On Saturday I went to Bologna with the group. It rained all day, and I had no umbrella so I wore one of my scarves wrapped over my head like a nun or an old woman. We went to the cathedral and the municipal buildings, most of which still had their original frescos from the 1500s. It occurred to me that Bologna was lucky that Fascism did not erase their beautiful buildings and art.
I did not know that Bologna used to have over twenty brick towers, like San Gimignano in Toscana. It’s like other cities in Italy, founded by the Romans or the Etruscans and inhabited ever since. We climbed the taller of the only two towers that remain, and it is taller than almost any in the whole country. I took pictures, but it has plaques inside it that tell you exactly how high up you are. There is one that says, “55 meters. Leaning Tower of Pisa.” You then continue up about another 40 meters or so, and then you can see the whole city.
After everything, we met in the main piazza and the people who run the CIEE program took us back to the bus. The rain had really picked up, and we were walking along and talking because we were tired. Suddenly Ricardo (one of the organizers) started telling us to speed up, go faster, go faster…until we were literally running through the slippery streets and past the people dressed in fine clothing to the bus. As we were crossing the street to get on it, I looked to my right and saw tons of police lights, and the Caribineri (military branch of the police) filling the street. They hurried us onto the bus and told us to sit, because we were leaving right then.
It turns out there was a huge protest moving our way. All the people were yelling and carrying on, and we had to take the long way out of the city because they had blocked the main road. They were protesting the war in Gaza. And it occurred to me that people here have a very different view of war than people in the US do.
Right now, I am feeling the very heavy weight of the way they see and remember war on my heart. In Northern Italy there were whole cities flattened, like in other parts of Europe. In fact, the university at Bologna, which is the oldest in the Western World (yes, there were universities in the Middle East and Africa and Asia long before there were in Europe), was hit directly with a bomb in 1944. The anatomy room, which was used for dissections and contributed to the first modern knowledge of the human body, was destroyed. They have rebuilt it, but it was leveled.
I had been walking all day and feeling sicker and sicker, and we were about to all meet to go back home to Ferrara. I was with two other girls in the main square, and there was a huge memorial to the people who fought from 1943 to 1945 for the Italian resistance in Bologna. There was an entire wall, full of pictures and names…thousands. People who laid down their lives to stand up to Nazism. Men, women, children. A man who had Down’s Syndrome. Whole families, their names erased from future generations. Most of the pictures were high school graduation portraits, posed and not particularly notable. There were two pictures of two sisters side by side, and I noticed the quiet, unwavering stare they both gave in their portraits. It was like they were saying, “Yes. We are here. And we are not afraid.”
I don’t know the stories that led to their deaths, but I would like to believe that they were trying to hasten the war’s end. There was a photo of a man, tied to a roadsign. He was dead, and above his head was a sign that said he was an anti-German spy. That’s the kind of thing that I haven’t seen in the States, because I think we forget the realities of war. Because we haven’t had one on our own soil in a very long time, I believe that we feel collectively that war is something very distant. In Vietnam, in Iraq, in the Gulf…never in our own towns or our own lives. Or, we think that war is something we can wage on problems, like drugs or terrorism.
Tons of people were milling around in the piazza: talking, laughing, and carrying on with their lives. I would think that this was exactly what the people whose pictures are on the wall would have wanted for their city, sixty years after the war. Peaceful, prosperous, rebuilt, and above all compassionate for the wars that still exist in the world today. An old woman with a scarf over her head, like I had mine, walked past me. She seemed to be a reminder that people did go on with their lives, even though they remember the times that people were being killed for standing up to a seemingly insurmountable foe.
As we were driving to the airport before I left, my dad was talking about how I would be the first person in our family to spend this much time away from the States since the Korean War. I keep thinking about Uncle Joe, and how he was here when the war had flattened everything. I told Carmen that he was in Paris when the Allies freed the city, and that he helped liberate Bergen-Belsen, the concentration camp. She looked at me and said, “Ah. Then he was a hero.” And he definitely was.
Basically, I feel the weight of the war itself on me tonight. There is always the question, “What would I have done, in the same situation?” I’d like to think that I would have been brave and fought, and stood up for those that had no voice. Of course, you can tell yourself that you would act courageously and that you would not fall victim to the persuasion of evil people…but you do not know it would not happen.
And what was on the TV when I got home? Schindler’s list.
Tonight a prayer for all of us, and that we may be given strength to do the right thing. And that we may always remember that those who are fallen were once alive and breathing, just like us.
“And God shall wipe away all the tears from their eyes, and their shall be no more death; neither suffering nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain, for the former things are passed away…” –Revelations 21:4
Here is the link to the photos: