How do the faithful maintain their faith through the anguish of war? This concept is difficult to process for most of us, but not for my great-grandmother. She endured many hardships during World War II, including suffering through the extreme poverty of Calabrian life, mistreatment by German soldiers, and ultimately the death of her only daughter at the hands of her sister-in-law. Through all of these agonizing events she never lost her faith and love for the Madonna. Catholicism has unified Italians and Italy as a nation for hundreds of years. The influence that the Church has had on Italian culture and society in general can be observed publicly with thousands of churches throughout the country. During World War II almost every Italian identified as Roman Catholic — 97 percent.(1) My great-grandmother was raised by nuns in a convent and prayed the rosary every day for her entire life. Her story was passed down to me by both my grandmother as well as my mother.(2) Over the years, my mother has continually reminded me of the benefit of perspective through the recitation of her nonna’s tragic story.
In 1931, my mother’s grandfather, Giuseppe Furia, was drafted into the Italian army’s cavalry division. Seven years later, as a civilian, he met a local seamstress and devout Catholic, Vincenzina Bonaddio (my bisnonna). Later that year they married in their small hometown of Nicastro, Catanzaro. Shortly thereafter they had a healthy baby girl, Maria Franca.(3) By 1900, Italy was the poorest country in Europe with over 24,000,000 people classified in extreme poverty.(4) When war broke out in 1939, their Italian village, located in the southern province of Calabria, was one of the poorest regions in all of Italy. The situation was so dire that there was not even enough milk to feed the newborns in Vincenzina’s village. As she nursed her daughter, she would also nurse other people’s babies, sharing what little she had with those that did not have enough. She even developed a serious infection from one of the children she was nursing causing her to require a surgical procedure. With the significant scarcity of medical supplies during wartime, her operation had to be done without any anesthetic. In her retelling of the story, my great-grandmother would boast that because the surgeon liked her, he used a new scalpel just for her. As she clutched her rosary in her right hand, she would find the positive in even the darkest of situations because she believed in her heart that God had a plan. Things were so desperate during this time-period in history that my great-grandfather once took a fig off of a random fig tree due to profound hunger. The property owner saw him take the fruit and chased him down with a gun. He actually fired several shots at Giuseppe as he ran from the property — luckily, my great-grandfather was not injured. Can you imagine trying to kill a person just for stealing a piece of fruit? This single event illustrates just how scarce food was in Calabria and how desperate people had become.
Soon after this event, in early 1939, Giuseppe was recalled into the army. In 1940 Mussolini sent my great-grandfather’s cavalry division into Albania in order to conquer Greece. The invasion was poorly planned and there were many casualties. In fact, the defeat of the Italian invasion of 1940 into Greece has been referred to by some as the "first Axis setback of the entire war”.(5) While fighting in the Pindus mountain range between Albania and Greece, Giuseppe received terrible news from home — his only daughter had died in a tragic accident. At the time, the Italian’s had a policy in place for such circumstances. If a soldier’s child died during wartime, he was permitted 24 hours to return home in order to attend the funeral, but the soldier had to return to the battlefield the following day. While home on emergency leave, Giuseppe’s entire regiment was killed by an allied force’s bomb. If Maria had not died, my bisnonno would have perished along with his unit. The death of their only daughter devastated my great-grandmother, but even then, she continued to pray the rosary and did not lose faith. She and Giuseppe went on to have three more daughters, one of which was my grandmother.
Although my great-grandparents survived World War II, life in postwar Calabria was very difficult. Giuseppe had to go farther and farther north in order to find work. Calabria is still one of the poorest regions in Italy today.(6) While his family was struggling to survive, my great-grandfather’s brother, Tomasso, corresponded with him in order to try to convince him to come to southern Africa. Tomasso had been captured by the British in Ethiopia during the War and was held in an African prisoner of war camp. In the video, Prisoners in Paradise, we learned that the Italian soldiers had a choice of whether to go with the Americans or the British. Additionally, I learned that 51,000 captured Italian soldiers were transported to 24 camps across the United States and many eventually settled there permanently.(7) Tomasso was one of 5000 Italian soldiers captured in Ethiopia and sent to southern African POW camps. As a British POW in Africa, Tomasso worked on a cattle ranch in the British colony of Southern Rhodesia (now called Zimbabwe). After Italy surrendered in 1943, the Italian POWs were released by the British and offered passage back to Italy.(8) Many refused to leave; Tomasso was one of those soldiers that elected not to return to Italy. He was fascinated by the lush jungle landscape and enjoyed life there. My great-uncle was so captivated with the lifestyle in Southern Rhodesia that he wrote to Giuseppe and told him to leave Italy immediately and come join him in Rhodesia. Since life in Calabria was bleak and seemingly hopeless, my great-grandfather agreed to move his young family to southern Africa. They sold what little they possessed and made the difficult two-week passage through the Suez Canal to southern Africa by ship.
