The greatest freedom

The greatest freedom

A true story, even if it seems surreal: the emotion experienced at the end of the bloodiest of all wars, unfolding in an almost cinematic scenario

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

The pleasure of being free to exist and to act is a part of us all. Indeed, life and its rules often give rise to obligations and restrictions from which we can escape at times and enjoy the pleasurable sensation we call “freedom”. There is a kind of freedom, however, that goes beyond the feeling we usually seek out and experience; one that surpasses any other in its emotional intensity. I have experienced this kind of freedom.

On 26 April 1945, on the slopes of the hill of Brunate, which stands over the city of Como and its lake, a fiveyear-old boy walked out, as he did every day, on to the big terrace of the house where he lived with his mother, his grandmother, his grandmother’s nurse and a domestic. It was a daily ritual: every day the city and its lake looked motionless, silent and deserted. The front had been gradually drawing nearer, the Germans had been defending Milan with the last soldiers loyal to Benito Mussolini, Il Duce. Flashes from the bombing of Milan were seen from Como, from that house high up on the hill, but nothing ever happened. The proximity of neutral Switzerland helped keep the city out of the conflict. It was to escape from the horror of war that the child and his mother were there, at his grandmother’s house. Food was scarce, but at least life seemed safe.

However, that morning little Antonio was surprised and intrigued by a great bustle of cars in a long convoy, all black with white lime marks on the floodlights (obligatory owing to the black-out). They proceeded up the road by the lake leading towards Cernobbio and Menaggio, then northwards, either to Switzerland or Austria and Germany.

Those cars were a kind of premonition for Antonio, perhaps the first he had seen since living among armoured cars, tanks and bombers. Cars had practically disappeared since the conflict began and they were a thrilling novelty for this little boy, born during the war.

‘Mummy, Mummy, come and look!’ And the women of the house, the only people there since the men were either dead or fighting, began speculating about the flight of the Fascist Party officials and Germans, the day after Milan had been liberated by the Allies and partisans. That never-ending line of cars was exciting to me, but a worry for them: ‘Where is Mussolini? They must be trying to put up a last stand,’ they said. ‘The war has spared us until now… Surely we won’t be dragged into it now, just when it seemed to have ended?’

No one moved from the house the whole day. When evening came, everything went dark as it always did. It was total blackout. They all got more frightened. We didn’t know that Mussolini had tried to surrender in Milan the day before, but had then fled and slept in the Prefecture at Como. We didn’t know that, among all the people that had passed by in those black cars going north, were Mussolini and his mistress, Claretta Petacci.

They went to sleep that night of 26-27 April. Antonio was happy, he had seen the cars. Perhaps the first spark of his future passion had been ignited that day. The women were very concerned. What was going to happen?

In the middle of the night, at three o’clock to be precise (as I discovered afterwards by researching newspapers from that time) the little boy woke up with a start. The women were crying and in despair. His mother picked him up in her arms and they went and shut themselves up in a little room, under the tower that was in the highest corner of the house and so seemed the safest place. There was shooting in the city, they could clearly hear the machine guns and the small arm fire. The noise of shouting reached them and they heard people screaming ‘Duce, Duce!’

The women went on crying. ‘This is the end! Now Mussolini and the Germans have organised their last stand, the Allies and the partisans will attack and we’ll be killed… Just now when it seemed as if the war was over!’ Antonio didn’t feel any fear or other emotion in spite of all this despair. Who knows why?

At last, after interminable minutes of anguish, the wisest person in the group, his grandmother, said, ‘Let’s try to see what’s happening in Como from the veranda. At least we’ll know then.’ All at once the women broke into shouts of joy, hugged each other and ran into the garden towards the terrace. Como was all lit up, the firing was salvoes of celebration. The people weren’t screaming ‘Duce!, Duce!’, but ‘Luce!, luce!’ (“light” in Italian). The Allies are in Como, the war is over.

At that point, perhaps also because of an enormous bonfire lit, as if to purge the horrors of war, in a nearby villa, Antonio burst into tears. The women laughed and kissed him. He did not know those tears symbolised the most wonderful kind of freedom: that of peace.

Two remarks to end with: the next day Mussolini was spotted on a German truck a few kilometres north, near Menaggio. His last night with Petacci was 27 April, when they were shot dead by partisans. But Antonio would discover this later. At the time he only had eyes for the American tanks standing in line near the lake and the soldiers that gave him chewing gum and biscuits.

Secondly, all these are authentic memories that stand out clearly, so clearly, I feel as if I were seeing it all again today. It is certainly evidence of how profoundly certain emotions and events penetrate a child’s psyche. It is something, unfortunately, that we often forget.

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