As a young girl, Georgina Stewart was fascinated by the story of how her father, Donald Robinson, had been hidden and protected by an Italian family after escaping from a PoW camp. In 2014, she and her husband John Stewart went out to Servigliano, in the Marche, hoping to track down the family. As Georgina describes here, their journey was as emotional as it was successful.
On the 21st January 1943, my father, Sergeant Donald George Robinson of the Royal Artillery, was captured along with four others during a night-time skirmish with Rommel’s Afrika Corp., at the battle of Boa Arada in the Tunisian desert. From North Africa, my father was taken to PG 59 in Servigliano, in the Marche, Italy, and remained there until September 1943, when the Italian government surrendered and the gates of PG 59 were opened and the prisoners walked out in their thousands.
He disappeared into the surrounding countryside and was taken in by the Luciano family who had a farm on the hillside outside Servigliano. They gave him food and shelter and hid him in their cattle byre for about six months. He was eventually liberated, possibly through a night-time operation by boat.
The Luciano family housed my father and many other families also helped by providing food, clothing, etc. – in particular the Dezi family, who lived nearby.
My father survived the war but was discharged from the Royal Artillery in 1944 due to pulmonary tuberculosis. This recurred in 1957. He had major surgery and spent almost a year in an isolation hospital.
He made a good recovery and despite the loss part of one lung he led a full and active life as a farmer. He was a popular man, had a great sense of humour and was the “life and soul of the party”. Few knew about the frightening nightmares he suffered regularly as a result of his wartime experiences.
My father always felt enormous gratitude to the two Italian families who had put their lives at risk to help him, and he spoke of this frequently. In the l960s he and my mother went to visit them and thank them for their amazing bravery. They stayed a few days with the Dezi family and met up with those of the Luciano family that were still in the area. My parents said it was a very emotional time for all of them and the hospitality was quite remarkable.
My parents took numerous photos (in slide form) while they were there and we used to look at them during family “slide shows”. I was always fascinated about the background to them. When my parents returned from Italy they kept in contact with the two families (despite the language difficulties) and we still have some of those letters.
We have quite a lot of memorabilia connected to my father’s time during the war and particular treasures are the metal spoon from the prison camp PG 59 and the two-sided silk map of Italy that soldiers were given. We even have the remains of a tiny packet of painkiller my father was given for toothache while on the run. On it, my father has written “given by a very frightened Italian doctor late at night”. We also have a leaflet in Italian distributed by the Germans, which clearly states exactly what would happen to any Italians who helped the escaped prisoners. It further highlighted the immense risks that the Luciano and Dezi families took in sheltering my father.
My father died suddenly in 1992, aged 76. He had still been very active despite having Parkinson’s disease and we had just returned home, two hours previously, from picking raspberries on a nearby farm.
When my mother died in 2011, my husband John and I began gathering together all the letters and documents related to my father’s wartime experiences. I got the slides of the two Italian families that had sheltered my father developed into photographs. And that was it – we decided we HAD to find out more and we wanted to see if we could track down those families that had been so incredibly brave during the war. But where to start?
We found out about the WW11 Escape Lines Memorial Society and through them were given the name of an Englishman, Ian McCarthy, who was a member and who lived in Servigliano. We liaised with him and sent him all the information we had about the families who had helped my father. He and his wife Gabriella were incredibly helpful and said they would do all they could to try to track down the families. When Ian said he used to live in Penna San Giovanni our hopes were raised, only to be dashed shortly afterwards when he said that the Luciano family had moved from there.
That was shortly before we departed for Servigliano in May 2014 as part of the ELMS Tenna Valley Freedom Trail and we had no idea whether we were going to meet either of the families, or see the house where my father was hidden – if it still existed.
We arranged to stay at Angela Garden, just outside Servigliano, a B & B run by Luigi and his wife Angela. Luigi met us at the airport – what a character he turned out to be. We had been told he was “larger than life” and he was: we immediately got on well and his English was very good, which proved to be invaluable.
On arrival in Servigliano, Luigi took us to the memorial in the main square and then to the PoW camp nearby. It is now called Peace Park with a sports centre and playing fields. Luigi showed us the two remaining barracks which are outside the camp walls and were the officers’ living quarters. So there we were, actually walking around the camp where my father was incarcerated over 70 years before; it was an extraordinary experience and one of so many we were about to encounter over the next few days.
That evening, Luigi took us to meet Ian McCarthy and his wife Gabriella. Gabriella told us the exciting news that she had managed to track down the two families who had sheltered my father and that she had arranged to take us to meet them the next day. We were extremely grateful to her for all the effort she had put into finding them.
