This is an excerpt from an independent study I did about my grandmother’s life. I use her story here, to tell the story of women’s condition during WWII in Italy. I interviewed my grandmother and her sisters and did additional historical research.
My grandmother, Giovanna Pizzetti, was born in 1934 in Rio Saliceto, a little town in the province of Reggio Emilia, about 40 miles North of the Italian Apennines. This is the most fertile area of Italy. The Po River, the longest river in Italy, crosses the valley of the Pianura Padana, the largest plain area of Italy. She was born in a family of 16. At the time she was born, her parents had already had 9 children. She was one of the youngest; after her, only two other children were born. From 1920 to 1938 they had 12 children.
My great grandmother, Emma, died soon after giving birth to her last child; my grandmother was only three. Therefore, the older sisters became a mother figure for the youngest sisters, especially because my great grandfather never remarried. They also lived with a grandmother, Angela, and two uncles, who helped my great grandfather, Marino, raise the family. Therefore much of the work was on the children who had to help with house chores and help with the family business: the farm.
The Pianura Padana is mainly agricultural. Every town is surrounded by large fields, which are used for agricultural purposes. This area is still focused very much on agriculture today; but when my grandmother was a child, agriculture was the main economy. Many families lived in the countryside and worked on a farm. People who worked on a farm were often, “mezzadri”, sharecroppers.
S: ”So tell me Nonna, you said your family was a family of “mezzadri”, what did you have to do?
G: “Well being “mezzadri” meant that half of the produce had to be given to the padrone, the owner of the land. No matter how many people worked or the farm, we always had to give half to him. It was quite hard for us: a family of 14 had to survive with half of the produce, no matter how much produce we made. That is why we had to eat moderately. Our goal was to save as much food as we could for the longest time we could. We used to eat dishes that didn’t require a lot of dairy products and fats. Our diet was based mainly on grains and non-meat products. We were pretty lucky though, compare to the people who were living in the city. We always had little food to begin with, but when the war arrived, we didn’t really feel much difference. The people in the city felt it more: they went from having a good amount of food, to having very little, just enough to survive.”
During Fascism and WWII, Italy had to undergone many cuts, especially on food. Some restrictions had been imposed and many of the dishes that Italians were used to having, had to be reinvented. For example, since coffee beans were very expensive, families started to have coffee made from chicory, which tasted nothing like the standard coffee people were used to having. Even bread, the most common and favorite food of Italians, started to be more expensive and was made with less care and attention to the ingredients. Then, families in the cities were given cards, which would be stamped after every purchase. This was done so that they could not get more food, which was needed for the military. People had to struggle through this time, then once the war ended, they started buying products at the “mercato nero”, the black market, where people could find food for cheaper prices.
S: “Nonna, you told me before that you worked on the farm as well, but when did you start?
G: “Well, I remember working on the fields since I was a very young child. We had 20 “biolchi”, about 90 squared miles of farmland, so we really needed a lot of hands to work those fields. Therefore everybody had to work, also the girls, since there were so little men in the family. We started working early in the morning, before we went to school.”
S: “How was school? And were the teachers violent? What did they do?”
G: “Oh yes they were. I had this one teacher, she was short and skinny, but was very, very tough. I was very shy and never talked when she asked me a question, so as a punishment she would make me kneel on dried corn behind the blackboard, until my knees were scraped and bleeding.”
My grandmother has told me how harsh and strict teachers were compare to the teachers I had. At that time the goal and job of the teacher was to teach discipline. It wasn’t only the usual discipline, but it was the Fascist discipline. The number one goal of Fascism was to create a big and devoted empire. The best place where Mussolini could easily shape minds was the school, where they could be manipulated easily. Therefore elementary school was very structured and organized to shape children into future Fascists. The first step was to celebrate the Fascist empire. Mussolini and Giovanni Gentile, an Italian philosopher, reformed the school system so that they could insert in the curriculum, stories and facts that celebrated the Fascist powerful regime. Teachers only taught lessons from one book. This book was called “Testo Unico”, which means “only text.” This book had stories of the advent of Fascism. It narrated the story of Mussolini and the march on Rome; it narrated the stories of the Italian conquests in Africa; it narrated stories on Mussolini’s political success. Mussolini knew that by having only one source that children could learn from, their minds would be shaped the way he wanted.
My grandmother was only 10 when the war was finally over. It was April 25th 1945 when Italy was freed from Fascism and the Germans. As of today this is a very important date in Italy. It has become a national holiday. On this day in every Italian town, there are concerts, walks, bike rides; all different events to commemorate what happened in WWII. My grandmother, my mother and I go to these events every year. My grandmother has sometime a hard time going to these events because it reminds of her life during those years. She had to grow up fast and without a lot of affection around her. She is very sweet and affectionate with me, but she is tough and does not let anybody see through her.
S: “Nonna, what do you remember about the day of Italy’s liberation?”
