War through a child's eyes
A Norristown man's memoir tells of boyhood in battle-ravaged Italy - and its relevance today.
Donato De Simone was just 11 when Nazi soldiers forced his family from their home in October 1943.
The care-free life he'd led in a town on the Adriatic Sea, halfway up the Italian "boot," was over. In its place: fear, hunger and homelessness.
De Simone, now 75, reflects on those days in a memoir titled
Suffer the Children: Growing Up in Italy During World War II
"We were caught up in a whirlwind of events. We had to grow up fast so that we could survive," De Simone said recently at his Norristown home.
De Simone left Italy for the United States in 1947 and soon became a college and high-school English teacher. He's retired now, but he's busy spreading the message that children are the real victims of war.
He writes in his 400-page book that children pay dearly for the "insanity of war," because they've done nothing to incur the pain and disruption that comes their way.
"They suffered silently and patiently without understanding it, sometimes with an anguished, plaintive lament that tore your heart out," he says in his book, self-published by Xlibris Corp.
The work chronicles through a child's eyes what it was like to live in Italy when the civilian population of Fossacesia found itself caught between occupying Germans and the British and American liberators.
Suffer the Children
is incredibly relevant, since children in Iraq, Darfur, Pakistan and Afghanistan are today experiencing the same horrors the book describes," said Vincent Sollimo, a chemistry professor, who has known De Simone since the two were teenagers."I could feel from his writing what he was going through."
On Sept. 8, 1943, Italy signed an armistice with America, Britain and Russia. Waves of occupying Germans rolled southward into Italy. Allied troops, bent on freeing the agrarian nation, pressed northward from Sicily.
A clash was inevitable. It came late in 1943 at the Battle of the Sangro River, near De Simone's home town.
Its people feared air attacks from Allied bombers. They also feared being shot by Nazi soldiers. But some Allied soldiers were friendly, and so were some Germans; it was hard to tell who was on the side of fleeing civilians, De Simone writes.
At 10:30 a.m. Oct. 12, the first Allied bombs fell on Fossacesia, killing eight civilians, including five children.
De Simone, his mother, brother and grandfather were at home. "Frightened to the core, we huddled in that door frame between the kitchen and dining room," De Simone writes.
Three days later, the townspeople were awakened at 5 a.m. and forced to line up in the street. The Nazis wanted their homes as headquarters.
In the confusion, the De Simones slipped away to the home of relatives and for seven weeks eluded the Nazis.
The author's mother moved the family 13 times, to other people's homes, barns and even caves. De Simone recalls that, at one point, they slept on wheat sacks. The adults scrounged for food.
"I never considered myself a survivor," he said, "but I realized that I was in deep danger at least six times."
It took courage, wits and resourcefulness to survive, he writes. His mother, pressed into service as head of the family in lieu of his father, who was away in America, possessed all three.
"His mother becomes a heroine," Sollimo said.
De Simone writes that his mother, Maria Sorghini-De Simone died tragically following childbirth at age 41, one year after reaching America.
"Had she lived in the U.S. [for longer], she would have been something else," said De Simone, meaning she would have developed her full potential. "She insisted I get an education."
After the Allies routed the Germans in December 1943, much of bomb-battered Fossacesia was razed. The De Simones lived in a one-room shed, and the author went to school in people's homes.
"We had no books, no paper to write on, no pencils and no blackboard, much less a library," he writes. Despite that, the author gained a firm foundation in four languages, which he used to earn a living in the United States.
De Simone said it took years to write the book he did because he wanted to share his memories, which stayed fresh despite the passage of time.
"You don't forget the scenes," he said. "They run through my head like a movie."