Ricordiamo Forlì

[In Piazza Aurelio Saffi]


This is Piazza Aurelio Saffi, at the heart of Forlì, a small city in the northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna. It’s a warm September morning and the piazza is crowded with people, watched over by the lofty bell tower of the 12th century Basilica of San Mercuriale.

The bells of the Duomo — the Cathedral of Santa Croce — cascade across the center of Forlì and beyond, echoed by bells of outlying churches and chimes of the city’s clock tower. It feels like these sounds have existed here forever, part of the space, part of the life of the city.

Just next to the tower of San Mercuriale there is a small portico with a memorial captioned Caduti per la Libertà — fallen for liberty — acknowledging many who died in World War II in the struggle against occupying Nazi forces and Fascism. Their pictures, some of them children, are etched into tiles in memory of what people of this town went through at that time.

The year of 1944 saw Forlì ravaged by the bombardments of both Allies and Germans and subject to vicious Nazi reprisals against her people, trapped in a conflict that forced its way into their lives in a chaotic struggle amongst foreign soldiers, partisans and a new wave of repubblichini — soldiers of the Fascist puppet state of Northern Italy. And it was here, from the tall iron lampposts that circle Piazza Saffi that the bodies of La Banda Corbari were hung, a group of partisans executed after being captured by Nazis and denounced by Fascists. Such chilling cruelty, such inhuman actions. These were witnessed and endured in Forlì.

Standing here, in front of the San Mercuriale memorial, we see faces, names, dates. All are reminders that the suffering brought by war is intensely personal and its violence indiscriminate. In the broad wash of time, we so easily lose sight of the individual tragedies, and the little chance events from which life and death hang in the balance, woven within the savage machinery of war. It’s one such story that is remembered now.

[Interlude 1]

[Bitter Storm]


Following the armistice between Italy and the Allies in September 1943, the 8th and 5th Allied armies commenced an invasion of the Italian mainland and began to move north from the southern cities of Taranto and Salerno. As armies engaged in bitter combat, a nation was immersed in a chain of horrific destruction that thrust its way through cities and across the land.

War Correspondent 1:

Now you hear the roar of the bombers, they’re approaching now in from the sun right high above overhead is a Spitfire…

War Correspondent 2:

… takes the form of an all out air offensive against their forward positions and this attack is in progress before me as I speak to you. Very large numbers of planes are coming over, giving the German positions… dive bombers have gone and the artillery again takes up the pounding of the enemy forward positions…

War Correspondent 3:

And as the shells screamed down and the walls collapsed in gray powder around us we raced back to tell you, on the spot, the full nightmare of the war…

War Correspondent 1:

All down the hillside now the pounding grows in a multitude of vicious mounds of flame and smoke… Approaching now the target. Already a cloud of green smoke is rising from the center of the town which is evidently the point to be bombed. And there’s the load of the Boston attack just fell on the town and terrific black smoke is rising in amazingly thick columns spread over the whole area. And the sound of the actual explosions will reach you now.

War Correspondent 4:

We passed through village after village and every one of them bore the scars of the twin war machines which had smashed through them in these past few months. In the streets, black with churned up mud, and in the crumbling doorways of windowless, often roofless houses, I saw barefooted, ragged little children, faces pinched with cold and shivering against the cold rain. Often, as we passed through towns, I saw men and women digging in the ruins of their homes for something they might still call their own. … The gathering darkness added the last somber touch to this dismal scene of war. Here men had fought and died, and the air was full of the tragedy. Then, when we were only a few minutes from here, and we entered the approaches to this little town from where I’m talking a little procession came toward us. First there was the Priest striding quickly along in the rain. And behind him came four little boys all about 10 years old. They were carrying a very little coffin on their shoulders, and they were almost running to keep up with the priest. Behind them, coming from the front, a long convoy of 8th Army lorries followed, and didn’t try and pass.

[Ancient Tear]

L’albero a cui tendevi
la pargoletta mano,
il verde melograno
da’ bei vermigli fior,

nel muto orto solingo
rinverdì tutto or ora
e giugno lo ristora
di luce e di calor.