G: “Remember I told you about the planes that used to fly over our houses during the night? Well during those last days before April 25th there were even more of them that were flying over our heads. Those were moments of terror. The houses needed to be completely black, no light had to be seen from the house. We had to be extremely careful, because if they saw light from the planes, they would bomb on the houses. During the last week there was nobody on the streets, people were worried that Germans would stop them, ask them questions and arrest them or even worse kill them. Those last days were terrible, so many people died, both partisans and Germans. I remember the day of liberation, it was actually April 23rd when they passed through our town; we all went in the streets, everybody was euphoric. You know our street was not paved, and because of all the excitement and amount of people in the street we were wrapped in a big cloud of dust. The American soldiers were giving out food, candies, chocolate, something that was totally new to us peasant kids.”
S: “All of you must have been so excited that day, Fascism had ended and Italy was ready to start anew. I imagine things changed a lot for you and your family after the war. Right?”
G: “Oh niná, for us it did not change that much. We were peasants and always had too little food and too much work. We had to make it with what we had. Meat and fats were a treat for us: we ate them only on Sunday and for special occasions. You know the capeletti, what we eat on Sunday?”
S: “Yes, my favorites, the first meal you make me every time I come home from the United States.”
G: “Exactly, well we used to eat those really rarely when I lived on the farm, my grandmother Angela, did not even put Prosciutto in them, it was too expensive, and we did not produce it on the farm, we would have had to buy it in a store, and there was no money for that. We ate this dish called “Pasta Ragia”, it was made of very fine bread crumbs, eggs and a little bit of Parmesan cheese. It was a very easy dish to make, all of the ingredients were easy to find in our house: we used the old bread, eggs, and the little cheese we bought at the “caseificio”, the dairy factory.”
S: “Yes, I love that dish, the one you cook in the chicken broth. So if your life did not change that much, were you still working on the farm?”
“ Oh yes. Now I was working all day long on the fields, in the house, with the animals. I gave my elementary school exam the spring of 1945, right after liberation, so then my only occupation was working on the farm. As I told you we milked the cows, we pruned the trees up a little “scalét”, a wobbly ladder; we ploughed the fields and helped in the house.”
Although Italy had been liberated in 1945, life did not change immediately. At least until 1950, Italy was still very poor. Right after the war, getting food was difficult and pricy and so many families started buying food at the black market. Peasant families did not have this problem, because most of the food that they used was the one they cultivated on the farm. My grandmother’s family was already used to not having meat and other delicacies on the table, so her quality of life did not change much.
The Pianura Padana was one of the largest agricultural lands and many families were “mezzadri”, so their lives before and after the war did not change much. The people of a higher social class were the ones who saw the more immediate change: poverty was high and women, who had started working during the war, now wanted the rights to keep working. Finally in 1946, when the Republic of Italy was created, women were given the right to vote for the first time. In 1948 the Costituzione Italiana, Italian Constitution, was created. Many of the new laws allowed women to be more equal to men. For example, in article 37, it is said that: “Working women are entitled to equal rights and, for comparable jobs, equal pay as men. Working conditions must allow women to fulfill their essential role in the family and ensure appropriate protection for the mother and child.” This was a huge step for women’s freedom and rights, but despite this, especially in rural areas, the condition for women did not change much: they still had to work on the farm and obey to the older members of their family.
Peasant women usually knew that getting married was their destiny. It was not even a remote thought that a woman could be emancipated, have a job and do something different than being a mother or devoted women. Girls were told they had to get married from a very young age. Peasant families were poor and if the daughters would get married, this meant that they would move and go live with the husband’s family. Therefore women would get married around 18/20 years old. If a woman was still unmarried and was older than 25, it was considered an embarrassment for the family.
S: “That must have been a little complicated, 9 dowries to prepare with so little money!”
G: “Oh yes, but my oldest sister Marina did not have one, she got married during the war and there was absolutely no money for that. My dowry was nice though. I still have the list. I had 6 pairs of bed sheets, 2 blankets, 5 nice bed shirts, a dress that I could wear on my honeymoon, a nice light overcoat that my sister Rita had made me, and a white dress with a flower pattern that I wore for my wedding. Those were the first clothes that I owned. I had never had clothes that were only mine; everything I wore had been passed on from my sisters.”
S: “How did you organize the wedding? You did not have a lot of time to get ready!”
G: “We had a simple ceremony. It took us only a month to get all the papers ready. We did not have a lot of time; we had to marry in September, before the “vendemmia”, the grape harvest, started. Then we really would have had no time to get married. Ledo and his family were also farmers and the fall was busy with the grape harvest activity. Also we had to get married if we wanted to stay together, because it was not acceptable to just go and live together without being married. After the wedding, went to Rapallo to visit my father for our honeymoon. It was short, since we had to go back to start the grape harvest. That is when I moved “in famiglia”. I went to live with his whole family: his parents and his brother. They were “mezzadri”, just like my family, so I just kept being a farmer.”