Italy's Unredeemed Children
By Bruno Roselli
[The Yale Review, April 1917]
The first irredento, or unredeemed Italian, with whom I ever came in contact was old Professor Dante Maccher, who taught me physics in college. He was a hopeless teacher, and my scientific debt of gratitude to him, is meagre indeed. But if I am a good marksman—and it looks as if that would soon turn out to be a useful accomplishment—I owe it to him; because he loved target-shooting much more than the teaching of science, and it was notorious that any student who could not understand physics was sure of an excellent grade if he only knew how to shoot well. The professor made no secret of this criterion; and during the exciting days of an intercollegiate rifle-shooting contest, he would stand by us as we were putting the cartridge-carrier into the magazine, and say: "Remember that all your knowledge of ballistics will not be worth a soldo if you can't drive those six bullets home!"
We used to laugh at this example of senile belligerency; now we laugh no more. You may remember that all England used to laugh in much the same spirit at another old man, whose name was Lord Roberts; and she also has since learned not to laugh. Professor Maccher is now seventy-two, and a lieutenant of Italian engineers at the front. I have no doubt that Italy need not regret having added his name to the glorious list of those veterans—irredenti or nationalists—whose enthusiasm was such that they simply could not be left at home because of old age, and are actually sharing with their younger brothers the dangers and discomforts of Alpine warfare.
From that time until recently, I have never had a chance to make a first-hand study of those elusive brothers of ours whom we fondly call irredenti. And this for various reasons: in their own lands, because they justly suspect a government spy or agent provocateur in any expansive stranger; in Italy, because—with the exception of political refugees—we used to see very few such people, since Austria discouraged their trips to the Motherland to the extent of frequently closing her frontiers forever to a Trentino or Triestino who went into Italy to study art or to complete his education; and in America, because, contrary to the usual custom of Italians there, I have always made it a point to cultivate primarily, if not exclusively, the society of Americans. But ever since my last arrival in Italy I have seen so many of these war refugees as to make me wonder whether the statistics giving as barely one million the total Italian population of Austria-Hungary were not below, instead of above, the reality. Here at Vallobrosa the hotel lobbies, and the woods dear to John Milton, echo with the soft accents of that Venetian dialect which would seem to have been created merely to express joy; and groups of grave women and children walk between the rows of centennial firs like a funeral procession advancing through the nave of an ancient cathedral. They are the irredenti—the homeless, long-suffering, wandering, voluntary exiles of the Italian provinces of Austria.
Painfully panting, the funicular train which has climbed from sea level to three thousand feet pulls into the station. The conductor shouts "Viva!" and throws a bundle of newspapers to the several hundred people who have gathered around, having come from all over the mountain for the printed confirmation of an eagerly awaited piece of war news, received a few hours ago by telephone. Scores of people struggle to seize the precious sheets; and some, emerging with shreds of newspapers in their hands, read breathlessly the fateful words of the official war bulletin, in which General Cadorna, the most laconic of Italians, describes in six words the crowning achievement of fourteen months of warfare: "To-day our troops have entered Gorizia."
There is general shouting of ooohs and aaahs, the cheaper and equally noisy Italian substitute for fire-crackers; then the crowd returns to hotels and cottages, all talking at once. Everywhere in our hotel there is an infernal din—everywhere but in the dimly lighted music-room, where the irredenti have gathered around an old gentleman who, with pure Venetian accent, reads slowly and with evident emotion the bulletin and the brief official comments. His listeners must be about twenty-five in number; only one man among them; the rest women, holding close to themselves their attentive children of various ages, as a mother (woman or animal) will always do in grave moments. When the old man finishes in a whisper, there is no outward expression whatever of any feeling: no comment, no exclamation, no sigh. One lady weeps slowly. The children stare at the paper, with open mouths and blank expressions; all except one, who has caught up his own sailor hat, and is looking with wonder at the name "Gorizia" printed upon it in golden letters. Finally the biggest of the children, who is about thirteen, breaks the silence by asking aloud what the adult members of the group are all asking in their secret hearts: "And now, where will they go next?" His mother answers the question with a kiss.
