Lake of Memory

I originally published this post in November 2011. It took me over a year to find a satisfactory way to tell this story because it is, in fact, many stories linked together.

I am submitting this post to Freedom Trail Blogger Contest to support this organization’s efforts to help young people understand the war years in Abruzzo. Anecdotal history is true history.  


I contribute this post with immense gratitude to all the teachers who tell students

“to close the books.”  

Thanks to a high school research project assigned by a history teacher in L’Aquila, the American branch of the Antonelli’s learned more about some tragic family history.

Two balconies fenced with wrought iron balusters embellish the stone house where my grandfather, Francesco Antonelli, was born. The home lies in Mascioni, a village between L’Aquila and Teremo. For decades I imagined that this sole architectural flair provided the family, who made their living as pastore, with a spot to grow geraniums, catch a breath of fresh mountain air, or talk to a friend on the street below.  I learned not too long ago that in 1944 the house had been the location of an episode involving German soldiers, local partisans, and my mother’s cousin and grandmother. The story ended tragically on one of the balconies.

Le donne e casa di Antonelli

Over the years, family members have traveled to Italy to meet the few relatives still living in Mascioni, which ascends from the shore of man-made Lake Campotosto.  Each of us has proudly posed for a photograph before the wooden front doors to the uninhabited Antonelli family home.  In October of 1967, my mother and father pioneered unpaved, rutted mountain roads to become the first of the Italian American branch of the Antonelli family to return to the village Francesco left at the age of 14.

After introductions and feasting, my mother’s uncle, Daniele Antonelli, guided my parents to the birthplace of her father and his siblings and then solemnly directed them to a stone property wall that runs alongside the home. Imbedded in the wall, lies a memorial to my mother’s first cousin, 19 year old Giovanni Antonelli. His death, in the final weeks of the German presence in Abruzzo, was still fresh to villagers and family who witnessed World War II.

Giovanni's memorial

The exchange of news between Francesco and his family in Mascioni was interrupted by the war, and after his death in 1942 letters dwindled. So it was not until this October day in 1967 that my parents, with the help of Toni Paolini a teenager who spoke English, first learned of Giovanni’s short life and wartime death.

My parents returned from their trip understanding that after Giovanni’s mother died in childbirth and his father’ s health declined, he was raised by his grandmother, Maria Silvestri, the Antonelli matriarch. Giovanni made his living working with his Antonelli uncles caring for horses and sheep. He was killed by German soldiers who suspected his involvement with local partisans. My parents shared these few haunting details with aunts, uncles and cousins who over the past 43 years have made a pilgrimage to Giovanni’s wall.

We inherited more of Giovanni’s history decades later both from strangers and posthumously from Daniele Antonelli.  Wanting to know more about Giovanni’s story, yet expecting to find nothing, I typed his name into Google’s magic window and was stunned when it answered me back with Italian words and a link to a fifty-two page document titled Il Lago Della Memoria, Documenti E Testimonianze Della Guerra Nell’Aquilano. In the preface to this high school research project, an unnamed teacher at Andrea Bafile High School in L’Aquila informs readers that after his or her pupils studied WWII, he announced to them that “it was time to close the books.”  They were dispatched to villages and returned with oral histories from “venti centri minori del territorio della provincia.”  Mascioni was one of them.

The pages are devoid of photos and fancy fonts.  It’s a product of bygone word processor days. The document bears no publication date. However, the work was produced at least 15 years ago. I know this because one of the primary sources, Daniele Antonelli, died in 2000. Detailed in Italian on pages thirty-five and thirty-six, under the heading Mascioni (Campotosto), the restored events of May 17, 1944 ending Giovanni’s life awaited translation.

I labored for a few hours with my Italian-English dictionary instead of copying and pasting the pages onto a free and instant translation website. I slowly searched for the unfamiliar words instead. Reprisal, noose, rifle butt.  The evening in 1944 unfolded word by word, as I waded step by step into the still waters of memory.

Students interviewed three men for the story.  Mascioni baker Aquilio Anaceti testified that Giovanni lent a hand to the partisans in ambushing a motorcycle and sidecar killing a German dispatcher on SS 80.  Mr. Anaceti explains that with German soldiers in the area, Giovanni took to the woods with the few horses under his care. It was from this patch of wood along the state road that the German soldier was killed. He recalls that German retribution was swift with the execution of a captured Slav partisan, Blogoja Papovic, “who was wounded and then hung from a pylon of the overhead cable tram used for transporting wood. He was left exposed for about a week as a warning.”

Mr. Anaceti further recounted to his student interviewer that Giovanni, wounded in the leg and unarmed, was rounded up as a partisan, beaten, tied up and driven to Mascioni in the back of a small truck. From the wrought iron balustrade of the Antonelli family home, he was forced by German soldiers to place a cable noose around his neck and die by hanging. Maria Silvestri’s pleas to save her innocent grandson were answered with blows from the shaft of a soldier’s rifle. In further retribution, the soldiers ransacked the home for hand woven linens. As a parting gesture, they exploded grenades in the first floor of the house.

As emotionally draining as it was to unlock these details, it was with more trepidation that I translated Daniele’s testimony. I had met him in happy times, eaten at his home and communicated with him in simple Italian exchanging years of family news. As Giovanni’s uncle, I suspected that his memory would lack the objectivity of the other interviewed men. I was treading into deeper water. The students who compiled the Mascioni chapter selected only Daniele to quote directly, perhaps due to the simple eloquence of his recollection.

He begins by discounting his nephew’s affiliation with the partisans, emphasizing that Giovanni was an honest and industrious person who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Fearing German raids that day also, Daniele hid in a different wooded area. He recalls:

Petrified, I stood motionless in the silent thicket, which seemed to amplify in an unnatural way the clamor and rumble of the vehicles which came from the town. When I reached Mascioni about an hour later, I found the body of poor Giovanni still there, like an abandoned puppet. My house had been destroyed, my mother beaten with the butt of a rifle. The grenades thrown on the floor of our house caused the ceiling to collapse above the room where our animals take refuge. The pain of that fateful day has never been completely submerged in the lake of memory.

The chapter on Mascioni closes with Mario Di Tommaso describing how the Germans in roaring trucks and motorcycles “circled the town twice looking for partisans and threatening to carry out reprisals on ten citizens and burn the town, but orders to retreat kept them from carrying out the massacre.”  The village was spared.

Stories from Filetto, Onna, Castel di Sangro, Pizzoli and many other villages are given  voice in this document. I have to wonder though if Daniele’s final words gave the project its title – Il Lago della Memoria. Or was the phrase lake of memory an assigned prompt students used in their interview questions?   In any case, I have borrowed the metaphor to tell my story.

Gli autori, twenty -six students, are acknowledged on the final page of the project for their work in talking to witnesses and preserving their remembrances. To discover which two or three chronicled the mark war left on the Antonelli family and home and village is the subject for another post, one I hope to write someday. For now, Giovanni’s resurfaced history has moved us to see our photographs of Mascioni in another light. We send collective gratitude to Class V, Section A of Liceo Scientifico M.O. Andrea Bafile, L’Aquila. 

3 Responses to “Lake of Memory”

  1. Kit Cooley

    What a tragedy, cara Helen! It is hard to read without crying. Grazie for the link to the document. I see my own family names in there, and will try to translate the piece about Campotosto when I have time.


    • Helen Free

      Let me know what you discover. I want to hug this teacher. An assignment with lasting value.


  2. susannairaci

    Ciao cara Helen! I have just read your post, and as Kit Cooley already wrote… hard to read without crying! You are a brave and rich soul. I’m happy we’ve met 🙂



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