June 03, 2023
American Romanista

A writer explores the Italian neighborhood where Open City, and his soldier uncle?s tragedy, unfolded

In the early 1940s, Esquilino, Rione XV, was the Open City?s bleeding wound.? After Mussolini was deposed in 1943, one garrison and some civilians turned their guns against the Germans, starting the rebellion that turned Rome into the horrific no man?s land Roberto Rossellini captured in his film. Until the American troops arrived nine months later, Partisans ambushed and killed Nazis and their Fascist supporters; Nazis and Fascists hunted, tortured and killed Partisans; and American planes bombed the city, killing Romans just trying to survive.

My uncle Nicolino, my mother?s half-brother whom she never met, returned to Rome after two years? imprisonment on the Russian Front in 1945. He couldn?t find his fidanzata naturale, his lover, and never did. She was presumably lost in the American bombing of San Lorenzo, the working class quartiere that the bombers targeted.

You can easily see that if some civil war broke out anew in Italy, this neighborhood and the quartieri beyond it would host the action. Its grand, grimy 19th century arcades would provide cover for snipers and bombers; its dense stew of peoples, from older Filipino and East African immigrants to newer Balkan, Near Eastern and African ones, alongside a persistent Roman marginal class, already provides the necessary ethnic tension.

Nearly every year, a public debate erupts over how to fix the Esquilino, an argument ancient Rome?s Senate broached as far back as the 3rd century B.C. Esquilino makes the cronaca nera, the ?black pages? of Roman newspapers, frequently: a sweatshop with indentured workers busted, a teenage runaway lured into the wasteland south of Termini station and gang raped in a boxcar. Locals tell stories of clandestine sweatshops and prostitution dens walled into grimy buildings. In September 2003, Mayor Walter Veltroni?s administration pledged a 13-item ?recipe? for turning the Esquiline into the perfect harmonious blend of traditional Italian and contemporary immigrant cultures, the 13th being to create yet another task force on the Esquiline?s problems.

I pushed farther down Via Merulana and into its side arteries around Piazza Dante, seeking the Historical Museum of the Liberation, housed in the former local headquarter of the SS, where Italian resistance members were imprisoned and interrogated. You can see the exact border of the Esquiline and Caelian hills, a deep fold in the street grid, looking south from the corner of Via Ariosto and Via Galilei. The corner had a big graffiti on one wall: non piu servi degli americani — no more servants of the Americans.? At Piazza Dante I munched a sandwich and battled biting ants; I found one clinging to the inside of my T-shirt.

Suddenly two cops appeared in the scrubby park at the bench across from mine, checking two Near Eastern men?s documents. I waited till the police left because I didn?t want to seem suspicious, and then left myself.

“Wonderful Kid”

At a caff? back on Via Merulana I noticed a sign marking the home of one Carlo Foschi, killed by the Gestapo in 1943. A fat, grizzled old-timer sat at a rickety table parked haphazardly on the street itself, between cars. His T-shirt was stained. Beside him sat a young North African who eyed me unpleasantly as I approached and asked for directions to the museum. An equally unpleasant young Italian stood by him.

The old man?s mouth, its lost teeth so clearly the luckier ones, was his nastiest part.

?You mean the museum of Via Tasso? Where the Gestapo headquarters was?? He pointed and I thanked him and started away, but he called me back.

?Why are you interested in that museum??
?I?m an American, but my family is tied up in that history.? How far from tourist Rome I was, though just nine blocks from the train station!
?See that sign there?? He pointed up to the Foschi marker. ?He was a wonderful kid, just 19. Killed by that son of a whore Captain Kappler.? He spit figlio di puttana when naming notorious Nazi war criminal Herbert Kappler, who massacred Italians with gusto.

?You knew him??
?I was just nine, but I knew him.?

The old man?s name was Armando Toschi. He warmed upon learning my father was from Lake Como.

?They made a beautiful resistance there,? he said. As for him, he?d lost his whole family between 1943 and 1945.
?To the Gestapo??
?No, to the Americans!? He almost wailed the answer. ?They bombed and bombed, without caring who they killed! We Italians were caught in the middle.?

