Last week I went with a friend to have lunch with his grandmother Silvana. She was born in 1922, about 10 minutes away from where I live now on the via Appia Nuova, in an area which at the time was open countryside. She later moved in a little to via Latina, which is near Piazza Re di Roma, but broadly in the same area. Her life revolved entirely around this quarter of southern Rome and its suburbs. At her mother's encouragement she learned to sew and upon leaving school at 15 became a seamstress, working first independently and then in a larger workshop.
In the late 30s she and her girlfriends used to take the tram out to Ciampino, where the old military airfield has now become a major airport for low-cost flights. In those days the only civilian flights were chartered planes for politicians and occasional visiting celebrities. The tram - which has not run out there for decades - would deposit them by the horse-racing track, and they might watch some races or more often, being still very young, they would go and play in the woods around the airfield. There, playing some kind of kiss-chase game, she met a handsome young pilot named Bernardo. He was, she says, kind and respectful and kissed her on the ear. He gave her a photo of him in his uniform, and once came home to meet her mother for tea. He was shot down in '41, returning to base from a mission.
Not long thereafter she met her future husband, on his return from Russia, rimpatriated following a minor head injury. Mauro was a railwayman, and a photo shows him, tanned and smiling, on a bridge over the Don. Exceptionally tall for an Italian in that era, and handsome to go with it, after the war he had a successful secondary career as an extra and bit-part actor during the major boom years of Cinecittà. The highlight was an appearance in Ben Hur, but a collection of pictures show him in various costumes and on all sorts of sets.
Wartime had already resulted in serious food shortages, and life was impossible without the black market. When one day a family friend arrived with a 'liberated' sack of flour, her mother sent him away in terror. What, she said, could they do with it? If they made bread more than once a week, the neighbours would smell the baking and know that they had flour hidden away. They could be denounced: better to go hungry than risk being caught with contraband flour in the house.
In late 1942 Silvana started working in a new workshop round the corner from San Giovanni in Laterano, in via Tasso. Those of you who know anything at all about Rome in the Second World War will already be wincing. From September 1943 until 6 June 1944 when the Allies liberated the city, few citizens were prepared even to mention the road name. They would just refer to 'down there by San Giovanni. ' Via Tasso became synonymous with the 1920s building at number 145 which had been used by the German embassy, and which after Italy's surrender on 8 September became the headquarters of the SS. An unknown number, certainly hundreds, of Roman Resistance members were interrogated and tortured there, most famously perhaps the politician and jurist Giuliano Vasselli who substantially drew up Italy's first post-fascist Civil Code and who remains Emeritus President of the Constitutional Court to this day. Many of his fellow sufferers were less lucky though, and were subsequently shot at the Fosse Ardeantine or at Forte Bravetta. The 5 cells used for the imprisonment of partisans are now a museum, their walls covered with the messages of the detainees.
For Silvana, the first personal encounter with the new Nazi regime in Rome was being sent down to collect the workshop's regular order of fabric from their supplier only to find that all the haberdashers, fabric shops and tailors had been closed down and their goods sequestered: they were, of course, all Jewish stores. But for the residents and workers of via Tasso the regime soon took on a more tangible presence, as each day the ceaseless comings and goings of SS men, German and Italian officers and local informers at the headquarters were accompanied by truck loads of new detainees arriving or being sent on to unknown destinations. Shouting, screaming and shots being fired became the ordinary soundtrack to her working day. Sometimes a truck loaded with partisans, Jews or 'suspects' would be parked outside for a time and the people within would try to throw out tiny paper messages - "bigliettini" she described them as. Then she and her fellow seamstresses would endeavour to surreptitiously gather up whatever notes they found in the street and have them delivered. They were short notes, no more than an address and the message 'I am taken' or 'Don't worry about me.'
Only after the war was the full horror of what had happened in the building was revealed, though rumours circulated throughout the 9 month occupation. Silvana says that had the girls had any idea, they would have been too frightened to gather up the messages, innocuous though they may have been. When the war ended, she had her hair set specially for the festivities. Mauro had bought her a fur coat and they went into the town centre to enjoy the celebrations and watch the crowds. The May weather was too warm for the coat but she wore it anyway, proud of it and of her handsome fiancé. In the photo Silvana still keeps on the low dresser they walk arm in arm down via Nazionale, smiling into each other's faces, he in a smart trilby and she in the prized coat, looking forward to a better future for themselves and for Italy.