When we break down the demographics of our readers and followers, one thing becomes instantly apparent: the majority of those with Italian names don’t actually live in Abruzzo and many weren’t even born here. They do however feel a strong cultural connection with previous generations who emigrated to all four corners of the globe. Many have been able to keep in touch and are lucky to visit the towns and villages of their extended family for regular holidays. Increasingly we learn that family ties were severed, for many different reasons, leaving the new generation somewhat adrift in connecting with their personal histories.
Many have only the name of a village as birth-place, or a great uncle’s nick-name to hang on to and it’s not enough to satisfy their curiosity. The next step for many has been to come here in person and seek out the broken branches of their family tree. Mirella Ammirati runs Southern Italy Travel – a tour and travel company which offers a variety of packages and services to visitors to our beautiful region.
Here she tells us of her favourite stories from helping people to re-connect with their Abruzzo heritage.
A story from Pretoro
Carol & Dennis told me their grandparents had come from the tiny village of Pretoro and had then emigrated to the US at the beginning of the last century. They asked me if I could find their grandparents’ birth records, discover if there were any siblings who had not emigrated and if there could be a chance of finding living descendants. We had their full names and dates of birth but the town hall didn’t have a complete set of records. The local priest kindly allowed me access to the parish archives where I found everything I needed albeit in a poor condition. I found baptism and marriage records, all hand-written in Latin in beautiful, archaic calligraphy.
It was so thrilling browsing through those century-old pages, finding out names and stories, page by page. I could really feel that so much history had been kept among those dusty old pages for a long time. I found out all I could about that family but most importantly that there had been a sister who had stayed in the village and that she had had a child. At this point I needed to do a little detective work as I only had the surname of the sister as a starting point.
As I wandered around town as part of my research for this family, I stumbled upon a very small carpentry workshop. Its doors were open wide and I could see an elderly craftsman at work inside. He was very kind and welcomed me into his workshop. I was amazed by the beauty of his wooden sculptures and we chatted about his work for quite a long time. When he asked me what was I doing in Pretoro, I told him the story of the people who had left Pretoro and of my search for their descendants. He looked at me very surprised and said ‘Well it’s me. I think you are looking for me’! He showed me pictures, told me names and dates which matched the ones I had found in the parish archives: he was Carol and Dennis’ uncle and I could not believe I had been so lucky to have found him without even knowing it.
When Carol and Dennis came to Pretoro we spent the whole day with their uncle. It was very emotional for them to be reconnected with him and they shared stories, memories and pictures from their grandparents’ life in Abruzzo and their own Italian roots.
A wartime story from Abruzzo
A few months ago, a lady from New Zealand contacted me: she was planning a trip to Abruzzo with her husband, Neil, and asked me if I could guide them to the town where Neil’s father had fought during the second World War. She had also had a relative who had fought during the war and who was buried in the Canadian war cemetery in Ortona. They wanted to retrace the story of both their relatives, understand how they had lived and see the places where they had fought. Neil’s father had written a diary while fighting in Abruzzo, to keep the memories of what he had been going through. Thanks to the information in his diary, I started retracing his story.
He had been a young New Zealand soldier fighting in the New Zealand II division, allied with the Canadian and British troops against the German forces. His division got stuck for a long time in Castel Frentano and Orsogna, along the Gustav Line, where the harshest battles in Abruzzo were fought. I spent entire weeks reading books about the war in Abruzzo, with the support and valuable help of an old, local historian, whose contribution to keep Abruzzo’s historical heritage alive was vital. Then I went to Castel Frentano and Orsogna and started conducting interviews with the old people who were there when the war came. At the beginning they were surprised that somebody was actually interested in hearing their memories.
They taught me much more than I was had been expecting: their stories of life, death and hope during wartime were an eye-opening experience. When Neil and his wife arrived in Abruzzo, I took them to Castel Frentano and Orsogna to show them the building where Neil’s father had lived with his division, the hill from where he fought the toughest battles, the ruins of buildings that were destroyed by the bombings, the places where he found shelter, while introducing them to the historical and cultural context of Abruzzo at that time.
With his father’s diary in his hands, we retraced his life page by page while walking through the places he mentioned. I have no words to explain how touching it was to see the places he described on his diary right there, in front of us, and see them through his eyes. After spending a long and intense day, we took a break and stopped at a local vineyard for a wine tasting. The wine cheered us up, we had a great time, and then we decided to visit the Canadian War Cemetery even though it was already dark. The lights were not on so we walked in the dark, among the graves, finding our way with a torch. We found the grave where their relative was buried (thanks to the detailed map of the cemetery), and we stood there in silence – each one of us left a thought, a prayer or a flower. Than we looked at each other standing there, in the dark, in a cemetery, holding a torch and we couldn’t help but smile: we thought about the war, about death and told each other how useless war is, how beautiful it is to be at peace and to be alive.