Rogue Carver on the Loose in Italy
Part 26, The Horror of Sant’Anna di Stazzema
Although I became familiar with the name ‘Sant’Anna’ during the month I spent in Pietrasanta, and had heard tales of a massacre that had taken place there, the sleepy little village I stumbled across one gorgeous early summer afternoon triggered no connection whatsoever as I pulled into the parking lot of what appeared to be yet another tiny hamlet of a village high above Tuscany’s Silurian coastal plain. Besides, the accounts I had heard of the atrocities carried out here were vague and sketchy due to the obvious emotional pain that clearly accompanied any detailed retelling… it just seemed too terrible to talk about it. To me this appeared to be simply another remote and beautifully picturesque village, the like of which, although quite beautiful and fascinating, were fast becoming quite commonplace. The reason I was here was to find a trail-head from where I could hike out to a point from where I could drink in the incredible views that I knew must exist from such a vantage point, high upon the steep mountain range that tower over the coastline from Carrara down to Pisa.
In hindsight I had noticed something a bit different about this place – the huge parking lot for one thing, and this strange path… almost a causeway. The bell? Well, to be truthful I barely gave it a second thought. I was here to hike, I merely noted these things then cast my eyes around for a suitable trail-head that would lead me out to my breathtaking views.
The hills high above Pietrasanta are crisscrossed with the most wonderful footpaths – every village it seems is interconnected with a myriad of ancient and enticing right-of-ways that never ceased to intrigue and entertain as I followed them through a most enchanting, almost Hobbit-like landscape.
Soon enough the vistas began to appear. It was as if the entire coastal plain was laid open for my own personal inspection. From here (and there were many such viewpoints) I could easily pick out the features that I had become so familiar to me over the past month.
However, on turning a corner I suddenly and without warning came across this. Clearly the building marked a commemoration to something, as the flags indicated, but what? And while traditional materials, plus the bold cross towards the top, suggested a connection to the past the design seemed strangely contemporary. With not a soul around (I had in fact seen no one since I parked the car) I made my way forward to investigate…
Warning: Graphic violent imagery.
…what I discovered stopped me dead in my tracks. I was mortified.
Nothing prepared me for the shock of these sculptures. I stared at them in disbelief, never having laid eyes on such terrifying imagery in my life. I couldn’t make sense of it. Who were these people? What was this place?
Even now I still didn’t make the connection. There are a great many monuments in this part of Tuscany to civilians and partisans ‘martyred’ during the final months of WWII and by this point I had grown accustomed to the sight of the now familiar plaque, or occasional statute accompanied by the names of the dead, but this grotesque and horrifying sculpture was unlike anything I had previously encountered.
Perhaps, given the graphically shocking discovery of the sculpture it was in hindsight no surprise that it took me several minutes to notice the huge granite slab on which were engraved the names, and ages, of the 560 local villagers and refugees, including 130 children, slaughtered by the Nazis over a period of three hours on August 12th, 1944.
Even at this point I couldn’t quite comprehend just what I was looking at. Slowly the accounts of the truly unimaginable slaughter of innocent villagers that I had heard fractured accounts of began to flood into my mind – so this is the place, these are the people! As I stepped forward for further inspection I was utterly horrified to discover not only the long list of multiple family names, but the ages of those killed: the old, and the very, very young… in some cases mere babies.
Two years, three years, sixty five years…. seventeen! Many families appeared to have been completely wiped out – utterly exterminated.
By this point, my vision blurred by tears, my mind a-whirl, I hardly knew what to think. I was stupefied, I just couldn’t take it in. “Why?” “How?” I felt sick to my stomach.
Reeling back from the wall my head was in a spin. How could this be? How could this happen? But then I discovered something that truly made me weep. The monument was in fact a burial mound for the very people whose names and ages I had been pouring over, and to my horror I was about to meet them, face to face. For embedded in the base of the monument I discovered a row of plaques with names that matched those etched into the granite.
Here they were… the innocent, slaughtered unmercifully, in this very valley. The insanity of it got the better of me and I am not ashamed to admit that the tears flowed as I gazed upon their unwitting faces.
This is what I later learned of the events of that day, as summarized by Wikipedia:
‘On the morning of 12 August 1944, German troops of the 2nd Battalion of SS Panzergrenadier Regiment 35 of 16th SS Panzergrenadier Division Reichsführer-SS, commanded by SS-Hauptsturmführer Anton Galler, entered the mountain village of Sant’Anna di Stazzema. The soldiers immediately proceeded to round up villagers and refugees, locking up hundreds of them in several barns and stables before beginning systematically executing them. The killings were done mostly by shooting groups of people with machine guns or by herding them into basements and other enclosed spaces and tossing in hand grenades. At the 16th-century local church, the priest Fiore Menguzzo (awarded the medal valor civile posthumously in 1999) was shot at point-blank range, and machine guns were then turned on some 100 people gathered there. In all, the victims included at least 107 children (the youngest of whom, Anna Pardini, was only 20 days old), as well as eight pregnant women (one of whom, Evelina Berretti, had her stomach cut with a bayonet and her baby pulled out and killed separately). After the people were killed through the village, their corpses were set on fire (at the church, the soldiers used its pews for a bonfire to dispose of the bodies). The livestock were also exterminated and the whole village was burnt down. All this took three hours. The soldiers then sat down outside the burning Sant’Anna and ate lunch.’
The soldiers surrounded the village and swept down these slopes in a pincer movement that ensured that no one but the most fortunate escaped. The locals thought at first they were to be relocated, until they heard gunshot resounding across the valley.
Suddenly the view looked distinctly less interesting. As I slowly made my way back down the path I noticed the poles were actually empty… except for the Italian, European and German flags.
It was then that I noticed the causeway/path and instantly recognized it as the one I had passed earlier leading out of the village.
Along the stone wall lining one side I discovered a series of horrific bas relief bronzes that told the tale in quite vivid and graphic detail.
The details; the bicycle, the crucified figure in the bottom left corner, the figures draped out of holes presumably in the ground…
At the end of the path I was once again confronted by the bell, only this time I gave it a much closer inspection. On my arrival I had walked right past it. It was a bell, pure and simple, but now it told a story that I will never forget.
But what seemed curious to me was the fact that the central character – the helmeted German, was depicted wearing a diaper (nappy) and bare feet. What did this mean? What did it imply?
It was only later that I was to learn the significance of the bronze on the grass, for this was the spot where the remains of the villagers were burned, Unspeakable atrocities took place here and in the immediate vicinity, accounts of which will live with me for the rest of my days.
I came to Sant’Anna di Stazzema in order to stretch my legs, wile away a few hours, and take in a scenic view or two. I left with a profound sense of sadness. Sadness that for all our specie’s incredible accomplishments we seem blighted by a sickness, narrow mindedness and uncountable hatred that sadly will prove our ultimate undoing.
Sincerely, Martin Cooney