He was exaggerating. Actually, the American precision bombing of Rome, targeting only a few neighborhoods with German barracks and headquarters, like this one, was a uniquely merciful thing for World War II.

?I?m sorry.?

?Where are you from??

?Near New York.?
?When the Towers were attacked, I?m sorry, but I said, ?Now you know what it?s like to be bombed ? but you only know just a little.??

Luckily just then a shabbily dressed Albanian approached, and brazenly offered to sell my new friend a gold bracelet for 30 euros. All three waved him off, more embarrassed at his timing than shocked.

?Do you hate the Germans?? I asked.

?No,? he said, shaking his head emphatically. He and what remained of his family ? so he didn?t lose them all, I consoled myself guiltily ? had fled east to the Abruzzi , to escape Rome. There he befriended a young German soldier, young like the murdered Carlo Foschi. The soldier started an affair with a local girl. ?She just wanted bread, and he needed to, you know.?

He made the famous Italian fucking gesture with his arm. ?You know a young man explodes if he doesn?t do it?? Here his fat old toothless face looked up quizzically into mine. ?They were innocents,? he said, looking away and back. ?One night in the winter, three guys got him. They went up to him and stabbed him like this, in the back, three times.? He pantomimed the stabbing to the scarier looking of his two attendants, who studied Signor Toschi?s jabs with a professional sort of interest.

?I was there,? he continued. He was a little boy. ?When I saw what was happening I ran and hid behind a bush. I came out when they left. There was snow on the ground, and he lay there, still alive. He had the bluest eyes, and blond hair. He looked right into my eyes as he died, like I?m looking at you? ??and here he fixed his old gaze on mine for the longest time ? ?and a tear ran down his cheek.? He was silent in the noisy street. ?The young people today have forgotten everything,? he said suddenly.

?Maybe it?s better to forget.?
He got angry. ?No, it?s not better. It?s worse. We have to remember.? Then he smiled. ?You found more than you were looking for, no??
?Yes,? I said, promising to return.

?I?m here every day, the same spot, at two. I was a bit of a journalist myself, you know.?

Shadows of My Uncle

The Historical Museum of the Liberation stands halfway up a long uphill climb, which made it more annoying but no more surprising to arrive and find it closed for lunch, to leave, to return at four, and to have its doorman bar me because now just an hour remained till closing.

I persisted, however, returning next morning. He tried to bar me again, arguing that no guide was available just then. I told him I didn?t need one, that I spoke Italian fluently and that I was there to see if I could find out more about my lost uncle?s world.

Nicolino had returned from his harsh POW experience with tuberculosis and shattered nerves to the awful discovery of his lover?s death. What was it like to be a hero of the discredited Fascist cause,? a ?war invalid,? as those like him were officially declared with attendant little privileges like free tram rides, to begin again, working as a newspaper typographer through the Italian economic miracle of the 1950s, to marry someone new?? Mom and the half-brother she?d never met stopped writing to each other around 1953, my birth year, so we knew nothing about him, not even whether he was still alive.

Ah, but the library is closed, the guard told me, seemingly pleased. That?s okay, I said, just the exhibits will be fine. Luckily his superior appeared and overruled him, and I got in.

Few Romans were eager to enter this building when the SS was in charge.? The left hand doors at No. 155 Via Tasso were not so bad, leading only to SS offices, barracks, and storage. At the right hand doors, No. 145, you were given a mess tin, a wooden spoon, and a thin blanket before being led to your cell, unless you were important enough to be taken right to interrogation.

The building, built by Prince Francesco Ruspoli and rented to the German embassy in the late 1930s, had originally housed the German Cultural Office, but in 1943 there was time for only one kind of German culture. The windows were walled up except for grated 27 by 20 inch openings; in spring 1944, as the prison filled, the doorways got another 16 by 10 inch opening to relieve stench. Doors were removed from toilets to humiliate prisoners, to soften them for interrogation. Prisoners slept on two-meter long hard tables, until those ran out as the place crowded. They could receive nothing from their families except a change of underwear weekly. When even Germans started feeling the food shortage, in spring 1944, they began letting prisoners receive one boiled egg weekly from outside, too.