These irredenti are not all from the same city, or even province: Trento, Riva, Fiume, Trieste, Zara, are represented here. Some of them are from noble families, and some from the merchant class. Two of the ladies use only the old Venetian dialect, and have considerable difficulty in understanding pure Italian. Six at least are Jews. Yet the great news has brought them all with one accord to this quiet corner of the hotel, where they can gather in church-like seclusion and meditation, and be away from the boisterous rejoicing of those who look upon the taking of Gorizia as they would look upon the taking of a foreign city, without realizing what horrors are involved in the re-taking by force of a city friendly to the invader.
Yes, what city will be the next? Where will it happen next that people of Italian blood and leanings, compelled to remain in a town as a protection against the enemy's bombardment, will be killed by the shells of the army of liberation? What city will next suffer the insults, the looting, the outrages of the Austrian army which defends it, and which is well aware that every person in town is an unarmed enemy? Where next will the Austrians, before evacuating the city, dig well-concealed holes in the streets, in order that an Italian platoon may be precipitated upon bayonets set point up at the bottom of the trap? Where next will they place, behind half-closed doors, contact bombs ready to explode when the Italian soldiers appointed to search the houses open such doors? Where next will they loosen the supports of balconies so that anyone stepping forth to put out an Italian flag may fall into the street? What city will first be emptied of its remaining complement of growing boys and then set ablaze as soon as the military have evacuated it? Will it be Trento? The old man who is the centre of the group built its light and power plant, its street railway, most of its modern factories. Will it be Riva? That young married woman with untimely white hair has her husband there, a professor of mathematics in the high school, who did not succeed in following his wife across the border. Will it be Trieste? That lady in deep mourning has there a splendid collection of old masters, which she did not dare sell before escaping, lest people should suspect the fact that she and her two sons of military age were about to run away into Italy, to give their services to hospital and field work.
If you should ask these people whether they want their cities to be joined to the Motherland, they would all answer with a most emphatic and sincere "yes." But could you blame them if, when they heard that the Italian tricolor had been hoisted upon the smoking ruins of Gorizia, they cherished in their hearts—without even daring to formulate it specifically—the hope that their own particular city would not be the next?
The long conversations which I have held with these refugees, and the constant scrutiny to which I have subjected them, leave me entirely satisfied as to the Italianità of the unredeemed, from no matter what province. I mean that their natures are Italian pure and unalloyed, and that their political leanings are genuinely, spontaneously, in favor of an uncompromising union with Italy. Mark you that their union with Austria was a complex affair, which gave some of their lands an outward look of political autonomy. Thus the Austrian Emperor was not officially the Emperor, but merely the "Signore" of Trieste; the inland post and telegraph tariff of the Italian provinces of Austria applied also to letters and telegrams addressed to certain parts of Italy; boys from the coastal districts, when of military age, were not incorporated into the regular Austrian army, but into special regiments of the national guard doing military duty only in their home cities. Yet I know that these ancient privileges and charters will be gladly torn up at the feet of United Italy, and that the descendants of a people whose bishops buried their flags under the main altars of the cathedrals when Napoleon sold their unwilling lands to Austria in 1797, are asking for no better lot than pure and simple incorporation into the Kingdom of Italy.
One of the unredeemed ladies is being "paged." The waiter brings her a telegram, which she opens with ill-concealed emotion. "The scoundrels!" she cries out. Then, reading aloud: "Just notified through Switzerland all your property confiscated, your children condemned as deserters and traitors to death by hanging if caught. Accusations seem to have been proved by secret agent named Decarlo."
