Meeting Maria Elena

Nigel Hackett describes how he met up with the granddaughter of an Italian woman who helped his father while on the run from a PoW camp in 1943

Maria Elena Bentivoglio and Nigel Hackett

I grew up hearing stories from my father, Alfred Hackett, about a brave Italian lady, Marianna Bergonzi, and her two daughters Elvira and Albina, who had helped him after his escape from Camp PG 29 at Veano in September 1943. My father died in 2002 at the age of 86 and I had always wanted to see where he was sheltered all those years ago.

As a member of the WW2 Escape Lines Memorial Society (ELMS), I asked the Monte San Martino Trust (MSMT) if I could join the events to mark the 75th anniversary of the Italian Armistice, due to take place in Fontanellato (Parma) at the invitation of the town’s mayor from September 7-9 2018. I knew that Camp PG 49 at Fontanellato was only about 50 miles from Veano. I also knew that my father was helped initially by an Italian farmer near the camp with whom he exchanged clothes, and then by Marianna Bergonzi, somewhere in the Morfasso area, before he commenced his long walk south through Italy towards the Allied Lines.

MSMT readily agreed that I could join them and I started to plan how I might find Dad’s “safe house” in the hills. I thought the house was called Travale and that it was in the small town of  Morfasso, so I wrote to the local schools and asked if they knew anyone who had knowledge of the descendants of Marianna and her daughters. After a short delay, Ivana Ennio, a school administrator, replied  that Marianna was by now deceased, as unfortunately  were her two daughters . However, she knew a lady who was related to Maria Elena Bentivoglio, Marianna’s granddaughter, who lived in Piacenza. Ivana said she would try to arrange a meeting.

The former Camp PG 29 at Veano

After that, the summer months passed by and I resigned myself to the fact that a meeting might not take place. I then wrote again, with a copy of the MSMT programme for Fontanellato, to explain the significance of the date of my visit to Italy.

By now, it was less than two weeks before my trip to Italy. A week later, an email arrived with a request to meet Ivana at 15.00 outside the tobacconist’s in the piazza at Lugnagna Val’Arda, where I would meet Maria Elena and visit her grandmother’s house. I readily agreed, advising her that I would be holding a yellow Michelin map of Emilia-Romagna!

I flew to Bologna on September 6th and drove to Fontanellato. The following morning I went up into the hills to find PG 29 Veano (which is now a Religious Seminary) and then drove to my planned meeting with Ivana.

A lady came up to me, spoke in perfect English and introduced herself as Maria Elena. We were soon joined by Ivana and her husband, plus a reporter from a local Piacenza newspaper, and I was whisked up into the hills along steep and winding roads to the hamlet of Favale where some of Marianna’s distant family members still live today. The farmhouse 5 Favale was still standing although it has been empty for 15 years and suffered the ravages of time.

I stood in the kitchen where my father shared his tea rations with Marianna, saw the bedroom where he slept between sheets for the first time in two years, and looked out of the windows to the hills where Dad walked, dressed as an Italian farmer. I saw the fruit growing in abundance (Dad had helped to bring in the harvest in September 1943, as there were no able-bodied men in the hamlet).

It was an emotional meeting for both of us. Maria Elena told me her family’s story whilst I explained how my father had escaped after leaving Favale, and described his subsequent life.  We exchanged family photographs and I gave her Yorkshire Tea and a Poppy brooch as a small thank-you.

Marianna’s daughters Elvira and Albina

After 75 years at last our two families knew each other’s stories. Maria Elena’s mother Albina had married and emigrated to the UK after the war. Maria Elena was born there, hence her perfect English. In due course Maria Elena had herself emigrated to Italy and now worked as an English teacher and translator in Piacenza. The reporter took down our stories and said an article would appear in the Saturday morning edition of Liberata. After several hours we all departed but only after Maria Elena had agreed to join the MSMT commemoration in Fontanellato on the Sunday.

She duly did so, spending the day with me as we attended the ceremony at the former Camp PG 49. After the last event Maria Elena and I made our way to a bar. We drank coffee and talked for hours, as if we had known each other all of our lives. I had, of course, known her grandmother’s, mother’s and aunt’s names all my life, from the stories I was told as a young boy!

It had been a truly emotional few days and a fitting commemoration of those Italians who helped our fathers and without whom many of us would most probably not be here today.