23 September 1944
I am now able to give you news of our relations in Mortale. I have already written to David and, when this letter reaches you, you will have had most of the news. I returned from Monforte Wednesday afternoon, and apart from a letter to David written on Wednesday evening, a letter which I could not delay, I have been working overtime, and only today, Saturday, my half day, am I able to write to you.
The folks are all well. Aunt Angela and Uncle have not changed since I saw them ten years ago, Peppa is as sweet as ever, and to me I could not see any change in Antonietta. Annunziata and the three children are well, but she would like to know where Camillo is at present. Zia Celesta is marvellously cheery and in her I did not notice any change; zia Lucia looked a bit older, and worried, but then it can be understood for poor Olimpio was taken away by the Germans to work in Germany and she has not had any news of him. Augusto, who is married to a very sweet girl, managed to escape from the Germans as did one or two others, and he now tries his best to cheer up Zia Lucia. Poor Paolino, Mary's son, was shot by the Germans at Mortale and killed as he attempted to escape.
Now I shall tell you of my journey, and one of the happiest and also the saddest days I have experienced. I left Monday morning at about 8.45 and as luck was with me I had two good lifts and reached Cassino at eleven o'clock. I say Cassino, but I should say the ruins of Cassino. Not a single house is standing as I told you previously. It is an out of bounds area, therefore I could not stop too long; there is a certain eeriness about the place that gives one the creeps, if one does not keep to the roads and paths, trouble is asked for. The monastery is just rubble and, whatever photographs you see of Cassino, don't say they are exaggerated, for they are not. I had imagined the worst possible, and it is worse than that!
I got off the truck and asked for the way to Atina. I also asked if many Army lorries passed that way and I was told that they did on very few occasions, so I began to walk. It was by now 11.15 and the sun was very hot. I thus started to walk, and walk I did, all the way to Atina. Not a truck or pony and trap passed me. I thought that hill up to Atina was never coming to an end. I rested three times only until I got to Atina, which I reached about 3 o'clock in the afternoon. I had walked exactly 18 kilometres. Every single house from Cassino to Atina was damaged, and there was hardly a soul to be seen. I passed through the places where the bitterest fighting of this war has taken place. On either side of the road can be seen wooden crosses both German and those of the Allies, marking the spots where so many fine lads were laid to rest.
On reaching Atina, I could not believe my eyes for the destruction there is horrible. I was told that altogether it had had 104 bombardments. The place is in ruins.
Naturally I became very worried, and the first person I met, I asked about Mortale. They did not seem to know it as Monforte. This woman told me that no bombing had been carried out further than Atina and that Mortale was untouched. I also asked if they knew of the Berardino Forte family, and I was told that they were back home; the population in Mortale during the last days of the big battle had increased to two or three thousand, but one day in March, the Germans evacuated the whole of the population to Cesano, near Rome, where in a concentration camp, about ten of the older inhabitants of Mortale died. They were Zio Alfonso and Zia Caterina, Zia Filomena, Zia Maria di Palazuorri, one of Zia Teresa's daughters, Zio Narduccio, Zio Salvadore and one or two others whose names I cannot remember just now. The folks of Mortale had been allowed to return to their homes from the beginning of July, but uncle and family had only returned about a week prior to my visit, so perhaps it was lucky I was not granted a permit when I asked for it.
After having rested ten minutes, relieved to know that the folks were at least alive, I began to ask about Tito Fortuna. I was told that a few days before, he had returned and I would find him at his house, so without further ado, I resumed my walk through Atina, down to Tito's house. As I walked up the drive, someone said "Ecco Peppino di Zio Antonuccio". The person was Tony, Zia Teresa's son. Then Tito looked round and we rushed to embrace each other. Then Elena came from the house and we embraced each other. They were so happy to see me, and I to see them, that we could not hold back the tears. Yes, we just had a cry; these people have been through so much suffering too. When Tony assured me that the folks in Mortale were alright, I agreed to rest and have something to eat.
At about five o'clock, Tony and I set off for Mortale. We took a short cut as the bridge, as per usual, was damaged. At St. Lazzare, I met Tony's brother Guerino, who wanted me to go into his house, but I insisted that I had to get to the relations. All the way, Tony carried my haversack which was pretty heavy. I had rations, tinned meat, cheese, butter, margarine, milk, tea, sugar, a loaf of white bread, sweets, chocolate, cigarettes, sardines, baked beans, Dettol, Dettol ointment, candles, toothpaste, soap and some sticking plaster. I took everything I thought they might need.
Just as Tony and I reached La Crocetta, we found Benedetta, who was going to her mother. She had come from Sora with her little boy, who was very tired and sleepy, so I did my bit and carried him a good part of the way.
At just about 6.30, Tony and I entered Uncle's house. At the door was Antonietta and, though it was getting dark, she recognised me immediately. As we were embracing, Pippa and Annunziata came out, and then Lucy, Alba and Pattino Lidio. Believe me, my Dears, I was so happy to see them. Meanwhile, Pippa rushed into the bedroom, where Aunt and Uncle were in bed and told them "Peppino is here". I went in and I began to cry like a baby. Aunt and Uncle kept on kissing me and sobbing. Aunt Angela kept touching me and saying "Is it really you?" I could not stop crying. I was deeply touched.