"The train inspector!". "The protégé of our patriotic societies!" "The man who brought us the Italian news!"— From these exclamations it is evident that half the irredenti know him; the others are anxious to hear. The dispossessed lady explains, white-hot with rage:
"You Trentini and Dalmatians can't know this hyena who thirsts for the blood of my children; but there is no real Italian from Trieste or any nearby place who does not know that dog, son of a dog—may the most glorious Saint Mark curse him! He was a regnicolo* [*Word made by the Italians, from the word regno (kingdom); literally, one from a kingdom; actually, an Italian from the Kingdom of Italy, as opposed to irrendento, an Italian from Austria.] who came to us with a long story of persecution at the hands of his fellow townsmen from Apulia, who believed that he had the evil eye. We don't believe in the evil eye in Trieste; and when we found that he knew so many things which we had not been permitted to know about recent Italian history and politics, we opened our homes to him and flocked to hear him talk. He was soon admitted to all our athletic, choral, literary, and charitable clubs: and you know what that means in our city. He obtained all our passwords and all our secrets. Why, before leaving Trieste I even took the rascal to our family vault in the cemetery, and showed him the special empty tomb in which he was to hide (as so many Triestini afterwards did) and wait for the Italians, in case he could not escape."
The lady sobbed, then bit her lip and continued:
"We secured for him the delicate position of train inspector on the Südbahn express from Venice to Trieste. He was to bring us the news of Italy's gradual progress on the path leading to war. He must have made twenty thousand corone between the time when Austria went to war and the time when Italy joined the Allies. He would bring from Italy piles of the "Corriere della Sera" and other forbidden publications, carefully concealed beneath the woodwork of the floor of a car. Each paper—or rather each reading without the privilege of keeping the sheet—-cost three, four, finally five corone as the man's supposed risk grew. Each reading was to last half an hour at most, after which we were to give the paper to certain pseudo-pedlars who turned it over to somebody else. In addition, we had to pay large amounts of hush money: he had been found out, he would be hanged unless he gave huge sums to people higher up. And to think that all along he was probably selling our names and secrets to the police! He loved my two Titians: now they are probably his. And how well I can remember his remark that every time he saw the broad stretch of the beautiful city from our dining-room window, he wished he could do as Nero did, when he set Rome afire in order to see a devastation of unequalled grandeur! O my poor city, he will have his wish, and we shall never see you again!"
I wanted to go to the disconsolate lady, and say to her: "Why not try and forget your native city? You irredenti need not suffer so much. Why should a Trentino return to Trento, or a Triestino to Trieste, when the war is over, since nothing would await him there but horrible sights, smoking ruins, and the remembrance of days of uninterrupted sorrow? Why not begin life anew somewhere else—why not found somewhere else other cities by the same names, which may reproduce the appearance and the atmosphere of their namesakes, yet correct their most undesirable features?"
But I saw that all my reasoning would be of no avail. That scheme seems plausible enough on paper; but it can never become a reality. Even if the new city were an improvement on the old—who would care? It sounds like a paradox, but an Italian loves his city precisely because it is not what he would like it to be: any mother feels very much that way about her own child. An Italian city is not merely an assemblage of buildings warmed and hallowed by human life. It consists of structures laid by Pelasgians, beautified by Romans, destroyed by Huns, rebuilt by free republicans of the mediaeval communes, blood-stained by Renaissance tyrants, gilded over by the baroque civilization, turned into stables by Napoleon's cavalry and into power plants by our industrial age. Mythology, history, art, religion, poetry, spread over it protecting wings which no explosive shell can damage or put to flight. Pestilence, earthquake, fire, famine, war, are but pages in its undying history; just as dams, embankments, artificial lakes, irrigation canals, and man-made waterfalls are but later chapters in the history of a river whose flow human beings can curb and divert, but not stop. Avezzano is being rebuilt almost exactly on the ruins created by last year's earthquake; and the new Messina rises only a few hundred yards from the houses whose collapse killed almost 100,000 of her inhabitants. A similar fate of destruction and of resurrection on the same spot, hallowed by suffering, awaits the unredeemed cities.
Before the marble tomb containing Dante's remains at Ravenna, there was hung several years ago a golden lamp, which burns day and night. It was the gift of Trento, Trieste, Gorizia, Pola, and Zara,—the most violently Italian, perhaps, of all unredeemed cities; and it bears five massive figures of chained women, symbolizing the donors of this pledge of undying faith in the leadership of the divine poet. Yet each of these five cities, united in the abhorrence of the Austrian yoke, has a different racial, cultural, and even political problem to meet. The Austrian government, most astute in applying the rule of the divide et impera to its motley empire, so skilfully laid its plans that by a slow and steady process of denationalization it made great progress in its programme of strangling, without producing an open struggle, the Italianism of its Italian provinces.
