“And so the fear passed. The horror, dismay, anger and perhaps, for some, also the time of forgiveness has passed. Of that distant November in 1943, only a memory remains for the inhabitants of Pietransieri, an indelible scar of a time that can not be consigned to oblivion. Still visible are the old, crumbling ruins in the Limmari woods which even today tell those who discover them of the wounded character of a population, and of what happened which can only be interpreted as a tragedy.”
Sitting on the steps of the square looking at the outline of the distant shrine, I keep wondering when someone local will be along to open it.
Pietransieri is completely hidden by a thick fog which seems to envelop just the area surrounding the “Petra” – the large boulder against which the small village near Roccaraso leans, and to which it owes part of its name.
Around the year 1000 AD in fact, a landowner called Ansieri, the son of Azzone from the diocese of Valva, chose the area surrounding the Petra as a place to establish a stronghold, and whose name was then derived from the union of his own name with that which was used at the time to describe this place.
The village is deserted and the deep silence that seems to hang over it has accompanied me and Massimo, my travelling companion on this new trip out of town, ever since we got out of the car. The only exception is the distant barking of a dog and the brief passing of a council vehicle, busy installing the street lights in preparation for the annual candlelight vigil which commemorates the victims of the massacre.
The memory of the massacre is still alive and appears obvious after an initial glance around the village. It represents in some respects a sort of incurable stigmata, which has since affected the collective memory. The main square is dedicated to the fallen from those tragic days, and the road leading to the mausoleum recalls the tragic epilogue of that day of November 21st.
I see a silhouette making its way in the fog, appearing to approach us. At first I hope it is one of those characters in a wool cape with a lantern favoured by London’s novels of the late 19th century. Once out of the haze, I discover that it is only an old lady of the village, wearing a normal, padded jacket.
“The shrine is still closed, it will open later on”, she warns us, so we decide to spend our time elsewhere by trying to reach the nearby Limmari woods, the place of the execution on the edge of the village.
Along the way, however, we begin to wonder whether it was a good idea. The whole area is hidden by fog and we weren’t able to guess very much about the place as it is neither mapped nor aided by the presence of official signage. We proceed slowly, continuing to look around. The presence of a dense oak forest to the right of the road seems to confirm that the location is nearby, but it is difficult to differentiate the paths from the various dirt tracks that criss-crossed them. We ask an old man walking on the road for confirmation of the route. He briefly explains the way, gesturing into the wind. I only understand a little, so playing my last card I asked:
“I don’t suppose you’d come with us, would you?”
He thinks about it for a bit, it was still early, and after only a moment’s hesitation Massimo gives up his place in the passenger seat and our duo becomes a trio on the spot.
That’s how we met Fausto.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in years of improvised trips, it’s that divine providence, just like good luck, favours the brave. In any Abruzzo Grand Tour, very often this providence appears in the form of a local person inviting you to enter their house to share with you their life’s experiences, their wisdom and their homemade liqueurs.
Fausto points the way. We set off along one of the many dirt tracks and our journey finally takes the desired orientation. The actual woods of Limmari are finally revealed to us, as if it was necessary to have the reassuring guarantee of a local man to indulge in all its charms.
The large clearings that characterize these woods were the scene of one of the many tragedies triggered by the war machine, after September 8th, 1943. The German army had, up until then, been guests in Italy as allies of the Fascist Party. Following the armistice they turned into resentful and suspicious occupants. The Italian resistance became both more numerous and more organized, giving the Germans a hard time, especially in mountainous areas like this one, where the rugged morphology of the territory served both as a refuge and provided trenches for the new determined guerrillas of freedom.
Following the breach in the south of the country on July 10th 1943, the opponents to Nazi Germany began to push the front line further and further north and in only a few months they had reached the central region. This forced the Germans to take refuge beyond the militarized curtain known as the Gustav Line – a barrier that started at Minturno, in the province of Latina, and went straight through the Apennines stretching all the way to the city of Ortona in the province of Chieti on the opposite coast.
This barrier which consisted of a constantly monitored and secured trench, represented an upheaval for the people living along its path – including of course those of the village of Pietransieri. Its special position located on the strategic side of the front, was a logical weak point for the Allied generals to attack and thus the most critical for the Germans to defend.
A few kilometres from the Limmari woods runs the River Sangro, beyond which the territory becomes part of the province of Isernia in Molise. Within this area lie the villages of Capracotta, San Pietro Avellana and Castel del Giudice. It was here that the British and New Zealand armies had already started to exert pressure at the beginning of November 1943.