The next day Gabriella duly drove us the six miles to Penna San Giovanni , a village built on the side of a hill, like the majority of villages in the area. The streets were very narrow, steep and cobbled; it was a lovely clear day and the views were amazing. We went down some very steep steps to the front door of Giovanni and Rita Luciano and there we were, about to meet up…
They were expecting us and we all became very emotional on meeting each other. Giovanni was a small, slim 82-year-old man with a very expressive face, intense eyes, thinning white hair and a large white moustache and massive hands. Their home now is a flat in the village and their extended family live nearby. We were ushered into their dining room and on the table were some photographs that my father had sent them following his visit in the 1960s.
We so regretted not being able to speak Italian and being dependent on Gabriella to interpret for us. Giovanni explained that he remembered my father very well from the war (when he would have been 12) and how his own father, Mariano, had hidden him in the cattle byre. He said he could remember my father carrying him around on his shoulders but he did not see my father when he visited in the 1960s, as he was working as a waiter in Naples.
Giovanni explained that he was one of eight children and the only one surviving. In addition to being a waiter, he had worked on his father’s farm, and had also been a cobbler and a photographer. He explained that he still owned the house where my father was hidden and made an offer to take us there, which we eagerly accepted.
When my parents visited in the 1960s the Luciano family were still living there and one of the photos of Giovanni’s sister (Palmina) is taken just outside the cattle byre. The house is semi-derelict now, a tall, large impressive stone building standing on a steep overgrown hillside with stunning views. Typical of local farmhouses, the cattle byre was on the ground floor and the family accommodation on the upper floors, with the baking ovens nearby.
While we were exploring the house, Giovanni explained that his family were poor and that the whole village was involved with helping the soldiers staying there and providing food: in particular, the Dezi family, who lived high on the hillside above Giovanni’s house. He pointed to their house, which was in clear view from his old family home.
We took several photos of Giovanni (having once been a photographer he was very willing to pose for me and clearly saw how important it was for us) and the house, inside and out, as well as the surrounding area and its amazing views. The most poignant photos, of course, were those we took of Giovanni in the cattle byre. We could tell he was finding it very emotional as well.
I remembered too how my father used to talk about hiding in maize fields when they were warned that Germans were in the area. The wind would make the maize rustle, but they didn’t know if it was wind or the enemy close behind.
We then set off to meet the Dezi family up the hill, who were expecting us. Again, it was a very emotional meeting. Nino Dezi, 83, is a short, stocky man with thick greying hair and very expressive twinkly eyes. He still lives in the house where he was born, with his wife Josephine, his son Ezio and his wife and their son and daughter. When my parents visited they stayed with the Dezi family.
My parents’ photographs of the family in the 1960s had a poignancy that interested me. I always remembered a particular picture of Nino, looking very smart and handsome in a white shirt and open sandals standing next to two white oxen. And there we were, sitting around the table with Nino and his family, looking at their family album which included the very same photos and some of our family that my father had sent them.
Nino remembered my parents’ visit well, as did his son. Nino explained to us, through Gabriella, that he used to go up and down the hill a lot, as a 13-year-old boy, taking food etc. for the soldiers at the Luciano house and that sometimes he used to stay there too, in the cattle byre with my father.
Nino’s son Ezio disappeared upstairs and returned with a coin in a case which my father had given him. He was very proud of it and I explained that my father collected commemorative coins and it would have been a way of trying to say how much the family meant to him. Because of our inability to speak Italian it was incredibly difficult for us to convey to Giovanni and the Dezi family how deeply grateful we were for what they had done during the war and that my father never forgot that. Their response was always that they just did what anyone would have done in the circumstances.
The following couple of days in Servigliano were filled with interesting people, events and walks but I really wanted to return to the derelict house before we left Italy. Just as we were discussing this, Luigi appeared and kindly offered to take us. As we approached it down a dirt track we could see someone working down the hill at the makeshift lean-to buildings we had noticed during our previous visit. We were flabbergasted to see Giovanni emerge; apparently he went there most days to work in what is his log store.
He was equally surprised to see us, but clearly very pleased too to have a further opportunity to talk to us (through Luigi) outside, in very relaxed circumstances. Again we had been taken by surprise, one minute pondering in the square at Servigliano, the next off to visit the house, then to find Giovanni there, it was just meant to be.
Yet again we had to say our goodbyes and a couple of days later we were back in the air over Ancona on our way back home. It is still difficult to take in all that happened and what we were able to find out and experience. There are still a few bits of the jigsaw relating to my father and his time as a PoW in Italy that we want to find out. The journey he went through and the journey we have gone through, in following in his footsteps, has been amazing.
P.S. While my father was in Italy during the war, two PoWs in Britain (a German and an Italian) began working on our own family farm. Both stayed on after the war and the Italian lived and worked on the farm with my father for 40 years!