Above: an image captured in Milan in 1943. Note the Duomo in the background. Image via Wikipedia.
By April 19, 1945, the occupying Nazi forces had begun to leave Milan. A few days later, the city was liberated by Italian partisans and by April 27, the U.S. 1st Armored Division had entered the city.
My dissertation advisor Luigi, who was born in Milan in 1940, used to love to tell the story of one of his earliest memories. It was an icy cold day in 1945, as he remembers it, when he watched a bare-chested German solider sitting atop his tank as it left the city. Luigi, who was five years old at the time, had survived both the Allied bombing of Milan and the Nazi occupation. In his mind, the soldier’s machoism was an expression of his unfettered defiance and pride as German forces retreated in the face of the American advance.
On this April 25, Italian Liberation Day, a national holiday that commemorates the Italian partisans’ victory over the Nazi occupation and the Fascist regime, it’s hard not to think of our sisters and brothers in Ukraine.
From 1945 when Milan was liberated, another two decades would pass before Italy rebuilt its economy. Luigi’s father had been killed in 1943 by the Nazis in Greece in what is known today as the Cephalonia Massacre. Think of what young Luigi and his single-mother faced in terms of rebuilding their lives. He would ultimately become a migrant after winning a scholarship to study in the U.S. in the 1950s.
In 1945, when the first wave of Neorealist films began to be released, viewers saw for the first time the severe personal and emotional toll of war victims and refugees. The most iconic of those is arguably “Rome, Open City,” where director Roberto Rossellini blended quasi-realtime war footage and person-on-the-street actors who had no professional experience (Fellini was one of the screenwriters).
While Americans were accustomed to seeing state-sanctioned war footage, this new media form reshaped the way movie goers understood the local human toll in a war that hadn’t been fought on their continent.
As we watch the nonstop coverage from Ukraine via mainstream and social media, many commentators have noted that there has never been a European war where news consumers have such unmitigated access to what is happening on the ground. Thanks to media’s immediacy today, the human toll and the resulting desperation are streamed daily into our homes and on to our phones. In many ways, our perceptions of the war find a parallel in what movie goers must have experienced when they saw films like “Rome, open city” (1945) and “Bicycle Thieves” (1948) for the first time.
Today, on this Italian Liberation Day 2022, more than 75 years after WWII ended in Europe, we must never allow ourselves to become immune to the suffering of the Ukrainian people at the hand of Putin — our generation’s Hitler. If Italy’s path to recovery gives us any indication of what the Ukrainians will face even after the conflict draws to an end, we must remember that it will take decades for life there to return to normal.
G-d bless our sisters and brothers in Ukraine. Please consider giving to Unicef’s Ukraine child refugee fund. This link takes you straight to the donation page. Thank you and happy Liberation Day.
Buona festa della liberazione. Let’s pray that one day we will all be free.