Peligna Valley and the surrounding valleys would be due in law, not the “Silver Medal for Military Valour” as it is called today, but the “Gold Medal for Civil Valour” because during the nine months between 8 September 1943 and 12 June 1944 they wrote one of the most emblematic and significant chapters in the history of solidarity and humanitarianism.

Professor Mario Setta

Thanks to Katy Gorman at welcometosulmona.com  for the translation