Tu fior de la mia pianta
percossa e inaridita,
tu de l’inutil vita
estremo unico fior,

sei ne la terra fredda,
sei ne la terra negra;
né il sol più ti rallegra
né ti risveglia amor.

[Poem “Pianto Antico”: Giosuè Carducci (1835-1907)]


The winter months of 1943-44 saw harsh weather — and extreme cold transformed the land into a frozen, inhospitable environment. To escape the cold many soldiers abandoned their usual sleeping place of a slit trench covered by a bivouac tent for whatever houses were nearby, bringing them into close contact with civilians. As towns and villages were destroyed, many Italian citizens became sfollati — evacuees — dispersed out of cities and into the countryside.

War Correspondent 1:

The heaviest fall of snow so far this winter has just taken place. The whole countryside is now a picture of winter, with bare brown trees and hedges carrying a pattern of snow over the white blanket beneath. The roads are churned to broken drifts of slush and ice, and all movement is becoming increasing difficult. As I speak to you, snow is still falling and it seems certain that settled winter conditions have fallen on the Italian front.


For people caught in the sweep of this war, danger was everywhere. In the sky at night, over many parts of Northern and Central Italy reports of a phantom airplane, dubbed Pippo, symbolized the anxiety of civilians. It came only in darkness, sometimes without incident, sometimes dropping flares here and there, or explosives where a light might be shining. The droning presence of Pippo inflamed the fears of ordinary people — an invisible, looming threat that some were sure was American, while to others it was German, or even Italian. Pippo epitomized the identity of the enemy as something fluid and ambiguous — the destruction brought by strangers, and the menace fermenting within the nation.

[The Garden]


In the summer of 1944 a young woman, evacuated from the city, rode toward Forlì on her bicycle, looking for what was left of her family’s house, shattered in one of the first waves of Allied bombing. Along a country road, a black speck floated on the horizon and, suddenly, became an Allied fighter plane whose eyes saw this innocent figure as the enemy. She never knew just how it was that she escaped, but she rode on to find what was left of her home — gutted and strewn with remnants of the life they had left behind. And yet what she saw that day was that the garden had bloomed into a vibrant image of hope.

[A Little Italian Farm]

War Correspondent 3:

This is the story of a little Italian farm. Which, just for a day, found itself in the front line. At that moment it was simply point 098524, where two German machine guns had to be cleared up. It had no human personality as it were. It was just a map reference that would be passed and forgotten by the end of the day. Inside, the whole family were sheltering in a deep cellar. The walls were still shaking from an occasional shell dropping near at hand. On a rough bed, the old grandfather was lying wounded in the leg. He’d been wounded by one of our own lads who’d mistaken him for a German when Grandfather had come hobbling out of the door to welcome us. And Grandmother, aged 70, was holding his hand. The old lady produced two pathetically soiled letters obviously read and re-read a hundred times. They were from her grandsons, prisoners of war in Sardinia. Was there any hope that she could see them again? And as they talked, I realized the immense hope that the ordinary, simple people of Europe feel…

[Interlude 2 — Florence]

War Correspondent 1:

Well, that is a New Zealand tank just entering Florence. Today is Friday the 4th of August and New Zealanders, together with South Africans on the right flank have reached the goal of long endeavor and fighting after many hard weeks of action… It’s really quite difficult to carry on any kind of connected commentary. People are gathering around the microphone, I’m being constantly patted on the back and presented with flowers. There’s great shouting and excitement and really one can only convey a very scattered picture of this tremendous occasion. Bottles of vino are being produced from everywhere. And the New Zealanders of course are taking every opportunity of the… er… opportunity to slake a thirst, which has grown over the dusty road and particularly during the last 2 nights of hard fighting.