At the present time, the unredeemed provinces are divided into two separate zones by that portion of the Kingdom of Italy which is known as the Veneto. To its left is the Trentino, a deep wedge with its base at the Alps and its apex in the North Italian plain; to its right are Istria and Dalmatia. If the farmers and mountaineers of the former zone, and the seafaring and commercial populations of the latter, had been able to come in touch with each other by means of common cultural organizations and of an Italian university, a university using only the Italian language, the results would have made Austria tremble. Therefore it was decided that the Trentino should be a satellite of Germany, and the Adriatic territory a satellite of that Near East towards which the Teutons have been pressing since the day when the "Drang-nach-Osten" cry was first uttered. German farmers were made to settle in the Trentino; many large German hotels were built there, extensively advertised in Berlin and Vienna, and patronized exclusively by Teutons; the Tiroler Volksbund, the German and Austrian Schul-Vereins, the Alldeutscher Volksbund, dotted the country with free German schools and daily papers in German, and even gave substantial financial help to all impecunious Germans in the region. Furthermore, an iniquitous protective tariff practically closed the Italian markets to all produce of the Trentino, and directed its course northward; making Germans the only customers.
A different fate befell the Adriatic lands. In those regions, where the Venetian Republic had left upon populations already Italian an unmistakable imprint evident in every detail of custom, speech, and architecture, the cities are still thoroughly Italian. But in the surrounding country, only the moneyed and cultured classes are Italian: the peasants are Slavs, who, however, owing to their inferior civilization, spoke, up to a few years ago, the Italian language and adopted the Italian customs. Austria, realizing that any attempt to introduce Germans there would fail, inaugurated the policy of striking the nationalist chord in the Slav peasantry, explaining to them that they were the equals of the Italians, and encouraging their languages and other forms of racial expression. When that was done, from the interior of the country, from beyond the Julian and Dalmatian Alps, Austria brought to the Italian cities large numbers of Slav laborers, providing them with free transportation and with steady employment. The Italians did not immediately realize the extent of the danger, since those new workmen, who had been herded into suburban colonies, created an economic but not a political problem in the cities. But Austria had been far-seeing: no sooner had the Slav newcomers become permanent settlers, than the governors of the coastal districts formed "greater cities" by enlarging the boundaries of the various towns so as to include the Slav suburbs. Then religion was made to play an underground political role by means of corrupt priests, who were induced to represent Italy as a nation of atheists. Under all these influences, the municipal elections in a number of cities soon brought to power only a minority of the Italian element, and a motley majority speaking many tongues and animated by conflicting interests, but all ready to unite in humiliating the Italians. Meanwhile, Italy, bound and gagged by the treaty of Triple Alliance, was powerless to interfere and even to protest. But the year 1914 arrived; and Austria lit the fuse which was to set all Europe ablaze.
Who were to be the first to feel the meaning of that tragedy? The unredeemed provinces. Their boys were the ones who fought the first winter campaign against Russia. "Our loyal sons of Italian race have been given the high honor of holding the front line in fighting our Russian enemies," ran the Austrian official résumé of winter operations. The Austrian general staff must have thought that by means of such "high honors" the problem of irredentismo would soon be solved. But it was not. Here in Rome there stands a Colosseum where the pagans thought they had wiped out all Christianity in blood and fire; but that light flamed up clearer than ever. An ideal cannot be strangled.
With what hearts those Italians in Austrian uniforms must have fought! It is said that their Viennese or Hungarian officers often told them: "Fight bravely, and your province will get what she longs for." What did that sibylline statement mean? Was their bravery to be rewarded by their provinces being turned over to Italy after the war? And if so, how could Italy endure the shame of fighting her own wars of independence by means of a foreign army made up of her own flesh and blood? Poor boys! Little did they know that Italy was gaining time and feverishly preparing to enter the struggle on the only side consistent with her ideals of freedom and justice. Spring came, and with it categorical Austrian statements as to the future of the irredenti. The Trentini were given to understand by Austria that they would be ceded to Italy as the price of that country's neutrality: news which they accepted with mingled shame and joy. The Triestini, on the contrary, were firmly told that a definitive end to their political aspirations must come—and they rebelled, their souls filled with hate for Austria and with contempt for Italy. The streets were charged by cavalry; much blood of old men, women, and children was shed. Then, dramatically, the unexpected. Italy denounces the treaty of Triple Alliance, the frontier is closed, the cables are cut, mail is stopped, the railroad bridges are blown up, regiments pour in from North and East, cities are darkened, thousands of law-abiding citizens of Italian race are rushed in freight cars to concentration camps, and, on May 25, 1915, the first booming of distant guns is heard among the peaks of the Trentino and on the Adriatic coast.
