May 25, 2009

Tiny Heroes

The Florence American Cemetery and Memorial site covers 70 acres, chiefly on the west side of the Greve stream. The wooded hills that frame its west limit rise several hundred feet. Between the two entrance buildings, a bridge leads to the burial area where the headstones of 4,402 military dead resting here are arrayed in symmetrical curved rows upon the hillside. They represent 39% of the U.S. Fifth Army burials originally made between Rome and the Alps. Most died in the fighting that occurred after the capture of Rome in June 1944. Included among them are casualties of the heavy fighting in the Tuscan Apennines shortly before the war's end.
Miracle at St Anna Spike LeeIn the fall of 2007 I worked on a film that narrated those very events. Miracle at St. Anna follows four African-American soldiers of the 92nd Infantry Division – known as the Buffalo Soldiers – who find themselves caught behind enemy lines and surrounded by German soldiers after one of them risks his life to save an Italian boy. They take refuge in a small Italian village on the Gothic Line, that has been temporarily vacated by the Germans during the Italian Campaign of WWII. In their company is Angelo, the small boy, shell-shocked and feverish, who seems only to speak to his invisible friend Arturo.

Miracle at St Anna Spike Lee
The story is inspired by the August 1944 Sant'Anna di Stazzema massacre perpetrated by the Waffen-SS. On May 2, 1945, the enemy troops in northern Italy surrendered. Shortly before withdrawing, the Nazi left a wake of horror, atrocity and devastation behind them. The manic rush of violence and mad killing that followed as the enemy fled these lands, accounted for the vast majority of casualties and mass-murders on the Italian peninsula.

On August 12, 1944, retreating SS men of the II Battalion of the 16th SS-Panzergrenadier Division, commanded by Hauptsturmf├╝hrer Anton Galler, rounded up 560 civilans between villagers and refugees – mostly women, children and older men – brutally shot them in cold blood and then burned their bodies on the holy ground in front of the town's small church.

church sant'anna di stazzema
When we arrived in Sant'Anna on the day we were to film the massacre scene, the dawn sun was shining, much like on that dreadful mid-August morning. Young extras in period costume were shivering by the craft service table, blowing into their steaming cups of early morning coffee, and trying to get a glimpse of Hollywood. Children played football by the trailer base camp, in their 1944 attire, oblivious and giggly.

We respectfully brought about our daily chores and duties, and commenced our filming day as usual, busily organizing the first shot. It involved two simultaneous tracking dollies and a wide angle crane shot. As the grips and gaffers built the tracks and the camera department assembled their gear, I took a little stroll. I met a few silent glances from my colleagues and continued on, respectful of the place's history and aware of the stagnant negative energy surrounding me. It felt so strange to be walking on the very spot where 62 years before, such horror had occurred by the hands of other men.

I entered the church at my own risk. I had been warned by the sound engineer, my friend Maurizio. He had gone in minutes prior and exited sniffling. He's usually a big smile person, so a sad face on him stood out. I wanted to go in nonetheless, to say a little prayer for those 560 people that died on a morning not unlike that one.

The entire east-facing wall of the tiny chapel was covered floor to ceiling with small plaques, faded photos, scribbled inscriptions and epitaphs. The age of the oldest victim honored on that wall was 16. The youngest was a 2-week old infant. That wall was the children's memorial section, and the images of those 110 innocent faces staring back at me gripped my throat like a tight Nazi fist. The majority of the victims of the massacre that took place in Sant'Anna di Stazzema were children and young women. The men were either fighting, dead or hiding in the mountains surrounding the town. The few invalid elders in Sant'Anna died by the same two MG34 machine-guns that swept the church ground that day.
A sign by the exit read that the church organ was riddled with machine-gun bullets and the christening font completely destroyed by a grenade. The pews were then used for a bonfire to burn bodies. Many of the corpses were doused with petrol and then set alight. When the SS unit ran out of petrol, they used phosphorous.

As the day progressed, we reenacted the horrible events that took place on that day. I couldn't get the image of those children out of my eyes and had a very hard time trying to stay focused and do my job correctly that day. I was never that close to a war as on that sunny autumn day. I had never really understood what it must have felt like to be living it. I never quite caught the true meaning of a day to celebrate the memory of the military. Until then.


Italian war veterans are celebrated on June 2, on the Day of the Republic. On the Last Monday in May, I salute all the American soldiers that gave their life with valour during battle here in Italy. Besides Florence, the city of Nettuno also is home to another monumental American war cemetery. I've been there recently and it is a peaceful, incredibly quiet place by the sea, where a carpet of white stone crosses blankets the closely mowed lawn.

But today it is for those 110 children and 450 innocent victims of Sant'Anna that my Memorial Day thoughts go to. They too are heroes, and I wish to remember them because they too fought a battle on their last day. They faced fear and death with honour. They are not buried in a cemetery. They do not rest with their beloved or in holy soil. They nonetheless deserve to be mentioned and celebrated on this day. Those 560 represent the many faceless civilian victims of our wars that in each combat, give their life for no cause. For no apparent reason.

victims of sant'anna di stazzema massacre, under the age of 16
The youngest victims of the August 12, 1944 massacre


  1. I don't know what to say that won't just sound like a sound bite. But your words have moved me Lola. And if you allow us to know and you to remember then those lost children will be respected by a new audience so they will not be forgotten.

  2. Thanks for telling us that touching story, Lola. We don't hear much about the civilian deaths. My father fought in Italy in WWII. He didn't talk much about it. I had no idea ...

  3. I could barely read this post. I don't think I want to watch the film. It doesn't mean that I don't care, anzi, I care too much.

  4. What an extraordinary post, Lola. You've really brought the meaning of Memorial Day home.

    I want to see The Miracle at Santa Anna - I missed it when it was playing here, but I think I'm going to put it on my netflix list right now.

