During our recent visit to central Europe, we met two women that lived during World War II. Their homes and towns were occupied by Germans and they suffered brutally under their occupation. Their stories are so important that I will devote a blog to each one.
The first lady we met, I’ll call her Alma because she asked me not to use her real name, was about 5 or 6 years old when the Germans occupied her Italian town and the surrounding countryside. The people who lived there were always hungry. The children would beg food from the Germans. Sometimes they would get a little from them, but mostly they didn’t. Hunger became part of everyday life.
Her grandmother had to take in three prisoners of war from Ukraine. She kept them in her house, fed them, and treated them as well as she could. Alma didn’t know why those three POWs were singled out to stay in a home rather than a prison camp. After the war, those three men came back to thank her grandmother for taking care of them.
One day the Germans all left Alma’s town. The townspeople didn’t know why, but they were glad they left. Not long after, she was standing in line with other children to get a pint of milk. They heard the sounds of people marching and large vehicles coming up the road. Everyone was very scared. Was it the Germans coming back? Mussolini’s army coming to occupy the town? Everyone held their breath. Then they heard singing. They knew the Germans didn’t sing so they knew it wasn’t the Germans. At last, around the bend in the road came American soldiers. Everyone in town was elated! They all cheered as they came into town.
Alma told her friends that she was going to claim one of the American soldiers and maybe he would give her food. She’d heard that American soldiers shared food with children. She picked out a soldier that had very blue eyes and smile on his face. Most importantly, he was chewing on something. Food! The hungry little girl ran up to the soldier and jumped on him. He held her as he marched along. She pointed at his mouth and, not knowing English, she used sign language to say “eat” and “food.” He reached in his pocket and took out a small piece of something that looked like pink candy. She unwrapped it and put it in her mouth. To a hungry girl, it tasted heavenly! She didn’t know that he’d given her bubble gum, but he tried to warn her by saying “Don’t swallow.” Alma thought he was telling her his name. So she pointed to his chest and said, “Don’t swallow.” He put the young girl down and marched on.
The next day, Alma went to the soldiers’ camp to beg for food. She went to the guard and asked for Don’t Swallow. The guards had no idea what she was talking about and laughed at her. Somehow word of a little girl requesting Don’t Swallow spread around the camp. Finally, the man she called Don’t Swallow came out and gave her a sack full of food. The soldiers moved on the next day and she never saw him again.
Jump forward a bunch of decades and picture Alma as an older Italian woman watching a group of older American men who were visiting the town where they’d been as soldiers. Alma goes over and asks them if they’d ever heard of a man she called Don’t Swallow. Much to her dismay, none of them had heard of the story. She asked them to please ask around after they got back home and tell him that she still remembered him and what he’d done for her.
Two years later, an elderly man walked into her store holding a bag of bubble gum. It was Don’t Swallow. He’d found the little girl who had begged food from him. They spent the day together, exchanging stories of what happened after the war. She never asked what his name real name was. He was Don’t Swallow to her. They had a picture taken together and tears were shed when he finally had to leave.
Alma hung on to that photo of the two of them until one day it disappeared. Now she has nothing but her memory to remind her of the kindness of the American soldier who gave her bubble gum.
We all cried as Alma told Hubby and me about her story. She said everyone were so happy that the Americans came down the road that day. They all remain grateful to the U.S. for coming because if they hadn’t, the Russians would have come. She remarked that life would have been very oppressive if that had happened. She thanked us, Americans who had nothing to do with it, for saving Italy and for the Marshall Plan so they could rebuild their country after the war.
My experience with Alma left me very proud to be an American. During World War II, American soldiers did a lot of good things and sitting there, hearing about it first-hand, made it real. The Greatest Generation left some big shoes to fill. We should strive to fill them as well as they did.