Are they thinking of all this, are they living again those tragic days preceded and followed by days not much less tragic, these irredenti who still crowd silently around the old man with dreamy eyes, as the early Christians must have crowded around their spiritual leaders on the eve of martyrdom? I was still looking at them in reverent silence, when my eye was caught by a bit of brilliant color just outside the door—red feathers, white gloves and military frogs, gold epaulets: the unmistakable uniform of the Italian carabiniere or gendarme, gorgeous remnant of days of Spanish domination in Italy. There were two of them, discreetly trying to see the entire group of the irredenti from the doorsill, while somebody from the outside was talking to them in an agitated whisper which was becoming more and more audible with the growing excitement of the speaker, whom I could not at first see.
As I approached the group, I found that the third person was a Calabrian lawyer, guest of the house. He was in a boiling rage, and turned to me for approval: "It is an outrage, and I hope that these carabinieri whom I have called in will see to it that it stops. Look at that group! Irredenti all of them to the last. Their young men are all in the Italian army, and these women claim that they loathe Austria and love Italy. Yet when Gorizia is taken, instead of joining the crowd which is shouting and waving flags, they avoid our eyes, and shun our company, and behave in a most suspicious way. I tell you, they are only pretending to be Italian, and came here merely to escape Austrian horse-chestnut bread! Why, this very morning the lady who flaunts that huge Trieste coat of arms as a brooch, in speaking of the unreliability of anti-aircraft guns, actually said, 'The Trieste Museum was wrecked by our own guns'—and she meant the Austrian guns! Why don't you carabinieri lock her up at once?"
The carabinieri did not comply. These representatives of the most wonderful police body I have ever seen, as much beloved and trusted by the population as are the Canadian mounted police, consulted each other in an undertone, thanked the gentleman for calling their attention to a group of people who behaved with more reserve than other Italians, and stated that if anything actually detrimental to the country's interests should take place, they would be pleased to hear about it. Then they straightened up, touched their strange, theatrical, preposterous headgear, and gravely went away, leaving me to struggle with the southern lawyer.
Had he ever been in America? No? Well, if he had, he would have known how loosely the personal pronoun "our" is used by the immigrant classes there. How often have I heard a naturalized citizen of the United States—a real one, one who has renounced his previous allegiance without any mental reservations—say again and again "our schools" or "our coal mines" or "our churches," meaning the schools, coal mines, and churches of his native, instead of those of his adopted, land! The mixture of ideas in a country of many races is a natural thing, and must be excused. Many ,a patriotic Swiss from the Ticino will say: "We Italians are the best of the Swiss." Indeed, before the war began, a Triestino might have told his Emperor: "We Italians are the best of your subjects"—and it would have sounded like a permissible, nay, like an ultra-loyal statement, since the word "Italian" was naturally allowed, while the word "Italy" was tabooed. And the mixture of races and interests and influences in the border lands, where the inhabitants have to wage unceasingly the double war against a natural process of internationalization, on the one hand, and an organized campaign of denationalization, on the other, engenders a confusion in the minds of the inhabitants, whose speech and manners and appearance proclaim the strange contrast—all but their feelings, which cling tenaciously to the ancestral root. This last is an essential point; and Germany knows now what a mistake she made when she overlooked it in dealing with the Belgian problem; when, in other words, she supposed that Belgian national feeling must be more or less a thing of the past in an internationalized and bilingual land, which was a sort of hallway of three countries, and where all languages were spoken and all coins accepted. Yet when the supreme moment came Belgians rallied by that most tragic of flags.
