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Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The whirlwind has passed, and now, whatever destruction it may have left, we can build again. And it is here that the deepest qualities of the Italian people will have a chance to show themselves. The Fascist and German menaces are receding. The day will come when at last the boys will return to their ploughs, and the dusty clay-hills of the Val d'Orcia will again blossom like the rose. Destruction and death have visited us, but now – there is hope in the future.

War in Val d'Orcia: An Italian War Diary
by Iris Oriigo

For the past year much has been written about WWII. It is a subject with never ending stories and characters, heroes, villains, and folks in between. As we remember those war years, I want to introduce you to one of the heroes...a woman named Iris Origo, Mistress of La Foce. Iris was an aristocrat who turned her Tuscan villa, La Foce, into a refuge for displaced children and others who had to flee the destruction of war. She tells her story in elegant prose in the journal that she kept during the years of 1943-44. Here is a summation of her incredible story.

War in Val d'Orcia (Tuscany) 1943-1944

Tuscany played an important in WWII, with the Allied ground forces driving out the Germans in 1944. The action in Tuscany and the Val d'Orcia region was devastated by the war and by the German occupation. My husband, daughter, and granddaughter and I spent a week on a farm in the area, then two weeks at  other spots in the area. We drove the roads, visited the hill towns,  and fell in love with this area that was so devastated. Looking out upon these vistas in one of the beautiful most beautiful places on earth, one could not image the horror that was occurring here in 1943 and 1944..

     I am writing today about the Val d'Ocia, the valley of Tuscany, involving the towns of Pienza, S. Quirico d'Orcia, Montepulciano, Chianciano, Sarteano, Castiglione d'Orcia, Contgmano, Radicofani and Monticciello. Also, there were many small villages between the larger towns.
     In particular, we will be visiting the villa and farms of La Foce, almost in the middle of the valley.
Since it was a rather large estate, it was a regular site for Germans, Italian partisans, Allied prisoners of war, and escapees. All found something of refuge in this estate, including some 23 children harbored from the ravages of bombings in Turin, Bologna and Modena. Their homes destroyed, they were sent there by their families for safe refuge.
     Many books exist about the war in Italy, but we will focus on one book in– War in Val d'Orcia, an Italian war diary 1943-1944 written by Iris Origo, mistress of La Foce. This book in diary form chronicles the brutality of the German occupation, the people who survived the brutality and those who did not.
     Iris Origo writes in her diary that the farms, as she refers not only to her home farm, but to all the farms within the valley, were in the way of the both the Allied 8th Army and the German occupation army. There were 57 farms in number within seven thousand acres inhabited by about 600 people. These farms relate to the central farm, La Foce, and the villa,.
 La Foce  was the center of its activity with a dairy, carpenter shop, oil presses, laundry, granaries,  and wine cellars. The villa is a 16th Century house, with formal and informal gardens, field hands, carpenters, brick layers, nurses for the clinic, all live in homes nearby or on the farm, basically a self-sufficient village.
     It is this large estate which attracts Italian army and Italian partisan soldier escapees, political agitators, prisoners of war, young Italians escaping the German draft, Allied airman and peasants bombed out of their homes. The villa with all its self sufficient resources had the ability to house and feed hundreds of these people, some passing through and others hiding in the nearby woods. The Germans, too, towards the end of their occupation, took over the property for their field headquarters. They then make it part of a line of defense against the advancing Allied armies. From all the farms, Germans continuously confiscated cars, motorcycles, bicycles, cattle, chickens, ducks, personal belongings, guns, food anything they can simply take.
      From a friend elsewhere in Italy Iris heard, “There is a good deal of bombing of towns and villages along the railway, and much indiscriminate machine gunning along the roadways. What will be left of this wretched country? Perhaps a few isolated houses in the woods and hills – all the rest destroyed. I don't believe that the wars of the past, even with the pestilence and famine that they brought, were as destructive as this one. We have struggled to keep our cars and our freedom of movement, then our houses and those we love—and no doubt we shall soon be thankful merely to save our skins”. This news other parts of Italy were suffering as they were in the Val d"Orcia did not bring joy to those at La Foce.
 In Iris's own words here are some diary entries:

     March 14, 1944.-- The local news is grim. Three young recruits who had failed to report to the Germans have been shot in Siena, in the presence of their comrades, as “an example.” At Piancastagnaio two partisans, who were caught in the woods, have been shot on the spot, and their corpses hung at the gates of the city.
     April 25 1944 – In the afternoon, we hear that the man who was killed was one of our workmen – a quiet peaceable man, hard-working fellow, totally unconcerned with politics, whose murder by the Germans seems to us inexplicable. What new danger is coming now? In the dead man's little house, which after 30 years of hard work and self denial, he had at last succeeded in owning, the widow is hysterically moaning and sobbing beside the bed of her boy of eleven, who saw his father killed.
     May 18, 1944 – The attack on the Cassino front has begun.
     May 19, 1944 – Cassino has fallen.
     May 22, 1944 – Every day now, whenever I go out of the house, I find a little group of famished people sitting in the farm courtyard; haggard women, with babies in their arms and other children waiting for them at home; thin, ragged schoolboys or old men, carrying sacks or suitcases—all begging for food to take back to Rome. We give them all that we can, but Antonio begs me to remember that we must also go on providing food for own population and for the two hundred partisans in the
     May 26, 1944 – Anti aircraft guns, stationed at Spedletto, bring down five Allied planes out of an unusually large bomber formation, which is attacking German columns on the road. Some of the airmen save themselves by parachute. From our terrace we can hear the firing, and see the little silver balloons opening and drifting down from the sky. One plane, laden with bombs, explodes as it hits the ground. We see great columns of black smoke soaring up, and long to hurry to the scene to bring first aid; but the Germans will be there before us.The Allied Armies, still advancing, have broken through the Hitler line.
Think of this. You are a peasant farmer in Tuscany in 1943 and 1944. The country has been ruled by Fascists and dictator Mussolini since 1922. You are tired of the war, Mussolini too wants out, the Allies demand surrender of your troops and ships, Hitler says NO and sends in thousands of his troops to occupy the country.
     Now you have the Germans, the Allied invasion of the country coming up the interior, the Fascists who think they are still in power and attempt to put together an army, then partisan resistance against Germans which generates into a civil war between the Fascists and partisans..
     What do you do? Where are your loyalties?.
     In Tuscany, what you might do, if not of conscription age, tend your crops, is press the olives for olive oil, press the grapes for wine, milk the goats for pecorino cheese, take care of your family and live in peace, and try to become apolitical. But, and a big but, the Albert line of defense, the defense line where the Germans take a stand to halt the Allies coming up the peninsula, runs right through your back yard. Iris wrote that the locals were too busy with living and surviving to be afraid.
     In the farm roads surrounding the estate, partisan activity was at its peak. Every night German soldiers and trucks were ambushed along the supply routes towards the Albert line of defense. The Germans retaliated with unrestrained brutality killing hundreds of peasants – 83 were executed in Niccolete, 40 in Gubbio, 30 in Bottola, 212 men, women and children in Civitilla
     On June 16, the Allies broke through to Orvieto, 20 miles south of La Foce, halfway to Chiusi, 10 miles away. On June 18, German troops set up artillery forces on La Foce. Troops took over the villa. The war continued to level historic towns and villages, hundreds of years old.
     With the war in their front yard, the Origos of La Foce and the 23 children under their care, the local farmers, and the workers of their land, evacuate and relocate in Montepulciano  One of the most powerful scenes is the march/hike/walk of the children from La Foce to Montepulciano.

Again in Iris Origo's words.:
June 27 – The line of fire has been all along the hillside. The allies have at last retaken Chiusi and are pushing on towards Chianciano, We watch their progress by the artillery fire which we can see from our balcony. German sappers are already mining the bridge immediately beneath this house: we watch the dynamite being prepared, open all the windows and wonder when the explosion will be.
     Beneath our windows, the Allied and German forces appear to be dancing, the Lancers, back and forth, forward and back. Now, the gunfire seems nearer, and our spirits rise, now it is farther again, and they fall.
     No military news of any kind. The Allies still appear to be between Chiusi and Chianciano. But in the night some German tanks have gone northwards, and we see little clouds of explosions all over the valley, where ammunition is being blown up
     In the afternoon, the Germans blow up some houses inside the town to obstruct the inner road, and also destroy the magnificent Medicione gateway at the foot of the town.

June 28 – At eleven pm., Allied batteries in the direction of Monticchiello opened fire on the German batteries just beyond Montepulciano and the firing continued all night. At 4:30 am., there was a huge explosion which shook the entire town. The bridge into town had been blown up. At dawn, everyone went out to see the bridge — the rest of us settled down to two hours of unbroken, blessed sleep.
     The Germans have gone at last.
July 1 – And now we have come home. Plenty of shell and bomb-holes on the road and in the fields. At La Foce, chaos meets our eyes. The house is still standing with only shell holes in the garden facade, another on the fattoria, and several in the roof. In the garden, which has also got several shell holes and trenches for machine-guns, they have stripped the pots of lemons and azaleas, leaving the plants to die.
    The ground is strewn with my private letters and photographs, mattresses and furniture stuffing. The inside of the house is far worse. The Germans have stolen everything that took their fancy, blankets, clothes, shoes and toys as well as of anything value or eatable, and have deliberately destroyed much of anything sentimental or personal value.
    July 5 – We have been around to see the most damaged farms. Many are totally destroyed; in others, one or two rooms have no roof. In all of them, the looting has been thorough; either the Germans or others have taken all hat was not destroyed by shells or fire. All the farms have lost their cooking utensils, their linen, most of their blankets and their dearly prized furniture bought one piece at a time, year by year, and all their clothes. Now, almost 50 farms have to be provided for. Where will we find linen, blankets or shoes. The place is still strewn with unburied corpses both of men and cattle.
     Nevertheless, for the future, I am hopeful. The whirlwind has passed, and now, whatever destruction it may have left, we can build again. And it is here that the deepest qualities of the Italian people will have a chance to show themselves. The Fascist and German menaces are receding. The day will come when at last the boys will return to their ploughs, and the dusty clay-hills of the Val d'Orcia will again blossom like the rose. Destruction and death have visited us, but now – there is hope in the future.

Yes, they did rebuild. And if you travel these same roads today, you will see few remnants of the war. They rebuilt and today, Val d'Orcia and Tuscany blooms like a rose with its olive groves, fields of wheat, vineyards and picturesque farms. The largest Provence in Italy, is considered one of the Edens on Earth. And it is.La Foce is now operated as a place for tourists.
You can go there: See how it has been transformed by Iris's family. Pack your bags and stay awhile with them for like so many farms in Italy, it now houses tourists.


* Some readings:

 War in Val D'Orcia – An Italian War Diary 1943-1944 by Iris Origo, 1947. Used copies available through for about $10.

Italy's Sorrow: A Year of War, 1944-1945 by James Holland, 2008. Available through

* Twilight of Memory, by Julia Faye Smith, tells the story of the 10th Mountain Division, (the U.S. SKi troops and their fight to end the German occupation in Tuscany.). Available at Amazon and by special order at bookstores across America.

Please leave the names of other Italian or WWII war books you would like to recommend. I would love to read some of them. Thanks

1 comment:

  1. I've read all three of these. Great Recommendations