Tomasso may have loved life in the bush, but my great-grandparents regretted the move from the moment they arrived. Unfortunately, as much as they hated Africa, they could not afford to return back to Italy and life in southern Italy was still grim. Upon arrival in Africa, Giuseppe worked on a cattle ranch which had no running water or electricity — not the paradise his brother had described. Because there were no schools in the local area, his three young children had to be sent to a boarding school over 100 miles away which devastated my great-grandmother. Her children were so young and didn’t speak a word of English. She feared that they would starve to death because they wouldn’t know how to ask for food. She turned to prayer yet again to comfort her; saying the rosary throughout the day, tirelessly begging the Madonna to protect her babies. Her prayers were answered as all three daughters flourished at boarding school. Eventually my great-grandfather found better employment on a mineral mine and their living conditions greatly improved. They made the best of their situation and lived in Rhodesia for 30 years until they moved to the United States in 1977.
My great-grandparents thrived in America for the next 30 years; my bisnonna had finally found the peace and happiness she had prayed so desperately for and thanked God every day. She lived to the age of 102 and credited her strong faith for her long life and healthy family. Although she experienced much heartache in her 102 years, Vincenzina never lost faith. Even the brutality and hopelessness of war could not break my great-grandmother’s faith. With the benefit of hindsight and the added perspective of time she was able to see God’s hand in the greatest tragedy of her life — the death of her only daughter. In that moment, it would be impossible for anyone to see the bright side of losing a child. But, if Maria had not died, my great-grandfather would have been killed, my grandmother would never have been born, my mother would never have been born, and ultimately I would never have been born. My mother tells me this story repeatedly as a reminder that often we can not understand the good of a bad situation until we have the benefit of a different point of view. With two generations of perspective, it is now possible to see that the death of Maria may have been divine intervention. Catholicism is deeply engrained at a very young age into the Italian culture and this religious foundation benefited my great-grandmother immensely. It gave her cause for optimism when many in her position would have given up. She never lost hope no matter how dire her situation. Tragedy brought my great-grandfather home, but in doing so, a far greater catastrophe was averted. It has been a comfort for many, including my great-grandmother, to believe that fate is guided by a loving hand rather than indiscriminate chance.
1. “A war story: Italian Catholics and a Fascist Europe.” Christian History Institute, https://christianhistoryinstitute.org/magazine/article/a-war-story-italian-catholics-and-a-fascisteurope. Accessed 2 Mar. 2022.
2. Arostegui, Elisa. Interview. Conducted by Anthony Arostegui, 2 February 2022.
3. Pasquale, Maria. Interview. Conducted by Anthony Arostegui, 19 February 2022
4. Moatsos, Michail . How Was Life? Volume II : New Perspectives on Well-being and Global Inequality since 1820. OECD, 2021. OECDiLibrary, https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/ sites/e20f2f1a-en/index.html?itemId=/content/component/e20f2f1a-en#figure-d1e64319. Accessed 28, Feb. 2022.
5. “About: Greco-Italian War.” DBpedia.Org, https://dbpedia.org/page/Greco-Italian_War. Accessed 1 Mar. 2022.
6. Varrella, Simona. Share of the population at risk of poverty in Italy in 2019, by region. Statista, 2021. Statista.com, https://www.statista.com/statistics/647996/at-risk-of-povertyrate-italy-by-region/. Accessed 2 March 2022.
7. Prisoners in Paradise. Directed by Camilla Calamandrei, 2001. Prisoners in Paradise, https://www.prisonersinparadise.com/history/.
8. MacDonald, John Forrest. The War History of Southern Rhodesia 1939–1945. Vol. 2. Bulawayo: Books of Rhodesia, 1976. pp. 380–383