Take the example of Signora Maurogordato, that beautiful brunette whose eyes are fixed upon the bird's-eye view of Trieste as seen from an Italian airship, which has just appeared in "Illustrazione Italiana." Her people were typical examples of the ubiquitous Levantine: they lived everywhere and nowhere on the shores of the Mediterranean. Her father,, although of Italian ancestry, was a Greek citizen born in Kavala, a Balkan city over which Turkish, Bulgarian, and Greek flags have flown during the last few years. But he soon moved to Trieste where he took up Austrian citizenship and married an irredenta. A child was born there, who went to a public school, where she spoke German with her teachers and Venetian dialect with her schoolmates; at home she spoke Greek with her father and Italian with her mother. When the storm broke out in Europe and everybody ran home for shelter, she hastened to Italy, the land which she had never seen—but which was the only place where the soul of that cosmopolitan personality could say, "I belong."
"Come, children. Come and sing." The lady whose husband is (or was) a professor at Riva has risen with an inspired gesture. Her large black eyes have feline sparks, strangely contrasting with her white curls. She briskly goes to the piano, followed by all the children. One or two chords, and then—
On the peaks—on the peaks of the Trentino
We shall plant—we shall plant our dear Tricolor;
O Trieste—O Trieste, thou beloved,
Soon will freedom—soon will freedom come to thee!
I have heard boys off for the front, and wounded soldiers in hospital wards sing that beautiful "Hymn of Freedom;" but the fateful words, coming firmly, and unmingled with adult voices, from the lips of a dozen unredeemed children whose eyes were moist and whose cheeks were pale with emotion, sent through my veins a shiver as keen as a blade.
That song had sent me to jail once. Don't frown, timorous reader. I have never been to jail again; and for that one visit there, I am not sorry. It happened during Triple Alliance days, when Italy paid for the high honor of being mentioned in history in connection with two powerful countries, by playing the part of travelling companion, apparently the equal and actually the servant of the rich and great. Austria was then in the thick of her anti-Italian campaign; and the chief occupation of the Italian government consisted in preventing Italian public opinion from turning its attention to that systematic persecution. Newspaper editorials about it were suppressed by the censor; the Austrian consulates were guarded day and night by policemen in plain clothes; the Chamber of Deputies was a constant pandemonium, as the various representatives united in inveighing against Austrian policies only to be ousted by the special officers policing the building, while the speaker repeated the stereotyped announcement: "Italy cannot officially criticise the internal policies of an allied country."
In the midst of it all, the International Convention of Alpine Clubs met at Riva, on the Austrian side of Lake Garda. There were delegations from the French, Swiss, and Italian Alpine Clubs, and they were all asked to bring their social insignia. When the lake boat landed the Italian delegation at Riva, the other delegations were on the pier, and waved their flags as a salute. Naturally enough, the Italian flag-bearer (a civil engineer from Milan, who is now a Senator of the Kingdom) responded to the salute by unfurling and waving the Italian flag. Then the inhabitants of that unredeemed city, for whom it is a crime even to wear red and white flowers with green leaves in their buttonholes, sent up a frantic yell, ran to the pier, and wildly waved their handkerchiefs, shouting "Viva I'ltalia!" The police did quick work. They arrested several scores of people, including the entire Italian delegation, which consisted mainly of professional men. Some were soon released; but the flag-bearer spent a whole week in prison, and was only set free through the intervention of a "neutral" diplomat.
I was then a High-school student in Florence. We boys heard at once of the fresh outrage, through an "underground railway;" and our blood boiled. Could not something be done? Some of us had a great idea. The Austrian Consulate was on the second floor of a big palace, whose first floor was occupied by the family of one of our boys named Guidi. The plot was laid. Early in the afternoon, five or six of us went quietly, with books under our arms, to the apartment of our chum. A few minutes later another small group followed; they all talked nonchalantly about school affairs—about some professor with a funny new hat or an odd necktie. More and more groups arrived, rang the outer bell, were admitted; the plain-clothes men must have thought that the boys were about to found a school organization, or were getting up a scheme for an outing. But we were getting up something different; and at the appointed moment we all rushed out into the street, waving the large Italian flag of the Guidi family, and yelling the inspiring words of the then forbidden "Hymn of Freedom." Passers-by, dazed at first, joined us, while the few plain-clothes men struggled hard around the waving flag, which they only captured in rags—when the reserves came. Several of us were handcuffed; I was not, but a big policeman held me so firmly by the collar that I could not free myself, and had to follow my captor to headquarters. For two long hours we waited in a jail cell—a sorry-looking lot, but proud.
