01 May 2011

LIFE: Miracle at Sant’Anna

SARONNO, Italy - It takes Andrea about 10 minutes to drive from his family’s summer home in the posh Tuscan resort of Forte dei Marmi up a hilly road to Sant’Anna di Stazzema. Not that he has family in Sant'Anna any more, they have all moved on, far beyond the boundaries of the tiny hill town. But on those languid days of summer when the temperatures soar, the family gathers together here in the large villa built by Andrea’s great-grandfather. 

 Sant'Anna di Stazzem
There is no one left in his family who remembers the old man. He died a long time ago. He was one of the victims of the World War II Sant’ Anna massacre, shot to death by the Nazis for no other reason than he was there.   

The story of that terrible event became the subject of a novel by James McBride, and then a film by Spike Lee. The film tells the fictionalized story of what happened in Sant’ Anna in the weeks before the Allies liberated Italy. 

In the film the heroes are the ‘Buffalo Soldiers’, the 92nd Division of African-Americans who served on the Italian front during the Second World War. But in reality the Buffalo Soldiers were never anywhere near Sant’ Anna. Maybe if they had been the story would have had a happier ending.

In a soft voice, Andrea starts to tell me what really happened in Sant’Anna that day. It gave me goose bumps just listening to him.

“The massacre of Sant’Anna di Stazzema was one of the most brutal war crimes committed by German soldiers and SS troops during the Nazi occupation of Italy,” he tells me.  “Over the course of a few hours, 560 men, women and children were murdered by the 16th tank division Reichsführer SS.”  
Buffalo Soldiers from film
Official military records show that the German army had ordered the evacuation of the city of Sant’ Anna a week before the SS troops arrived, but only part of the town’s population left. And then, shortly after the initial evacuation, many women and children returned home. They had nowhere else to go. The war was all around them. There were severe shortages of food and clean water, Italy was crumbling before their eyes and the danger of being caught in an Allied bombing raid was omnipresent. 

What they didn’t know was that the German Army and SS troops were moving in four columns towards Sant’Anna, massacring people along the way. German military historian Gerhard Schreiber describes what happened: “In Sant’ Anna, Himmler’s tank grenadiers forced the residents and refugees into a walled-in area in front of the church. The people found themselves in a trap, since there was only a single exit. 

 German tank
The executioners began their work, and soon there was a mountain of corpses - the remains of 132 men, women and children.  In order to eradicate the victim’s identities, flame-throwers were used to cremate the entire site. In nearby Vaccareccia, the troops had trapped 70 captured people in a stable, decimated them with hand grenades and machine guns, and finished them up with flame-throwers too. They then repeated their performance in the villages of Franchi and Pero. Whoever crossed their path was butchered. When the SS unit finally moved on into the valley beyond, they left 560 victims behind. 

Andrea tells the story as if it happened to someone elses family, and in a way it did. But on those sultry August nights, when the breezes come across from the mountains to cool those sleeping peacefully in Sant’Anna, the memories of what happened on that night remain.

 Enrico Pieri
 And the miracle? The miracle of Sant’Anna was that one little boy did survive. His name is Enrico Pieri. He’s an old man now, but he still remembers every minute of that terrible day. 

“We knew the Germans were coming,” he says, “but no one thought they would harm women and children. But when they arrived they rounded some of us up and began burning down our houses. Then they made us go into the house of a neighbor. As we entered the kitchen they began shooting.  I was only saved because the owner of the house dragged me under the stairs in the basement and protected me with her body.”

For Signor Pieri and the families of all of the victims, April 25 had another meaning this year besides being Easter Sunday. It is the day the Allies liberated Italy from the Germans.

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