Ubaldo Duino Bartolai of Borgo a Mozzano wasn’t so fortunate. After serving as a border guard in Croatia and the Balkan mountains from 1941-43, he was captured by the Germans in the Veneto region on Sept. 9, 1943, the same day that General Pietro Badoglio announced that Italy had withdrawn from the war. Ubaldo remained imprisoned in the German work camp of Furstenberg along the Oder River before finally being freed on May 8, 1945.
Ubaldo, born Nov. 2, 1921, said he rarely speaks about his time in the camp now. He was reluctant to speak to us as well when we interviewed him in the kitchen of his sister-in-law, Nida Giusti, the topic of a previous blog. Fortunately for us, Ubaldo was surrounded by family members who encouraged him to share his experiences.
“I can say that those were sad times in Germany,” he said. “We didn’t know if we would ever return.” Food in the camp was scarce. “The soup we were given was only fit for pigs. We ate what we could. We reached a point where we would go through the garbage and fight over potato skins that the Germans had thrown away.” Sometimes an older German man who operated heavy equipment in the camp would give Ubaldo a little piece of bread in gratitude for a hard day of work.
It was a work camp, and Ubaldo and his compatriots were compelled to break stones into sand that could be used to make concrete for the German war effort. He remembers the extreme cold of the winters, when the Oder River was completely frozen over.
He recalls two incidents that helped him persevere during the dark times. “Once we were visited by an Italian priest, who encouraged us to have courage, to not to give up, to trust each other,” he said. He also received a post card from his fiance at home that somehow made it through to his prison camp. Knowing that she was doing well even though bombs were falling in Italy gave him hope for the future.
He was captured in uniform and wore it every day until he reached home two years later. He was released from prison by Russian soldiers, but the Italian prisoners slipped past the watch of the Russians and made it through to the American-controlled portion of Germany. Both the French and Italian prisoners felt they would receive better treatment there. “The Americans were more organized,” Ubaldo said.
After they were processed and disinfected with DDT by the Americans, they were given transportation back to Tuscany. “When we reached Italian soil again at Brennaro, everybody got down and kissed the ground,” he said. About two years later, he married his fiance.
Now he has no hard feelings toward those who held him prisoner. “It was war and they were just doing their jobs.”
Around 2003, he went back to visit the places where he had served and was captured. “I expected the land to have changed,” he said, “but everything was pretty much the same.”
Ubaldo received a Medaglio D’Oro, a medal of honor, from Italian President Giorgio Napolitano on June 2, 2011, during celebrations for the 65th anniversary of the Republic of Italy held in the Palazzo Ducale of Lucca.