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“Silence on Monte Sole”

by Jack Olsen,
published by G. P. Putnam and Sons, New York, 1968.
 rastrellamento - an Italian word meaning “Raking, searching”; military use “Mopping up”
  This was the first book by the true crime writer/journalist Jack Olsen about the massacre of men, women, and children in the mountain area near Bologna during World War II.  The book describes in detail the joint military operations by the German SS and the local Fascist authorities against the partisans and civilians of the area.   The inaccessible mountainous Emilia-Romagno region made Marzabotta, Italy, an ideal location for a staging area for partisan activity(see map below). Unfortunately for the civilians in the area, they were in the path that the retreating German Army would have to take from their positions along the Gothic line in the mountains between Florence and Bologna.  And flee they would-- the militarily successful British and American armies were just south of the region and aerial  bombardment of the roads of retreat through the mountains was already taking place in early September.  The first half of the book describes the close knit communities high in the mountains and how poor they were even before having to pay the high taxes to the Fascists and of their foods and provisions to the local “Stella Rossa” partisan bands.  The characters of the developing drama are well drawn out by the writer who interviewed survivors all over the region and over Italy to develop the background.

  Most of the second half of the book describes how, on 29 Sept to 1 Oct 1944, the SS conducted a massive “rastrellamento” of the region around Marzabotta.  Olsen puts the reader in the shoes of the persons he only recently introduced you to in the book’s first half.  You “feel” for the people you just “met” and can empathize with how they must have felt when they saw their friends and family members die at the hands of the viscious SS invaders.  You know how Elena Ruggeri survived and how she must have felt when seven of her namesakes did not.  The writer helps you feel the desperation of the numerous families who were herded into a church, barn, or walled cemetery and then being machine-gunned and bombed with phosphorous  grenades for periods of hours or days. The reader sees how the rare survivors return to their burned out homes, churches, and lives after the bloody massacre.   The best estimate of the dead in the valley towns was set at 1830 souls, mostly old men, women, and children.

The fifty-fourth anniversary of the massacre was observed in 1998 and a visit to the web site on Italian parks indicates that the government has made a permanent memorial to the victims of the military action(see map).  The mountain valleys have finally been re-inhabited and only plaques and memorials to those families who died remain to tell the story.

                                                                                                 - by Newton Cole, July 1999

   Map showing location of Monte Sole region in green.
As a side note, the 6th South African Armored Division was assigned Monte Sole as its
objective for the Spring offensive in 1945.  The 85th Division progressed through this region,
also, but this was many months after the massacre.

Recent News
German President Apologizes to Italy
for Nazi massacre
Wednesday, 17-Apr-2002
Story from AFP / Claudine Renaud
Copyright 2002 by Agence France-Presse
 (via ClariNet)

MARZABOTTO, Italy, April 17 (AFP) - German President Johannes Rau expressed his "profound sorrow and shame" to Italy Wednesday for the Nazi massacre of almost 1,000 villagers at the end of World War II.
   A solemn Rau made the formal apology at a ceremony attended by families of the victims gathered in this Appenine town near the northern city of Bologna.  The 955 victims, including women and children, came from Marzabotto and a cluster of surrounding villages raided by SS troops between September 29 and October 5, 1944.
   "When I think of the children and of the mothers, of women and entire families, victims of the extermination of those days 58 years ago, during which the Germans brought violence and an immense pain to Marzabotto, it brings me a feeling of profound sorrow and shame," said Rau.   "I bow before these deaths," he added, flanked by an openly weeping German ambassador to Italy, Klaus Neubert.
   The apology for the Nazi slaughter as the highlight of a four-day official visit to Italy that Rau began on Monday.  The half-hour ceremony took place before about 100 invited guests in front of a ruined church in the Monte Sole district of the town where many of the victims lived.  The president, accompanied by his Italian counterpart Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, had earlier visited a memorial to the victims in the town centre.  It is decorated with plaques linking this mountain town of 6,000 people with others which have experienced similar wartime tragedies, among the Oradour-sur-Glane in France, Coventry in Britain, and Guernica in Spain.
    The massacre, the worst atrocity carried out in Italy during World War II, is burned into the collective memory of Marzabotto and the neighbouring villages of Girzzana and Monzuno.   SS troops under the command of Walter Reder rounded up and shot 955 civilians, including 216 children and 316 women, ostensibly in an attempt to rout the Italian resistance.   The victims are buried in the local cemetery.
   "It's a worthy gesture," Pasquale Palmieri, 77, a former member of the Italian resistance and a survivor of the massacre, said earlier Wednesday.  "It will show perhaps that there is no more hatred. I agree with it. But my neighbour who had 19 members of his family killed won't be going to the ceremony."  "He says that it's not Rau who should come but the four officers who are still alive and who did the killing," Palmieri told AFP.
    Palmieri was 18 when he joined the Italian resistance against the occupying Germans, who became Italy's enemy after a treaty between Italy and the allies in 1943.  He recounted his horror at seeing a three-month-old baby thrown in the air and shot by the Nazis, before his parents were executed.  "There are things which break your heart and nobody can comfort you," he said as tears swelled in his eyes.
    Reder was sentenced to life imprisonment by a military tribunal in Bologna in 1951, seven years after the slaughter. He was freed in 1985.  According to an Italian weekly news magazine, L'Espresso, around a dozen ex-SS officers who participated in the massacre are still alive and have been identified by Italian magistrates who want to question them.
    Rau compared the SS officers who carried out the killing to "hyenas", the consequences of whose actions "must be faced by the generations to come."  The German president said that at the end of the war "reconciliation seemed impossible." He thanked Italians for the fact that "Marzabotto is no longer something which divides but which unites."  "What happened is a part of our common history and from it was born our duty to a peaceful future," Rau said.
    Ciampi, 80, said that memory of the massacre would serve as a warning "so that there will never again be blood spilt between the peoples of Europe."

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