With constant harassment and intimidation, including a house fire in which an old paraplegic lady (who had been unable to escape) lost her life, the Nazis tried for weeks to persuade the civilian population to flee their homes.
The village was blown up and littered with mines and the surrounding countryside was dotted with unexploded devices in order to secure the area against a possible and eventual invasion from the south. Some of the villagers were rounded up and taken by force to nearby Sulmona, where the Germans left them with the order not to return home. Those who managed to escape these roundups hid in the woods or at the country farms previously used for agricultural and pastoral activities. Thwarted by the continuously advancing enemy, and by the brave resistance of the native population (not wanting to abandon their few belongings acquired over years of hard work), the German occupiers opted for an extreme solution. First they muted anyone who was discovered crossing between those places forbidden to civilians. Then, on the morning of November 21st, they implemented an exercise in selective extermination, which decreed in a couple of hours the death of over a hundred people, including many children.
The first farm visited by the tyrants was the Casale D’Aloisio, belonging to Fausto’s family, and where he himself had been born three years before the massacre. Among those who lost their lives under the German grenades and machine-gun fire were his grandparents and two cousins, one of whom – a little girl – was only five years old.
This, like the other houses scattered nearby, is characterized by a plaque on which is written the name of the farm and the number of victims who fell there.
Fausto briefly describes the dynamics of the massacre as well as he himself can remember – although more likely as he had been told by his mother, who is now ninety years old.
We continue our journey through large abandoned clearings and the fog begins to reveal the ruins of the other farms involved in the massacre.
The farmhouse of the Di Battista family, that of Clemente d’Amico, the Macerelli farmhouse. All the buildings still bear the names of the families they belonged to. Each has the same stone memorial plaque as that first house and they are located a short distance from each other surrounded by plain, unadorned iron fences.
Between one conversation and another I stop to gaze at the surrounding landscape. The cold and fog render it harsh this late autumn morning, but at the same time full of that particular characteristic charm of wild nature. It is impossible not to sense the silence, that same silence that was broken by desperate cries and by gunfire one November morning many years ago.
The testimonies and the repercussions of that sad day have been celebrated in an interesting documentary called “The Blood of Limmari”, published by the TerritoriLink Association and directed by Fabrizio Franceschelli and Anna Cavasinni. In addition to a detailed historical reconstruction of the facts, the work contains original interviews with witnesses and survivors of the massacre, like that of Virginia Macerelli who at that time was just seven years old. She escaped the murderous rage of the German comrades by hiding for two days under the lifeless body of her mother.
Similar stories still survive in the words of those who, like Fausto and many others in the village, suffered one or more losses, and by all those still living today in this barren, mountain area with reverence and tacit respect.
Having returned to the village we say goodbye to Fausto, thanking him for his help and, before leaving, we go back to the shrine, finally open to the public, for a short visit.
The names of the martyrs of Limmari are all there, inscribed on gravestones containing today what they were able to recover of their remains.
I only stay for a moment to take some pictures, and it is again the silence that besieges my thoughts, the same silence that has accompanied us since we got here and that perhaps only now I am able to understand.
That silence is a peculiarity which is often highlighted by those who heap praise on the Abruzzo mountain villages, and which now seems to have acquired a renewed value in contemporary society – a coveted rediscovery.
The silence is synonymous with insight, depth and reflection but is not actually a mirror of our perceptions. What might have improved our now more harmonious mood, leaves us with a sense of unease dictated by our subconscious.
The particular silence of Pietransieri is not typical of the quiet mountain villages of Abruzzo which are rare oases of peace away from the frenetic pace of civilization. This silence is that of the institutions that never singled out the real culprits of that tragedy, hiding the files relating to this tragedy for over fifty years in a strange and secret archive which was only discovered in 1994, and since then has been known as “The Closet of Shame”.
This silence is that of a wounded people, culturally accustomed to dealing with their own dramas with proud resignation. Only in recent years has the spotlight begun to focus on this matter. This silence is that of the victims of Limmari who following the massacre laid covered by snow until the thaw of the following spring – martyrs far removed from the the western world, who never wanted the war, but then found it on their own doorstep.
The silence of the Limmari woods is a silence as thick as the fog that descends through its valleys in the cooler days of autumn. A now old silence, which for more than seventy years has told its story to those following its paths and who are willing to listen.
Translated and reproduced with kind permission from Gotico Abruzzese