On 8 September 1943, the fascist government surrendered to the Allies. Faithful readers and WW2 buffs (Hi Dad!) will recall that Mussolini got fired after the Allies occupied Sicily and it became clear that they were just waiting for the chance to invade mainland Italy. The Grand Fascist Council gave the top job to Marshal Badoglio, ex-head of the armed forces, who immediately started negotiating an armistice. The next day, Genera Mark Clark launched ‘Operation Avalanche,’ the landing of Allied troops on the coast of Italy at Salerno and Anzio. Clark was the USA’s Commander in Italy; he was super young for that kind of job (45 at the time); he was in charge of the Groundhog Day nightmare that was Monte Cassino. But that’s another story. The day after that, the Germans occupied Rome. Badoglio and King Victor Emmanuel III promptly fled, leaving no forwarding address and no one in charge. Pathetic.
A few weeks prior to this, Italy had declared Rome an ‘open city.’ Basically what that means is that the government says, “OK, if you must occupy us, we will let you. We won’t fight you or give you a hard time. In return, you have to promise that you won’t throw bombs at our priceless monuments or our citizens.” To be on the safe side, the Romans surrounded all of their most important monuments with wooden scaffolding and sandbags. The Arch of Constantine alone was protected by 50 000 sandbags.
It worked. Sort of. There were bombs both before and after the occupation: some lobbed by the Allies, some by the Germans and some by Germans pretending to be the Allies (as when a German squadron attacked the Vatican and tried to blame it on the Americans to get a little sympathy). The Brits bombed the Vatican too. Other targets included the San Lorenzo steel factory and freight yard (destroying the nearby San Lorenzo Basilica in the process), the Scalo del Littorio railroad yards and Ciampino airport. Fifteen hundred people died in the San Lorenzo raid. But the Allies pretty much laid off, not so much because the city was ‘open’ but because there weren’t any real military targets of interest. On the periphery of Rome, however, they went to town. The Allies dropped 60 000 tons of bombs on the outskirts in the 78 days prior to their entering the city.
The biggest problem was food, of which there was little to none. The German occupation closed down many industries, putting people out of work. A million refugees from the countryside swelled the city to twice its normal size. All food was rationed — people were allowed up to 1670 calories a day, including 7 grams of protein (the amount recommended at the time for a healthy diet was 60 grams). That doesn’t sound so bad — I’ve been on more restrictive diets myself. The problem was that all available food went into the black market where it became impossible for the average person to afford. The average income for a lower middle class worker, for example, was about 200 lire a month. On the black market, pasta cost 60 lire a kilo, bread cost 40 lire a kilo and olive oil cost up to 300 lire for a litre. By 1944, only 3.4% of the food in Rome was available through rationing; 45% could only be purchased on the black market. In the meantime, the Germans kept cutting the rations. After the incident on Via Rasella, they cut the daily ration of bread to 100 grams. There were soup kitchens and war gardens (orti di guerra) dotted around the city but they didn’t do much to relieve the chronic hunger that plagued the population.
One of the last things I worked on before I became a freelancer was an oral history project involving a number of primary schools outside of Rome. The idea was for the kids to interview their grandparents about what they had eaten when they were small and to compare that with their own diets. Most of the old folks would have been little kids during the war and their answers revealed a lot about the extreme deprivation suffered by Italians at the time. There was more than one story about a street cat gone missing, if you catch my drift.
A couple of years ago I read a book called Friends and Romans: On the Run in Wartime Italy by John Miller. Published in 1987, it sadly seems to be out of print. It’s what you might call a gripping read. Miller was a young British captain, who jumped from a train carrying prisoners of war to a concentration camp in Germany. He ended up in Nespolo, a village about 50 km northeast of Rome. There he was befriended by a couple who had fled Rome for (what they thought was) the relative safety of the wife’s mother’s village. Miller stayed with the family, pretending to be their deaf and dumb cousin (because he couldn’t speak much Italian). Things got dangerous when some local partisans killed two German soldiers and the Germans started looking to organize a reprisal. The family fled back to Rome, taking Miller with them. They settled into their old apartment near the Vatican and waited out the war, pretty much starving hungry the whole time.
One day, Ida, one of the daughters, came home very excited about the lunch she had eaten at her friend’s house. The next bit is from the book:
‘MEAT!’ exclaimed La Nonna. ‘How could your friend afford meat?’
‘It was very cheap,’ said Ida, stating the price.
‘But that’s not possible.’
‘I don’t understand either. Anyway, I have the address of the butcher. Here it is.’ She handed us a scrap of paper.
‘And was it good?’ we asked.
‘Si, si. Molto buono. Deliziosa.’
‘Describe it,’ said La Nonna.
‘Lean, quite tender, very light in color.’ We listened voraciously to the succulent adjectives.
‘No, it wasn’t rabbit. More like veal.’
‘But the price! It couldn’t have been veal!’
‘Cat?’ I suggested, remembering how the cats had disappeared from our courtyard.
‘Much too good. And too white. Not that I have ever eaten cat!’
The problem seemed insoluble. No matter. La Nonna would go to the butcher on the morrow.
But she never did. Next morning the headlines screamed at us from the Popolo di Roma:
TRASTEVERE BUTCHER ARRESTED FOR SELLING HUMAN FLESH. VICTIMS BELIEVED CASUALTIES OF AIR RAIDS BY ANGLO SAXON CRIMINALS!’
Feeling slightly sick, we checked the butcher’s address with that on Ida’s scrap of paper. It tallied.