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main index & home page ©Jeff Matthews entry Dec. 2015
O Little Town of Levico
—A Christmas Carol
lsewhere in these pages I mention the globalization of holidays and how northern Christmas icons such as Santa Claus and Christmas trees have been common in Naples and southern Italy only since the end of WW2. That is true, but parts of northern Italy—for one, the Italian region of Trentino-Alto Adige in the Alps north of Lake Garda—not only border on Austria but were actually part of Austria until borders were redrawn in 1919 in the wake of WWI. Thus, the local populations of those regions (called Südtirol in German) have always known about Christmas trees.
There was thus nothing strange about the sight of a group of boys dragging a small fir tree through the snow to set up at home for Christmas. What was strange was that the boys were not Italians—they were Germans and just old enough ("...maybe 16—just children,” said my mother-in-law) to have been conscripted into the Wehrmacht, the German army, and the home they were dragging the fir tree into was in the small town of Levico Terme (pictured), a few miles southeast of the city of Trento. It was Christmas of 1944, and my mother-in-law had moved there from Naples with her two daughters into a bucolic setting, indeed. Levico is in the wide glacial Adige valley south of the Dolomites, ringed by mountains and on the shores of its very own small lake. My wife, Luciana, remembers their “villino” (small villa) as a two-story wooden and stone structure with a large garden and an orchard, home to pear and apple trees.
The house was on a large plot of land joined by a gravel driveway to a back road up behind the train station of the Trentino-Venice rail line; that train came in from the east, down the Valsugana valley to Levico, then, as now, known for the thermal baths. Because of the war, services at the baths were reduced but they were still open. Mother-in-law had moved there to be near her husband, a dentist in the Italian army, stationed in Trento. In other times, you might have described it all as Happy Valley, bucolic indeed; yet even now, in grim 1944, you could stand by the lake and, with imagination and good will, almost forget that the worst war in human history was all around you, slowly grinding through its last agonies.
The “children” were armed and in uniform. That was not unusual, whether Wehrmacht or RSI (Repubblica Sociale Italiana, what was left of Italian Fascism at that late date, a puppet state set up by Germany when southern Italy was taken by the Allies). The kids with the tree were commanded by a young officer (“...27 or 28...handsome young man”). The war front was moving north up the Italian peninsula very fast; German forces knew they were no longer really among friends in the north, so they were taking no chances with the townspeople. When they came to commandeer the villino to billet about 15 troops and an officer, they were polite, but they came with weapons at the ready.
They had come before the first snowfall, but by Christmas—perhaps because of Christmas—tensions had relaxed and a calm lay over Velico; yet Mother-in-Law still didn't understand the fir tree. Back home in Naples you made a presepe for Christmas, a nativity scene, over the course of weeks, putting in the backdrops and the stable and all the rest, and slowly your Bethlehem started to look more like a village in southern Italy than the real Bethlehem (but that was fine!); then you put in the little shepherds and livestock, all one by one, then the Three Wise men, then Joseph and Mary and, finally, you placed Baby Jesus down in the straw—“away in a manger, no crib for a bed.” Now these ruddy-cheeked boys who didn't look old enough to shave were dragging a tree—plus snow from their boots—into her living room.
“Get that tree out of my house!" she yelled.
“But, mamma," they said (even—or, maybe, especially young German soldiers needed a mother figure. Unfortunately, they already had a father figure. Mother-in-law was about the age of their own mothers back home, and she was a wonderful cook), "it's Christmas!"
She threatened to stop cooking for them and to let her 15-year-old daughter (my wife's older sister) take over the kitchen. "Ach, nein!" was pretty much how the Wehrmacht felt about that possibility. (I have nothing here to offer on the horrors of war, but living in a country home near a pleasant lake and eating good Italian home-cooking is not one of them.) If mamma had stopped cooking...who knows, that single act, alone, might have shortened the war by a number of months, but, alas, a cultural rapprochement was reached. The tree stayed, and she kept cooking. My wife remembers that the soldiers were "all over the floor" in their sleeping bags in the morning; she would sometimes awaken way too early, grab her little toy pail (you have to have a pail when you're 5-years old!) and try to creep over and around their sprawled bodies, and every so often she'd hear a magical klink as one of the young soldiers dropped a piece of candy into her pail as she passed and then quickly withdrew his arm back down into his sleeping bag, pretending to be fast asleep—but she could see him smiling. They thought it was good fun, and it was.
The new year came and the world changed quickly for the young Germans. All fronts were collapsing and Germany could no longer prop up the RSI, centered in Salò at Lake Garda, only 50 miles from Levico. It was time for them to break for home.
In late spring of '45 at the villino near little lake Levico, mamma gave the “children” the last home-cooked meal that some of them would ever have. The young officer approached her and apologized for the inconvenience. He handed her a tiny dark-purple hinged box of the kind you keep jewelry in and said, “Signora, please take this. I wanted to take it home to my daughter, Elizabeth. She is the same age as your little Luciana—but I don't think I'll ever see my little girl again. Please give this to your daughter.” Inside the box was a chain necklace with a small crucifix of silver.
Then they were gone. Mamma watched them climb into the back of a covered truck and sit on the two facing benches on the sides, with their rifles between their knees. They waved to her as the truck went down the driveway and turned out toward the station. My future wife, watching this unfold from the orchard, ran down to the driveway to wave to the young men who had dropped candy into her pail. There is no ending to this. They went—who knows where? Maybe the young officer got home, maybe he didn't. My wife has often expressed the wish that she could have traced him and at least found out if the daughter was alive. “There must be a way to get this necklace to her.” The necklace? I have searched the house for it. So far, it's missing, but I keep looking.
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