Then we were called out, and confronted by a police judge and by our principal. The former, alternating fearful shouts with benevolent smiles and even an occasional wink, said that some of us had undoubtedly been guilty of a very serious offense, as we had voiced our disapproval of an allied country. Unfortunately it had been impossible to prove who in the crowd had been guilty of the offense, and therefore he could do nothing against us; he hoped, however, that our principal would inflict a severe punishment upon all the classes which had participated in such a plot. The principal—a veteran of Garibaldi's campaigns—told us that his fatherly love for us had been so wounded by our behavior, that he found no words fit to condemn to a sufficient degree the crime committed; but he surely would do so later, as soon as the sting had passed. Judging from outward signs, it has not passed yet.
The hotel piano is being covered; the children have sung patriotic songs steadily for a half hour, and their little lungs cannot keep up with their big enthusiasm. They have sung well, and I cannot help thinking that the same number of "redeemed" children would probably have broken down long before, because any kind of choral singing is distasteful to the Italian, and a chorus is soon sure to split itself into a small percentage of soloists and a large percentage of quitters. War-time animosity does not make me blind to the fact that these children owe their choral ability and their musical discipline to their having been brought up under a Teuton government.
Wishing to show my appreciation to my special little friends, Fiorello and Marcello Rivolin, eight-year-old twins from Fiume, I take one on each knee. "Do you know, còccoli, that I went to jail once for singing that 'Hymn of Freedom'?" I expect to be asked why; but I am to be disappointed. How can unredeemed children be surprised at the idea of political imprisonment? I am the one to be surprised! Fiorello asks gravely: "And did your back hurt you much afterwards?" What can he mean? I appeal to the child's mother, who has come to claim her offspring.
"Oh, I can see what the child means," replies the lady, with a bitter smile. "He thinks that the Italian police dealt with you as the Austrian police dealt with my younger sister."
"Did you ever hear," she went on, "of a Dr. Tazzoli, a priest who was hanged by the Austrians in 1852 at Belfiore, with nine others, because of their love of liberty? Well Dr. Tazzoli was my great uncle. I am only mentioning that to show you how our family must naturally feel towards Austria. My sister went to a private school, in order to avoid the public schools where everything is taught with a decided Austrian bias. But the Supervisor of Education discovered that the Austrian national hymn was never sung in that school, and sent an angry note to its principal, ordering the hated hymn to be sung each day before any classes met. There was no escape from that; and all the girls—getting whatever comfort they could from the fact that they would sing the words in Italian, one of the eight official languages of the empire—submitted, with one exception, to the inevitable. The exception was my sister. She said she would not soil her lips with the hated words. The following morning, when the class began to sing the opening words, 'Viva il nostro Imperador' (Long live our Emperor), she filled the room with a lusty 'Viva il nostro Impiccador' (Long live our Hangman). There was an uproar. The teachers were terrified. They implored the girls not to speak of the affair; but within two hours the police had arrested my sister. My father begged that he be allowed to pay a pecuniary penalty, the principal pleaded on the grounds of youth and thoughtlessness; but the police were adamant, and on the following day my seventeen-year-old sister, stripped to the waist, received twenty stripes on her back. Fiorello is right: her back did ache when she left prison, and has never quite ceased aching since. As soon as Italy declared war on Austria, she was sent to a concentration camp somewhere in the Danubian swamps; and when last I heard from her, three months ago, she said that she was very ill, and asked me never to forget any page of her life. O my God, how much longer must we irredenti go on being punished so frightfully for the love we bear to our country!"
Great land beyond the seas, answer this question for us, for we are able to see only one-half of the world's horizon.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —
THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald