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May 23rd, 2024
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Annamaria Zennaro Marsi

Anna Ed

Protagonista: Annamaria Zennaro Marsi
Autore: Annamaria Zennaro Marsi

There were four people in my family and after the exodus we went to live with my aunt, but the situation was very complicated. We had to stay in a little room, 8 square metres more or less, where there was hardly space for a double bed and a camp bed. The cohabitation with my aunt was very demeaning (she was my father’s sister and my mother doesn’t know her too much). After having insisted to host us in her home in Trieste, in the Roiano district, she hadn’t foreseen the difficulties of a strict cohabitation with almost unknown people, except my father of course. But after a very short time to be able to sustain us,he boarded on an oil tanker which travelled to Port Said, leaving us alone for long. The granting of a place at the SILOS, after having grievously waited nine months for it, was a sort of liberation especially for my mother, who was physically and mentally broken and who would have the chance to get back the independence she had been always used to. We could not imagine what kind of different worries we were going through. The cubicles, bounded by wooden boards, ready to accept the several requests and the continuous arrivals of refugees and displaced people were not enough, for that reason we temporarily got a 16 square metres dark, empty space with no windows, next to other two families,limited on the back from a wall, but completely open on the front, with the possibility to hang on a rope some grey blankets to protect our privacy. A lamp was faintly lighting this “room” and a little cooker was used to heat the milk for breakfast and to boil the water for some broth in the evening.
During the first month we had our lunch at the dining hall in via Gambini, where there was an excellent, in my opinion, “red pasta” (with tomato sauce). Every morning on my own, from the Silos, with a 30 minutes walk I went to the primary school Tarabochia, in Roiano to finish the school year in the same fourth class, with the same mates and teacher, Mrs. Albanese, picky and harsh, but very understanding and human, of whom I was very fond. After my lessons, sometimes I walked around in Roiano until 3 o’clock until the Brunner Community Center in via Solitro opened, where in the afternoon, we did some nice activities and where they gave me every day a different kind of snack and on Wednesday, even custard and hot chocolate.
At the SIlos the restrooms were easy to reach but not enough for the people who had to use it and, often, during peak time, we had to stand in line to use it. The water was freezing and it was not a pleasure to wash ourselves with it. The poor hygiene, the poor nutrition, the forced coexistence and the lack of heating and getting some natural light and fresh air, badly affected the children’s growth causing flu epidemics, respiratory disease and the highly feared “pulmonary glands”. And for trying to limit the damages on the health of a community of children,very exposed to illnesses, the Italian Red Cross intervened, that after having tested and vaccinated all the children, showed to the parents the possibilities to take away their sons from that setting. Some of them included the possibility to spend part of the summer in those sanatoriums in the mountains, for those kids who were particularly weak; for the others, from 10 years old there was the possibility to be hosted in other European families. Thus, the desperation or perhaps the unconsciousness, made some parents send their children, males for the most, to Denmark, a very far land but with the hope to give them a period of wellness and the chance to come back reinvigorated and healed.

ON OUR WAY TO DENMARK

So, without saying anything to my father, who would have not agreed, I was put , at the age of 9 and a half years, together with other 5 unknown girls, on a train, leaving for a land I had found on a map but completely obscure. I was proud of my new paper suitcase, adorned with little white and green knots, that contained the requested spare clothes: a sweater, a piece of soap and what it was necessary for my personal care. My mother added a packet of OSvego biscuits for my breakfast. As I was small and thin, on the train I got the upper place, on the net ( in this way I understood that I would have also slept on the train). After an early excitement, our journey became more and more difficult. At every stop I had sickness and the lemon given to me by the attendant wasn’t enough. The stops were long and very boring. I wasn’t hungry. I was able to eat my sandwich only when the train stopped.
The only toilet was quite far and to get we passed in front of the male compartment where I saw ,among unknown faces, a childhood friend, from Cherso/Cres too. When we were in Milan we took other children coming from other refugee centres, and going on through endless tunnels, exhausting stops and troubled nights we arrived in Switzerland. From the near window I admired the varied postcard landscape. After two days and two nights more our destination seemed still very far. The attendant assured us but some voices, coming from the eldest boys, started to circulate: they said that our parents had left us and they had sent us who-knows-where and with who-knows-who.
Seeing a devastated Germany made our sadness grow. Before our eyes slided piles of rubble, ruined houses, rough roads, stones everywhere and when we were crossing big rivers it seemed that the train went ahead into the void. The wrecked bridges had in fact been fastly rebuilt only to bear the tracks to let the very slow transit of the trains. We were shocked, all of us looking out the window to watch breathlessly the daring passage on the murky and impetuous Elbe river that seemed endless and really scary. After 5 days of travel our endurance was waning, at night somebody cried and others didn’t have enough energy to whine. When we got to the frontier, Denmark welcomed us with a heavy rain that went on for many days and a temperature we were not used to. We were in June and only few of us had the right clothes to face the cold. We were placed in barracks and we went out only for a medical checkup about the regularity of vaccinations and papers and then on the train again towards the collection centre. I think I was as yellow as the half lemon given to me everyday by the attendant, I was cold and exhausted and in this state they saw me, when, in Aarhus gymnasium, with a tab hanging from the neck, lined up with all the other children, Nielsa with Nielsafar and Birte came to take me. They put me into a black car, as big as an English taxi and on it, after a 6 hours journey,  I finally got to Grenaa, a nice sea town in front of Sweden.
My mind was so foggy thai I couldn’t think, I hardly heard some voices speaking an incomprehensible language, I saw smiling faces to which I wasn’t able to smile back. Neither I saw the nice house in Havnevel 48 with the red bricks, nor the flowery garden and the other joyful members of the family. I barely read the questions of the little Italian dictionary, they had got for the occasion, I only wavered my head to say that I wasn’t hungry or thirsty or other; and when they asked me: “Are you sleepy?” I say yes with my head. They understood and they took me in a real, white and perfumed bathroom, with a bath full of warm water and after having said to me to wash my teeth too, they put me in a bed with wooden banks, placed at the end of their double bed. The following day I would have realized it had been neither a troubled dream nor the processing of an adventure tail, instead I was completely surrounded by a new reality. A condition that every day would have required me to make a big effort to adapt and accept all the news coming from the new setting and from that I couldn’t run away because I hadn’t any sort of lifeline.

AWAKENING IN DENMARK

When I woke up the sun was shining, thus I realized I had slept a lot. It was all so silent around me, as if there was nobody at home. I just smelt a deep smell of celery and carrots, deeper than the one there was in Cherso/Cres when my mum cooked some meat in the broth. I didn’t know what to do: I could have said in a loud voice: “Good morning” and may someone will have appear; I could have lowered the drawer side and got up or made some noise to show I was awake…or…instead I just stayed still, my eyes closed, trying to sum up quickly the events of the last 9-10 months….Away from Cherso, from my habits, my friends, my grandma, the “masiere” (stony grounds), the boats, the sea, the light, the freedom of Prà, away from the pink house, from the fresh and the dried figs, from the olives and cherries; away from Porta (gateway) Marcella and Bragadina, Turion and Loggia, away from the Dome and the Friars Church, from Munighe (nuns) and Piscio (swamp in Cherso harbour)…
Away from everything represented my childhood, even if compromised by the sad war events. In Trieste I had to get used to a new life, a new school in Roiano, the new schoolmates, to concrete, the tramways, to the buildings with many floors and many windows, without my grandma, my cat and the hens, in a small space and with my mum always sad and suffering.
After the first and life-changing spin and after only a few months another reversal: we were in the SILOS, no windows, no air and no light, among unknown people and a life completely to rebuild. And now, after an endless journey, a mortifying wait to be chosen like in a cattle fair with a tab hanging from the neck, now I was here, taken by someone who did not know me and who entrusted just his sense and his needs. I remember that I watched anxiously the people that were coming, turning my eyes away when someone I did not like appeared at the door.
We thought that we all had been already assigned to theapplying  families, but they told us that the children who would have not be chosen, they would have gone all together in a boarding school, possibility that shocked us, For this reason, as I saw on the door the Nielsen family, I looked nicely at them and I was happy to leave where many boys were still standing. Dino wasn’t there any more. Later I learned he had been accepted into a wealthy family from Copenhagen, where he was right.
My thoughts were still spinning as a short blondie little head appeared and said: “Goddag!” and I understood it was meaning Good Morning; he added his name and surname, Gudrun Nielsen, and he went away quickly, coming back with a tray full of tempting pastries and a cup of hot tea. I wasn’t used to drinking tea in the morning, but after having eaten some pastries, I had a sip of tea, just to be kind. From that moment my new existence began: I had to guess and record continuous and new messages and to do it at my best, I cancelled all my recent past, my family too.
The first days, in the evening for the most, when we were all sitting around the big table, we tried to better know each other helped by “Den lille Italiener sproegforer” (the little Italian dictionary), by gestures and by some of my approximate drawings, we knew a lot about each other. I found out the name and the age of their 4 children: Johan, 18 years-old, Ersebeth was 16, Viggo was 12, and Birte who was my same age and she was a whimsical and complicated girl. Her parents hoped we could become friends and play together. At beginning my presence made her jealous and even uneasier. During the day they all go to school and I spent my time with Nielsa ( as I called her, modifying the surname while her husband became Nielsafar), names they kept all life long when we got in touch. Behind the house I discovered a garden with two apple trees and on the back there were currant bushes, a lot of lettuce, celery and carrots and many colourful flowers on the sides.
I liked to climb on the lower branches of the apple trees, to do flips on the grass and other acrobatics that worried Nielsa a bit; after some days appeared Elda, a girl from Trieste who lived next home and who, for some days, played with me. Elda was sweet and good, but she complained continuously because she lived with a young widow, who, in her opinion, has taken her to take care of the 4 years old child. She didn’t understand what she said and she couldn’t bear her. I could talk and play with her, but after a while, I didn’t see her anymore and I hadn’t any information about her. I still have two photographs, taken in the garden. Later I knew that some children had been sent back to Italy. The first month passed quickly and I was lucky because until half of July the days were always sunny and hot.They took me to visit the town of Grenaa, her Lutheran church and Nielsafar’s clothes firm. Sometimes, sitting on dad’s bike we reached the grandmother’s farm: it was in the middle of a park with many ancient trees, many geese and a little river, where the kids could ice skate during the winter. I wasn’t able to ride a bike and I wasn’t ready to learn, so they had to carry me along the way. Suddenly one day, a lady came home,she  wanted to know my name and surname and asked to speak to Nielsa. She was a Red Cross delegate, where my mother had asked for some news about me, as long as I hadn’t written any letter yet, even if my family had told me to do it. Days were passing so quickly and with so much news that I forgot to have a family in Trieste.
I also went to school for a while, where, making a great effort, I had to forget the exercises of sticks and lines and the circles to be hold precisely inside the squares of my copybook of the first class of Cres primary school; I had to learn the slanted script, English style, of the Danish school. I was able to do it only when I put my exercise book crosswise. Every time I got good marks in the spelling test or in arithmetic, my teacher gave me a red cent (called ore). Niesla didn’t like this kind of little prizes, so I hid the coins in my bag to thread them in a string until I made an original and precious bracelet. At school during the Science lesson we went into a laboratory with ascending benches, like those of some Universities, to see the lessons better. Often, in front of the school, stopped some acrobats, who tried amazing and stunning stunts on a rope placed very high, without any sort of security. During the physical education lesson we played baseball, when it was possible outside, and because I was a fast runner, I was able to improve my team’s score and this fact made me happy and well integrated.
It wasn’t as good as at school, when in August I wanted to go with Birte and Viggo in boyscout similar campsite, where I did not like waking up very early in the morning, neither the icy water for washing nor the autumn climate, so they came to take me home. I got used very early to the food, especially in the evening, when on a big wooden disk they placed cheese and cold cuts and delicious hot sausages, that everyone laid on slices of dark bread (smorrenbrod) spread with goose liver (leverpostaj) or tasteful salty butter. Adults drank beer and we had cold milk or apple juice. Milk was considered like a soft drink and when I said that I drank it hot and only in the morning they were very amazed and unbelieving but they often made it for me also with sugary oatmeal.To celebrate some special events they cooked some rice, seen as a delicacy and rationed during that post war period. Niesla put the boiled rice in a pudding mould, then she flipped it and she filled the centre of the big donut with currant jam. It was the top of the delights in their opinion, while I had to get used to the sweet and sour taste of some dishes. Pasta was unknown, instead it was plenty of dishes based on boiled potatoes with chervil or tasty sauces.
On a holy day, with a wonderful sun we all went to the sea on a sandy beach and very deep  blue sea, blue like the swimsuit they bought for me on that occasion. There was a chilly breeze from the sea and we sat behind a dune. I didn’t understand why nobody wanted to bath and I knew that they weren’t able to swim and the water was very cold even if it was summer. I could not believe it, I ran into the water and they couldn’t stop me.
I still remember my stiffened and reddened legs and Nielsa who wrapped me quickly in a big towel. Nothing happened to me but I learnt that the sea is not the same everywhere. September came with its gloomy and cold days. They gave me wool sweaters and a heavy zipper jacket to wear. Every morning Nielsa braided my hair and fixed it on the top with colourful ribbons.My arms had become more shapely and my face rounder. My leaving day was coming, it would have been a few days after my birthday. That day to celebrate me, Nielsa put in the centre of the table a big bowl full of wet sand where she stuck different kinds of flowers and then she cooked a special lunch with rice and prawns followed by many sorts of cakes. In the afternoon the guests (friends and relatives) came to eat a slice of cake and they put on the piano so many presents that I opened greedy and surprised. Later they sang all together for me with Nielsafar playing the piano. It was an unforgettable day with games, laughing and a lot of good spirit…I wished it would have lasted forever.