[Forlì — November 1944]


Pressing on to the north, following their involvement in devastating battles at Orsogna, at Cassino and in the battle for Florence, the New Zealand Division of the 8th Army was among the forces advancing along the Adriatic coast in September 1944, approaching the so-called Gothic line of German defense which stretched across northern Italy from La Spezia to Pesaro. Heading north from Rimini on the Adriatic Coast, this eventually brought the New Zealanders to Forlì. Amongst these troops was Alex, a gunner in the New Zealand 5th Field Regiment. Over 60 years later, he recalls passing through Piazza Saffi for the first time.


We went through Forlì, right through the square, and right up and through the big archway and then we turned right and went down to Malmissole. The Germans hadn’t been long gone. We went through the Saffi and there was… the Germans had strung up a lot of Partisans from… on each of those posts, those lampposts. There was a big sign, a big painting up on the wall, I think it was like a poster, just down by where the church was, showing a New Zealand soldier — like a Maori it was too, he was a Maori — with a baby in his arms and the blood dripping from it and underneath written ’this is the enemy: beware’.


Allied troops and partisans had liberated Forlì on the cold and misty morning of November the 9th 1944, after a night battle for the Forlì airfield. Yet it remained a perilous place. One BBC war correspondent described his experience in Piazza Saffi when he arrived there on that day.

War Correspondent 5:

Eventually we found ourselves in the main Piazza or square, a beautiful place in a rather gloomy, sinister way arcaded on two sides with a fine Romanesque church with a tall tower right opposite us. San Mercuriale we were told it was. And I was just remarking to a colleague that the church along with the rest of the city seemed to be entirely undamaged when swish, bang, a shell from a German field gun, a 105, exploded slap in the middle of the square. This was followed by five or six others, though we didn’t wait to see them burst.


In fact there had been many civilian deaths and terrible destruction around the town as a result of Allied bombing raids in the preceding months, and in the wake of the German retreat. Under the Nazi occupation, scores of people — partisans and those accused of supporting them, Jews and other innocents caught in reprisals — were put to death, while many others were deported to forced labor camps in Germany and its remaining territories.

The night before the Allies’ entry into Forlì, the city lay coldly silent in fear of another air raid. Then, in the small hours of the 9th of November, the silence was shattered as the retreating Nazis carried out their earlier threat to blow up the city’s prominent towers, including the municipal Torre civica, and the campanile of the Duomo, whose falling bells shattered the great wooden beams below. By some grace, the tower of San Mercuriale was spared.

[Family Story]


One family named Fariselli had, like so many others, been forced to escape the city’s dangers as the tide of the war overtook them in 1944. They had lived close to the railway station, a key bombing target, and with their home destroyed in an air attack the parents, Euclide and Maria, two of their daughters Tarcisia and Imelde as well as Imelde’s small children, Giovanna, Giorgio and Carla found refuge in the outskirts of Forlì at the home of the Strocchi family in the farming area of Malmissole. Soon, German troops were also staying in the farmhouse — and this was to plunge the family into torment… One soldier, handling a machine gun… incomprehensibly triggered it and, in one shocking instant, took the life of Imelde’s little boy.

[Once in Malmissole]


As the world stood still for one family, the conflict continued around them as the Allied pursuit of the German army and civil war scoured the country. And then, as winter drew near, it was in front of the Strocchi farmhouse at Malmissole that the New Zealand soldier Alex found himself looking for shelter with the rest of his battery in November 1944. It was here that he met Tarcisia.


We arrived in the sort of courtyard you’d call it, where it was cobblestones. And the Sergeant Major said to me “Well, go up and there and get a room for us.” So I went upstairs and there were three or four rooms. There was a passageway down the middle and there were three rooms there and three rooms on the other side. So I got that one, I went and got that room and there were a lot of grapes hanging up, I remember that, and I remember tasting them — they were quite good, they were green grapes. And then I walked over to this other room where there were windows on all of them but on this other side there was nothing. But I walked over to this other room and had a look out the window because there was … a lot of people down below, turning around and mucking around, you know, people. So I looked out the window and who should be sitting on the window at the end but this beautiful girl, you see, so I just looked out the window and sort of said to her “Buongiorno”, and she said “Buongiorno “. Didn’t know what to say, I said “Vuoi una sigaretta?” and she replied “No, non fumare.” So, I just sort of smiled at her again and she smiled back and I thought, by gosh… that was it. It was just love at first sight.


