The past and present came together at the annual lunch of the Monte San Martino Trust on November 16th 2022, with a rather battered book of Italian grammar taking centre
The Trust’s 136 guests at the RAF Club in London witnessed an emotional moment. Nearly 80 years after the book’s “liberation” from Fontanellato PoW camp, it was handed over to Graham Day. Graham is the son of Jimmy Day, whose name was inscribed on the book’s flyleaf.
The circumstances surrounding the book’s return are extraordinary. In September 1943, after the Armistice with Italy, the 600 PoWs at PG49 Fontanellato made a mass escape. Immediately afterwards, in the hours before the arrival of the Germans, the town’s citizens entered the camp to take away what they could – and one lady rescued Jimmy Day’s grammar book.
Many years later, the lady’s nephew, Pietro Bettati, pledged to reunite the book with the Day family. He was helped in this when by chance he came across Alessandra Alexandroff, who was visiting Fontanellato. Alessandra is the daughter of Michael Ross, who had made an earlier failed escape attempt with Jimmy Day.
Knowing that Pietro Bettati and his family would be present at the annual lunch, Alessandra and her brother David Ross swung into action and made sure that Graham Day and his sister Jill would also attend and could be handed the book.
The moment was iconic for the Trust in light of its mission to honour the memory of the many brave Italians, at Fontanellato and elsewhere, who hid escaped PoWs from the Germans and the Fascists.
The Bettati family have long been supporters of the Trust and the three children have all benefited from its bursaries to study English in the UK. In making the trip to London, Pietro, his wife Maria Grazia, daughter Alessia and her fiancé Francesco Vecchini were part of a strong contingent of Italians at the lunch. Among them was Lorenzo Cosimati, who was half-way through his course at CES Wimbledon, the last of 34 students to take up bursaries in 2022. In all, 40 of the 136 guests were attending the lunch for the first time.
Before updating supporters on developments, Nick Young, the Trust’s chairman, greeted the Italian ambassador, Inigo Lambertini, who was present together with the embassy’s chief of staff, Niccolò Biscottini. Sig. Lambertini, who has served Italy on four different continents and who took up his post in London in October 2022, said in reply that his aim was to strengthen ties between Italy and Great Britain and that “nowhere could one find ties of friendship stronger than those with the Monte San Martino Trust”. He added: “It was emotional for me to be here today.”
Nick Young then summarised Trust activities over the previous year, highlighting the immense achievement of finally posting all the PoW memoirs in the Trust’s possession onto its online archive, a process steered by Trustee Christine English and Archivist Nicola Waddington. While congratulating David Kettle, the Student Co-ordinator, on adding the job of Administrator to his responsibilities, Nick Young also thanked John Simkins, who has relinquished that role after 10 years and will revert to becoming a Trustee.
Nick Young concluded by telling the story of the grammar book and handing the microphone to the guest speakers, starting with supporter Jane Davis. She told how the discovery of a postcard sent to her father, Lance Bombardier Bernard Burles, in 1946 prompted her to research his wartime experience as a PoW who escaped from Sulmona camp. The postcard had been sent by Minnie Mazzocchi Alemanni who had hid him. In 2022, Jane succeeded during a visit to Italy in tracing Minnie’s grandson, Marco Mazzocchi Alemanni, a former EU Italian ambassador, who also kindly addressed the meeting.
He said that Jane Davis’s enterprising initiative had enabled him to learn about the Trust’s work. “I am impressed by the humanistic spirit of brotherhood that informs it. I equally find it impressive that the Trust is not just looking backwards but to the future as well, thanks to your generous programme of bursaries.
“As Italians, we owe eternal gratitude to the Allied forces, of which so many were British, who liberated our country. We bow to the memory of those who perished and of those who survived.
“If some of my fellow-countrymen helped in the survival of the latter, this was just a partial contribution to the redemption of a people who for too long had remained mostly indifferent to dictatorship. Recently our Head of State has commended their work, and rightly so.”
The lunch concluded with a message of best wishes from Luigi Spinazzi, mayor of Fontanellato, and with Letitia Blake, the Secretary, recommending a number of books on sale. She then thanked Christine English for her impeccable organisation of the event.