After a few days I took my little suitcase that was immediately full and I had to carefully select what I’d like to take with me, that’s why Nielsa added another bag. She assured me she would have sent the other stuff by post at Christmas and so it was. I said goodbye to the family, then they drove me to Aarhus, where came the train that would have taken me to Italy and then to Trieste, like many other children. By now I understood and I could speak a quite good Danish and Nielsa, with her eyes full of tears, told me:”Promise that you will come back”. I was very touched too but I couldn’t believe it would have been possible. Instead it happened two years later, in 1951, thanks to their request and the assistance of  the Red Cross; then I visited them again, as an adult in 1983 together with my husband and my daughter.
We are still in touch,at Christmas for the most, with those who are left. I don’t remember my journey back, surely it wasn’t as tragic as my way to Denmark and when we arrived in Trieste they welcomed us with great celebrations. The journalist Italo Orto, very young at that time, interviewed us and he asked me to sing the Danish National hymn I learnt at school. “Der er Yndigt land..” …”This is a lovely land…”
It seemed to me I couldn’t speak Italian any more, my mum and my sister saw me changed, I put on 5 kg weight. I was disoriented and I had to get quickly used again to a new reality, having to face new and complicated “spins”. They had enrolled me in a new school: Ruggero Manna primary school because it nearer home,but with a different teacher and different mates. I had to adapt to a place, the Silos, that before leaving to Denmark I had hardly felt unfamiliar and that for more than 5 years would have hosted us among several vicissitudes, sad and joyful contingencies, but also extraordinary life experiences in a restricted community obliged to live very close and where even a breath was perceived and revised; where like in the cells of a hive, everybody thought for itself, but always linked to the others; where the tensions were often difficult to stop, but even the joy, shared in public in a mix of degradation,distress, humiliation but even of moral fiber, secret and great expectations and of incredible and unforgettable experiences and adventures lived by us, the children of that huge PALACE, teacher and trainer for life.

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