Protagonista: Caterina Fradelli
1941: first escape from Zara
At the altar of Our Lady of the Rosary in the church of St. Symeon in Zara, at 6.30 on 15th April 1940, the priest Don Giacomo Foretich Colenda officiated the wedding between Caterina Fradelli e Vittorio Varisco.
They had a happy honeymoon visiting Trieste, Venice, Florence and Parma. On 29th April we came back home and the most difficult days of our life began. On 30th April Vittorio was drafted, I saw him only in the evenings when he was on leave free-of-duty or his crew wasn’t restricted to barracks. It was like that from May to October.
In November the Federation asked and got from the Army Command that Vittorio returned to his job because there were no clerks. He didn’t wear the grey-green uniform but the duty was heavy, without timetables because he had to replace the youngest clerks who were in the army; sometimes he didn’t come home even at night.
During 1940 things went like that, while I was peacefully living my first motherhood.
On 22nd march 1941 little Gianna was born, I was happy to hug my first baby: she was healthy and chipper, she weighed 3,700 gr and on 27th March she was baptized in the Hospital. After five days there, I went back home, I was happy but worried with my little precious in my arms.
We were worried for the next entry to the war against Yugoslavia, the location of the city wasn’t positive for its defence, especially considering its limited area of 53 square kilometres. We couldn’t rest easy. At that time the authorities asked the civilians to move to Italy. On the first April 1941 the Ministry of War ordained the mandatory displacement of the civilians and for them who were not busy in official duties. Schools were closed, we had to leave.
My mum Ida was not sure on what to do, she didn’t want to leave Zara but at the end she accepted to come, she couldn’t let me go with a ten-days-old baby.
The second day of April 1941 was a very sad day, I remember the anxiety of departure, even the sky was sharing our sorrow, it was leaden gray and the clouds were full of rain. We had to board on the “Stamira” docked in the Old Bank at ten o’clock in the night, it was raining, I was holding Gianna, our tears were more than the raindrops falling from the sky. But the rain was crystal clear while our tears were bitter and desperate.
They gave us a bunk in a cab together with other people. I laid Gianna down as best I could and I curled up next to her while my mum sat reclining at the end of the bed.
Everybody was thinking silently. We spent the night in that uncomfortable position, rarely speaking until morning and during the crossing to Ancona. I was reckoning if we would have never gone back home. The ship took off the moorings only at 5 o’clock in the morning and it was flanked by two torpedo boats to protect the navigation. We reached Ancona at 4 o’clock in the afternoon of the following day. My brother Andrea and his wife Rita Bersani were waiting for us, his students of the third year of Liceo were volunteers by the dock. We couldn’t land immediately because it was necessary making a list of the displaced, almost all without documents and being visited by the provincial doctor.
Time went by and Rita, worried for Gianna, contacted the wife of the Prefect, begging her to let the baby land as soon as possible.
The lady listened carefully to her, then with a firm tone she said: “ Come with me!”.
“Let me go, it’s a pitiful case!” she ordained, showing up to the guards on duty.
She spoke some quick words with us, then she took Gianna in her arms and with Rita, they landed back. Thanks to the help of the Prefect, Rita took Gianna to home, they lived around the monument of the Fallen, the last road on the left, on an uphill called “delle Rupi”.
She left the baby to her mother, granny Alice, who was waiting for them. She removed the swaddling clothes and put the baby in the bed of Ida, Gianna’s cousin. After having completed our paperwork we finally landed where Rita and Andrea were still waiting for us.
When we left Zara, Antonio, providently, wrote on all our bags the name “Fradelli” (brothers), so Andrea’s students could easily store them together in a safe place.
Finally we got home by car. Gianna was restless and considering that I was a first-time mother and tired from the journey I didn’t know what to do. I gave her some breast milk but she was quiet only for a while and then started whining again. To make me feel better, Andrea called a pediatrician who visited my baby and weighed her deducing she was healthy and perky. She was just hungry. My milk wasn’t enough for her. Because of my physical and psychological conditions and I haven’t eaten for two days he recommended to buy a French brand milk powder, Guigoz, that was the most popular at the time. He left waiving his fee, he was happy to have helped an Italian family from Dalmatia. Andrea went to the chemist to buy the milk and at 11 o’clock in the night Gianna’s hunger was satisfied and we finally could go to bed after that long and difficult day.
On 6th April the war against Yugoslavia began,at the end the inescapable and feared war arrived. Our major concern, for us displaced in Italy, was for the people left in Zara to protect the city.
We feared the worst, Zara was encircled by the enemy, and despite its being weaker and less fierce it controlled every strategic point and the communication routes.
The warring war was won in a few days, the siege of Zara ended on 12th April but it gave way to a new and despicable fighting strategy. It became a gang war, the enemy was hiding, armed and it suddenly ambushed with bloody conclusions.
We naively thought that the war should have some rules, but we soon learnt that it has no respect and no mercy for anyone.
Later, during the years, for the most part of us Julian-Dalmatian refugees it was always difficult to believe and today it is still impossible to understand the truths that were taught.
We found out that those who had defended our land with sacrifice, we didn’t care about the colour of their uniforms, would be considered criminals and on the other hand those who were real criminals would be celebrated like heroes. As usual, history is written by the winners. For us, “Veneti de là del mar” (Venetian from beyond the sea), ideology has always been of little worth, our greatest effort was to keep alive our cultural and ethnic identity.
Even making an attempt to understand our enemy’s reasons, after sixty years from the end of that cursed war, we finally can assert our truth.
To our friends and our opponents and to the people who are unaware, we remember that what happened in Istria and Dalmatia has no parallel in history and in the chronicle of Italy of that time, they were victims of a civil war where brothers were struck by their brothers’ hand.
There are still many people who don’t know our story and ignore the tragedy suffered by the Julian-Dalmatian refugees; others, the ones that today are our opponents again, are only able to offer a shabby witness of the ideology they represent.
Our story was a different matter, different from the one that someone still try to tell nowadays, a story really difficult to understand even because nobody has had the chance to write it in the schoolbooks with the aim of teaching it to our youths. A story of which we are troublesome witnesses.
Yugoslavia surrendered and Italian troops occupied the whole Dalmatia.
We would have wished a fast and peaceful end of the hostilities, but knowing the enemy nobody in his heart had good hopes.
We spent a month at Andrea’s home, where one day came the attendants from the municipality to bring us the papers by which we could have got the allowance for the refugees. But Andrea refused it, saying that it was not necessary, we were his guests, he would have provided for our needs.
There was nothing strange in his decision, it was the natural outcome of an education, a way of feeling and acting always recognized and not only in our family.
The answer was quite obvious, even if given with the heart, of course nobody of us had the idea to take advantage of our condition of refugees, considering that we were able to supply with our means.
When the military defeat of Yugoslavia came and the war had an end, our first thought was coming back to Zara. My mum Ida was the first to be active going to Questura (police headquarters) to get the necessary permissions and then to the Ancona harbour to buy the tickets. All the cabs were booked for the whole week.
Due to her insistence and trying to accommodate her, the office worker thought to ask her to show the badge of the allowance for the refugees. “I haven’t got this badge you are asking and I don’t get any allowance” was her upset answer. Then the clerk, maybe he was surprised, certainly amazed, asked her to sit down and he phoned the Port Authority in order to solve the situation and satisfy the untameable lady in front of him.
It was answered to him that it was fully booked but he insisted tenaciously claiming it was an order and that for the following morning at 9 o’clock there had to be a free cabin for Mrs. Ida Schlacht, widow Fradelli and her family. Since he got only evasive answers, he kept on pushing.
At the end, putting the phone down, he addressed my mother with a sigh of relief and a satisfied smile saying: “Everything is done, Madame, tomorrow morning you will be able to leave for Zara in an excellent cab with your daughter and your niece”. At last, offering her his hand for a gentle greeting, stuck by such a determination he added: “But…Dalmatian people are all like you, Madame?”
The following day with our heart full of joy we boarded to Zara, having the naive hope that with the end of the war against Yugoslavia, everything could have restarted like it was before and that life could have been as usual That idea turned out to be an illusion; with its heavy burden of horror, here in Dalmatia too, was approaching a war we didn’t know yet and the epilogue of it was the tragedy of a whole nation and the destruction of the city.
The short period spent in Ancona and more over the Blitzkrieg, that lifted the siege of the city and our troops that occupied all the Dalmatian coastline, made us think that the city shouldn’t have been too much in danger.
When she came back to Zara, mum complained vibrantly when she found someone had completely sacked her rich and colourful cupboard full of marmalade, jam and fruit in alcohol, made with love and patience.
Vittorio told us that most people thought that the success in the defence of the city was quite unlikely, surrounded as they were by the enemy. As he was convinced that we hardly would have come back to Zara, Antonio had shared all those goodies with some friends and he added that enjoying those delights they had toasted to his health.So it was that the fortune of our family marmalades disappeared!