    We just saw X this week. Very, very affecting.

  5. What a touching story, more than just words on a page. You must get quite involved in every story you are involved in, in each movie. To enter such places and relive history must be both difficult and satisfying.


    p.s. I loved the Santa Teresa's account as well as the comments. Divine ecstacy can be reproduced the only way we humans know it.

    I'm just surprised that it passed the test of the prelates in charge.

  6. Just popping in for a moment this morning but will be back to read your post this evening. Thanks for stopping by my blog at atouchofgrace. I'm experiencing an administrative glitch that I'm hoping to have worked out soon so you can follow. You can read about my relationship with my laptop on my other blog Hope to see you again soon. Just love to stop by your place. It's so comfortable here.

  7. Cara Lola, Thank you for sharing this moving story today for Memorial Day. It has brought an intense calm and reflective moment to my rather chaotic day. I truly appreciate your beautiful way with words. Grazie!

  8. Lola, what a story. Thank you for telling it. There are so many things we don't know and this is something we should all know.

    P.S. Wanted to let you know that I've linked up to it on my blog.

  9. I am really stuck for words and that is rare for me.
    I found this post deeply moving and your account of it so beautifully crafted, Lola.
    I really find it difficult to comprehend how any attrocity like this can happen - but alas it did,it does and it will again, regretably. Such is the evil that is in mankind.
    I am privilaged to read this ~ Eddie

  10. Just read the post. There are tears in my eyes. I recently read a book about WWII in Italy. I've loaned it out but I think it is called "A Thread Of Grace". Same powerful images. I know what you mean with the energy that is left behind. I've experienced it in other places. Powerful!

  11. touching story lola. definitely a sacred place that stirs the emotions. sad. nice rememberance. happy mem day. hope you and e have a great day!

  12. Oh my goodness - you worked on that film?! I watched it yesterday! Beautiful film - and what a moving post of yours.

  13. Yes, ditto to everyone's comments above. A very moving story and, as usual, you've told it so eloquently.

  14. So much for the Hollywood glitz and glamour.
    The best film making is about the truth even especially when it is so disturbing.
    These stories need to be told and retold year after year. Lest we forget.

  15. What a beautiful and powerful post!!! Thank you for leading me here to read it! BTW I love the lemon and lime background...suits your blog beautifully! Happy Memorial Day! Cheers! ~Janine XO

  16. Thank you for your warm comments, I am deeply touched and humbled by them:

    Mandy - How sweet of you. The sacrifice of those children should never be forgotten.

    Susan - Where exactly was your father posted in Italy?

    Scintilla - I recommend you do not see the film then. It is quite disturbing in the massacre scene. I worked on it, and still it upset me.

    Jen - This is very different from the usual Spike Lee film, you'll see.

    Rosaria - Thank you, dear Maestra. The 1600s was a very strange, sensuous, revolutionary time... maybe prelates didn't see anything kinky in it.

    Laura - Thank you, cara. Oh no, steer clear of chaos!

    Sujatha - I've just returned from a serene walk through the green meadows of Arlington, and returned here via a wonderfully kind gesture. Thank you so much for that!

    Eddie - Your kind words move me and encourage me to write more and better. The feelings expressed by and emotional response of my readers are the reasons why I blog.

    Grace - Thank you for your lovely comments, and for taking the time to spend some time here. Ciao!

    Brian - Happy Memorial Day to you too! Don't bbq too much...

    Annika - Thanks for stopping by! It was a very difficult project but worth the blood, sweat and tears!

    Patrizia - Grazie, my sweet friend.

    Renee - I love it when you curse like that.

    LoriE - Thank you, darling. I appreciate that.

    Janine - Grazie! Happy Memorial citrusy Day to you too. Ciao!

  17. Lola
    thanks for telling us this moving story.

    Let's not forget that what one person, or one creed or one race can do - we are all capable of doing...
    Let us therefore pray for insight...

    Happy Days

  18. Thank you Lola. I want to watch the film. I'm glad someone made it and that you could share your experience of it with us. Your story was very moving and heartfelt. What a sad and needless event.

  19. Oh this is so sad - it must have stayed with you for such a long time.

  20. I must write you an email about this post. Not here.

  21. Very powerful. Thank you so very much for sharing this story. And thank you for the very kind words over at my place.

  22. Lola, I'm up and running smoothly again at A Touch Of Grace For You. I'll see you there.


  23. Mi hai fatto venire i brividi. Che brutta cosa la violenza...durante una guerra o in qualsiasi momento della vita di ognuno di noi.

  24. Lola... I am heavy hearted after that. Your post was a beautiful tribute~ it just saddens me that so many innocent children were touched by evil. I don't think I will ever comprehend. Here in Arizona/ USA it seems like the longer time goes on from when these atrocities occurred, the less people understand, and appreciate, the sacrifice. Thank you for writing this...

  25. Ciao Lola,
    Beautiful post. I read the book and our house is close to where filming took place but have never quite heard the full story of the massacre. A similar event took place in our village. All the local people were herded into the church. Fortunately, a German speaking local was able to defuse the situation and only three people were killed. I plan to link to your post from my blog. Really must go over the hill to Sant'Anna one day.

  26. Hello from New York. Mt husband and I saw this movie recently. It made such an impact on us also, and it was chilling to read your descriptions of the filming.

    My husband is from Calabria, His Dad was captured by the British in Africa and he spent a long time as a POW in England during the war. He often said it was so fortuntate as he wasn't killed or captured by the Germans who at that time did not treat prisoners of war very well. He also leanred Englis which helped when the family imigrated to the US in the early

    I've enjoyed looking at the rest of your blog!