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Better not come home...
Letters between Italy and America during the first World War
An interesting book by Luigi Botta, Figli non tornate! (1915-1918), Aragno Editore, contains a collection of letters exchanged between the two sides of the Atlantic, shedding light on the dramas and hidden truths of the years of the Great War.
Many letters also from Puglia
by Michele Presutto
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Poor children, what a terrible century you were born into!”. Thus wrote a wife from the Garfagnana to her husband who had emigrated to Black Diamond, in the United States. In May 1915, when Italy entered the war, many Italians were outside her borders “begging for bread and work, strays roaming from land to land”. What happened? According to the law, all the emigrants were supposed to be brought home, but things went differently. The emigrants, at least the vast majority of them, didn’t come back. Attilio Cometti from Cuneo wrote to his sister living in Oklahoma: “In a few weeks I’ll be at the front defending the homeland, they tell me, when to earn a crust of bread for me and my family, I was forced to leave my homeland”.

On the letters written during the first World War there is an extremely interesting bibliography, and it has been made even richer. The book Figli non tornate! (1915-1918) (Children don’t come home!)[Aragno Editore, 2016, pp. 591, € 25] for the first time lifts the veil on the letters that went to and fro across the Atlantic ocean. Luigi Botta, the author of the text, historian and journalist, already well known for his numerous studies on Sacco and Vanzetti, has painstakingly reconstructed this flow of words and feelings between wives and husbands, relatives or friends between the two continents.

In the letters there is a bit of everything: resignation, disperation, anger and sadness. Often there are complaints not only about the news from the front but also about trains loaded with the wounded, coming home maimed, about the overcrowded hospitals and the cost of living that makes existence impossible. The women write to their loved ones in America urging them not to come back to Italy and not to listen to the propaganda from the embassies and consulates. In fact, not that it needed saying, “you’d better go further inland” and some would take them at their word and venture as far as distant Mexico. In this way the news that filters through in America is news that, due to censorship, nobody hears in Italy. Tanina writes from Pietra Montecorvino (many of the letters are from Puglia) to her nephew in Boston: “A fortnight ago the people of Pietra Montecorvino revolted … now there are over two hundred police as well as soldiers, and every day they are arresting old men, married, single, young men, anyone, while those of us who keep to ourselves stay at home and can’t even put our head out the door, otherwise… all hell breaks loose”.

Besides all this, what most strikes the reader of these letters is the dramatic daily co-existence with the horror of war that drives people to madness. Madness starts in the trenches, as a soldier at the front writes to his friend in America, “I’ve no longer got my head, what with the crashing of the artillery and the slaughter every day it’s as if I’ve gone stupid, become an idiot, the only thing I feel like doing is to cry. And around me they’re all like that”. But then the madness spreads home and in another letter we read, “Aunty Delfina had four sons at the front, they’ve killed two of them and the last of the five is leaving next month: so of the five sons she has none of them at home now. No wonder she’s nearly out of her mind”.

In other words “enough to send you mad thinking about it, to see the population sent to the slaughter”. Enzo Forcella in his Plotone d’esecuzione (Firing squad) writes, “The mass of mules and cowards, hauled by the collar under threat of military police and firing squads, in fact actually managed to die and to win. The minority labeled them ‘heroes’ and ‘the triumphant’ in war memorials and headstones and in the motive for their bravery medals without asking the opinion of those involved”. When, by a strange alchemy of historical coincidences (emigration, anti-militarism, the dawning of awareness, etc…) this happened, that is, when one was asked “an opinion”, the answer, as Luigi Botta shows us in his book, could only be… no!

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