by cheri sabraw
One of the imaginative exercises in which I sometimes engage is to place myself into the historical time and worn out shoes of real people who did not bring on their difficult circumstances through their own poor decision-making, but rather, who experienced their harsh slices of life at the hands of others or because of circumstances beyond their control. People like the Viennese psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl, and my heroic mother, Joan Block, are several people who come to my mind.
How such individuals handle stressful life experiences not of their own making with the effrontery of lions, I find liberating. Just thinking about their personal courage can be as emotionally sustaining as the awe I feel in the presence of a magnificent waterfall, a vast desert, or violent ocean waves pounding a rugged Northern California coastline. That type of experience reminds me that no matter what happens to me, I will push on and live the most meaningful life I can.
Iris Cutting Origo was one such person. Her peaceful life in Tuscany during the war years of 1943-44 was suspended by Mussolini’s Italian fascist supporters who betrayed their neighbors by turning them in, and by the German soldiers who executed boys in Montepulciano, farmers in Buonconvento, and Jews in Florence.
As Origo wrote on November 28, 1943,
“ We are being governed by the dregs of the nation [Italy]—and their [Republican government] brutality is so capricious that no one can be certain he will be safe tomorrow.”
Several weeks ago, we visited her home and the stunning gardens that surround her Villa which still stands in the shadow of Mt. Amiata, perched on a rounded hilltop overlooking the vast Tuscan landscape of cypress and olive trees, Sangiovese vineyards and wheat fields– a place she and her husband called La Foce.
The visit became an opportunity to dwell on their lives, she in particular. They purchased the untamed land in 1924 and spent the next 40 years beautifying it to its present splendor, but more importantly, they both risked Axis reprisals in the forms of Italian fascists and German soldiers during the German occupation of Italy by sheltering orphaned children, P.O.W.’s, and anyone who came to La Foce tangled in the throes of war. They did not turn anyone away.
Origo, an Anglo-American who married Italian Anthony Origo in 1922, chronicled these two war years in her diary which I read while in Italy: The War in Val d’ Orcia: An Italian War Diary 1943-1944.
The most starting aspect of the diary is the almost detached approach that Origo takes as she keeps her daily notes that chronicle bloodshed, death, heartbreak, and human cruelty, notes that had to be buried in the garden each morning, lest the Germans find them.
The story (you will excuse the paradox) is subtlely riveting, especially when she is forced to march 60 of her charges, mainly children, six miles in the heat of the day from La Foce up the road to Montepulciano in the middle of gunfire, Allied bombing, and a road strewn with corpses.
This story is not one to miss. It changed me!