Awakened at 7, the prisoners had to clean their cells for inspection and then went in groups for two minutes to the bathroom. Those not scheduled for interrogation went to maintenance duties until the day?s single meal, a thin broth with potatoes and cabbage and about 7 ounces of bread. If you were being interrogated during dinner, you missed it. Between 5 and 8 p.m. you could go to the bathroom, during which time you could fill your tin with water for the night. Then at 8 it was lights out, absolute silence, and absolutely no more bathroom trips. What did middle-aged men like me do? Night was a favorite interrogation time, because the Gestapo felt it made a good impression to return a tortured prisoner to his cellmates then.

The museum, however, focused not so much on prison conditions as on the resistance. One hero was Ettore Rosso, a young officer given the hopeless order to secure the city?s northern entrance. He set mined trucks along his roadblock. When the Germans arrived, he answered their order to move by opening fire with his small detachment. As they swarmed in, he blew himself up, along with his men, and many Germans.

On the southern end of town at Porta San Paolo, a wounded Lt. Raffaele Persichetti led a group who discarded their uniforms and wore civilian clothes to confuse the Germans.

?A hero among heroes,? the display said, ?with words and example he invited his fellow fighters to the ultimate resistance unto death, sacrificing his young manhood for the vision of a fatherland reborn in freedom.?

Rome Gentrifies, But Esquilino Just Gets Grittier

More footsore than I?ve ever been in Rome, I danced to discs spun by Felix Da Housecat outside the trendy Go Card Club Musica adjoining Termini station, with Eric Bassanesi and Denise McNee. They are expatriate English cofounders of a comic theatrical group called The Miracle Players.
We complained about how expensive Rome was getting, as always.

?Did you notice how 25,000 lire became 25 euros after the change?? Denise asked.

They live in the heart of Esquilino, which seems to be getting grittier as the rest of the city gentrifies. ?The prostitutes used to stop two or three blocks south of where we live,? she said. ?Now they?re spread way up past Piazza Vittorio.?

On my way to meet the Bassanesis, a fat Congolese hooker had blocked my way for a second on a back sidewalk near the train station.

?Andiamo,? she?d whispered hoarsely. ?Let?s go.? Another, a hard looking girl from somewhere east of Romania, had solicited me more professionally in Piazza del Cinquecento, slyly, while her three male handlers stood menacingly curbside.

After the Bassanis left, I lingered around Piazza Vittorio Emmanuele II. La Repubblica?s youth correspondent had breezily urged readers to mimic the young and to go with the flow at Rome?s annual urban culture festival, Enzimi. Tonight the gritty piazza was packed with young roamers. They pushed and pulled me when I got in the way of their relentless search for action.

Still, the strong euro was knocking me for a loop and I needed a budget night. Wow: free music, free Internet access, a falafel sandwich and a beer for 7.5 euros, and more beautiful young romane than I could count. They stuffed down third world food with no apparent effect on their tight bare midriffs. Below the midriffs came long print skirts or baggy harem pants and sandals, though they all still shaved their legs at least, an improvement over my ?70s salad days. I stayed for a French film about tensions and bonds among French and Arabic schoolkids.

Suddenly Rome felt complicated again. The film concerned some high schoolers producing a play that forced them to confront class and ethnic boundaries. The radical teacher, of course from the generation of ‘68, pushed them hard, eternally hopeful for her revolution. The Moroccan actress was angry at the French actress for the latter?s influence upon the former?s boyfriend. It was intensely adolescent ? or adolescently intense, I couldn?t decide ? but it perplexed and troubled its young audience, cruelly but honestly offering them the world they would inherit from my generation.

Andrew Giarelli is a writer based in Portland, Oregon.

3 comments about “American Romanista”

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  3. Melinda says:

    Andrew, I was fascinated by your article, having just been to Il Museo Storico della Liberazione di Roma last September (2009). My husband, parents (who live in Oregon, like you), and I walked there after first walking down Via Rasella. The day after the museum, we visited the sobering monument at Fosse Ardeatine. We do not have personal history with these places, but have an intense interest in events that must not be forgotten. Thanks for your report.

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