Not long after Alex and Tarcisia met, her family were able to move back into Forlì — Tarcisia with her parents to a house close to Piazza Saffi, and Imelde and her children to an apartment on the other side of the town. Alex’s regiment were now in action at Villanova, between Forlì and the city of Faenza to the north. In the following months, Alex and Tarcisia met whenever they could and almost straight away one of those meetings was to change their lives forever.

[The Bomb]


Of course what actually happened, with the bombing… Imelde and Carla and Giovanna, they went with their cousins, there were quite a few of them, into this big apartment place. I never ever saw it. But they were — I believe — they were on the fifth floor. They had gone two days before Tarcisia and her mother and father left, and they went to via Regnoli and Tarcisia told me where they were going and told me it was 38 via Regnoli. So she said “Would you like to come down?” By this time we’d moved up to Villanova, so she said “If you’ve got… would you come down one afternoon?” so I said “Yes I’ll come down tomorrow.” So I got down there and she told me this afterwards that her mother had said to Tarcisia that morning “Well, this afternoon we’ll go round and see Imelde and see how they’ve settled in, and Carla and company.” And Tarcisia said “Oh do we have to go today?” and Maria said “Why?” She said, “Well, that soldier that I like is coming down and he’s going to come and see me.” And her mother said “Oh well, OK, we can go another day, don’t worry about it, it’ll be alright.” So I duly arrived and Tarcisia was there and gave me a glass of wine. Her mother was sitting in the corner, knitting away, knitting away. And I spent just the afternoon with her, you know, cuddling a bit… and then I left and of course I had to walk to the square to get my truck and I just went straight out, straight through the big archway, which is blocked off now. Well I got past, just through that archway, and I saw this plane, or I heard it, and saw it. And I just saw the bomb coming out. It was an enormous thing, it looked to me like a great big 44 gallon drum and it was just turning over like that as it flew down — and about that height which, had I stayed where I was, it seemed to me it would have dropped, more or less… but I took off, it actually carried on a bit further where the apartment was — hit this apartment…

I never thought anything about it. I heard it explode and all the rest of it, the big noise and I’d got back to Villanova. Next morning I went down to see Tarcisia again and, oh, she told me the great tale you see about it and she said that she was just going round to the hospital see and she told me that Imelde had died, she was killed outright but Carla was still alive and so was Giovanna. So I went round to the hospital with them and Carla was, she was still sort of… I don’t think she knew where she was but her eyes were clogged up and they were trying to clean her eyes a bit. But Giovanna was just lying there and she had a cut on her head about that long from there right back and just all exposed. I said to Tarcisia “Why don’t they, you know, do something with her?” and she said “They seem to think she’s going to die.” So I went round and saw one of the nurses, they were nuns and this nun could speak English and I said to her “What’s, why are they not?”… she said “We’ve got nothing, we’ve got no bandages, we’ve got nothing.” Well, she said “What we’ve got, we’ve got very few, we are only using them for people who will not die and she said I’m sorry but that little girl is going to die.” Which she did the next day. They were crowded, packed in. There must have been five hundred people in that little hospital and there were five hundred people in that apartment.


Here, outside Forlì’s Duomo, Alex and Tarcisia met on Easter Sunday in 1945, and it was not long before they decided that Tarcisia would follow Alex to New Zealand after the war. They were lucky, and able to grasp the promise of a new life together. Love provided the fortune that allowed them their future, but a future that carried with it the agony of loved ones lost. Yet today in Forlì, across the space of the main Piazza, in the dark reverberation of her churches and sharp echoes of her narrow streets the Duomo’s bells have risen out of destruction and speak of all that the city witnessed, to give a voice to all those souls for whom time was made to stand still.

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