Monday, May 26, 2008

Eric Newby - Love and War in the Apennines

The aftermath of the Second World War brought a plethora of memoirs of wartime experiences. Popular amongst these where books about the experiences of Prisoner's of War, in particular those of escapees.

Eric Newby's memoir of his wartime experiences as a POW in Italy, and then as an escapee on the run waited almost three decades before making it into print. In the introduction he says that he did this, because he didn't think that his experiences were as exiciting or interesting as those of many others. He didn't for instance, even "getting through the enemy line as so many people did", nor did he join the Partisans.

Instead, Newby's story is one that shows the heroic, and forgotten resistance of ordinary people who simply refused to allow a stranger in their midst to be captured by the powers that be - whether they were Italian fascists, or German soldiers. While it is true that Newby was betrayed (twice in fact) by people in the communities that sheltered him, it is also true that those people were not representative of the Italian peasants who hid him for months and years. It is also true that one of those betrayers was never allowed to forget what she did... "lucky not to be shot by the partisans".

When Mussolini's government fell, Newby escaped his prison with hundreds of other British POWs. Before the German's took control again he had made it into an area of tiny villagers in the Apennine mountains in Northern Italy. Moving from village to village, tiny shelter to remote cottage he was looked after, fed and protected by dozens of nameless souls, who faced death if the authorities found out what they had done.

Poverty is rife in rural Italy then and now. Wartime brought many further hardships and Newby had to work hard to repay the support he was given. He spent many months removing stones from one farmers poor fields, or doing other odd jobs in the towns.

In one of the most memorable chapters, Newby is found by a German officer, butterfly hunting. This soldier doesn't try and capture Newby. Recognising him as British by his very demeanour, the German discusses the end of the war and the inevitable defeat of Germany. At the end of the encounter, the German returns to his search for butterflies, and the surrounding villagers dismiss him as a lunatic.

Newby returns to the area after the war. He fell in love with the daughter of the first people who helped him, and had kept sporadic contact with her. His return to the village that sheltered him many years later is the subject of the final chapter, and is a deeply moving account of how he brought thanks for his life - something that the villagers had done simply out of honest solidarity, with no hope, nor thought for reward.

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