I eventually tore myself away and, as I went back to the front room, the diminished population of Mortale were all ready to greet me. I have never kissed so many people in such a short time - women, men, girls and boys. I shall never forget it. Later on, whilst discussing how they had fared under the Germans, they gradually told me of the brutal treatment and suffering. I more fully understood how pleased they were to see me, and how reassured they were when I told them that all their dear folks were well.
By about nine o'clock, most of the people had left and I sat down to have supper and enjoyed the meal so much. When everyone had left, and the door closed, I opened my pack and handed over all. Then Pippa took me over to a cupboard and showed me all the tinned food she had managed to get. I was so relieved to see the big quantity and you need not worry about the food problem.
One of Uncle's nephews from Montattico managed to get away to the hills when the Germans evacuated the population, and he was able to gather some wheat, and now Uncle has about two hundredweight of flour. The bread which they had made was very, very good. There are plenty of grapes, figs and peaches and I only hope that my seven days' leave come off soon, so that I can return to enjoy these nice things. In about two months time they will be gathering olives and, when this is done, they will have plenty of olive oil for the winter months.
Please send this letter to David, because he will want to hear the details I could not put in his letter.
Altogether I was impressed by the resourcefulness and cheerfulness in spite of what they have been through. I went to bed very late, but was awake and up by seven. I dressed, shaved and first went to Zia Celesta's house and then to Zia Luciuccia. I went in for a few minutes into the church to offer a prayer, then Tony, Augusto, Elio, Vittorio and Donato took me down to the mine. And, oh yes, the Germans have completed the road to Mortale and have taken it up to the "Figurone". I had a lovely breakfast about 10 and gnocchi for lunch, followed by some lovely green vegetables, fruit and coffee. I left them at Mortale about 2. Pippa, Alba and Augusto accompanied me to Tito's house. The car which was to take me back to Cassino did not turn up, so I slept at Tito's house and left at 5.30 the following morning, reaching Cassino about 7. I managed to get three good lifts from Cassino and reached my destination. I was tired. About midday I had lunch and was back in the office at 2.15.
Sorry there is not more space,
These two letters were sent in September 1944 by Joseph Forte, the first to return to Mortale from abroad after the tragedy of Cesano
Joseph Forte (Bristol) was in the British Army, but managed to get a few days' leave to return to Mortale in September 1944. He was the first of the Fortes from abroad to witness the destruction of Montecassino and to make contact with the Mortalese after the return to Mortale of the villagers who had been at Cesano or in hiding elsewhere. He wrote these two moving letters in quick succession to reassure his cousins that their families were alive and well.
20 September 1944
This is at last the letter you have been waiting for, and I am so happy to be able to give you some good news.
This morning I returned from Mortale after having spent two days with your family. David, you need not worry. I can tell you they are all very well and extremely resourceful, but I shall tell you in detail exactly how they are. I arrived at 6.30 in the evening and saw someone outside the house. I went up and said "Buona Sera", and though it was getting dark, I recognised Antonietta and she recognised me. David, believe me, it was one of the happiest moments in my life. Whilst embracing her, Pippa came out and she too is looking so well, next Annunziata and family. Lucia, Alba and Lidio are such lovely kiddies and in spite of everything their mother has kept them so clean and well. I repeat I was so happy.
Meanwhile both uncle and aunt had been told that Peppino had arrived and, just as I was going into the room where you and I used to sleep, I found they were in bed. They had retired early. They were so overjoyed to see me, we embraced each other for such a long time, and it was not long before there were tears running down our cheeks. Yes, I confess David, I cried like a baby. I had never realised before how wonderful and touching a meeting like this could be. Aunt Angela kept touching me and kissing me, saying I cannot believe it's really you, and I could not stop her crying, nor could I control myself. I had to leave their bedside.
As you know Mortale is not too big, and when I returned to the front room, the whole of Mortale was waiting to greet me. I think I kissed every one of them, girls, boys, young and old, and one or two strangers from Atina. I had been told of the suffering they have all been through; incidentally, Atina is razed to the ground. Annunziata's last words to me were, "Yes, Joseph, we have suffered but we are now back. I have done everything possible and am now 20 000 lire in debt". That, of course, is nothing alarming as the rate of exchange is now 400 lire to the pound.
When I arrived Monday evening, they had only been home a week. They had all been taken in March of this year to a concentration camp near Rome by the Germans; as people from Atina and round about had flocked to Mortale, in all five thousand. An epidemic of typhus broke out, but it is too sad to tell you how brutally the Germans took them, all at revolver point giving them only about twenty minutes to leave. I learned the sad news that Zio Alfonso and Zia Caterina as well as Zia Filomena and Zia Maria, Zia Filomena's mother at Brighton, died at the camp; also one of Clementina's children and Tella, one of Zia Teresa's daughters. Zio Narduccio died just as he got back to Mortale.
Yesterday morning, I went all alone for about ten minutes to the church to say a prayer for everyone.
Pippa told me everything for we were talking till the early hours of the morning. She told me how at the camp she was at the head of the kitchen and sanitation and I have heard how well she looked after the folk.
Rest assured David that our people have been spared and are all well.
P.S. Will tell you more in a day or two. I am getting a week's leave in about a month's time. You know how I like to enjoy myself!
Joseph with Celesta Forte and his uncle and aunt, Berardino and Angelantonia Forte on his visit in September 1944
Leonardo Forte (Narduccio)