In 2017, Francesca Rama, who lives at Colognola ai Colli (Verona), came across the Trust’s website. She was inspired to write this heart-warming account of how her Italian grandparents hid a British soldier behind enemy lines – and how, 70 years later, she succeeded in renewing a close friendship with his family.
Forty-five kilometres from Verona there is a village called Vestenanova where my mum’s parents were born and lived all their lives. They owned a humble house and a stable in a hamlet called Pezzati. By 1940, when Italy declared war, my grandparents had been married for about eight years and had three girls. By 1943, when Italy became the “enemy” of Germany, a fourth girl had been born.
One day in 1944, some partisans arrived at the hamlet with two English soldiers and asked the inhabitants of the hamlet to take care of them and hide them. Other English soldiers had been taken to hamlets nearby.
On that day, an amazing friendship between my granddad Attilio Pezzato and Frank Ashford, or Franco as he used to be called, was born. Out of everybody, my grandparents were the ones who mostly helped Frank and his companion Armand during the long period they spent there. My grandmother provided clean clothes, gave them the possibility to wash, and fed them with the little food that was available.
The Germans were already in the area and were carrying out reprisals on civilians without needing an excuse to do so.
When it was too dangerous to be close to the houses or other people, Frank and Armand would have to hide in a hole that had been dug out of the side of a valley hidden in the woods. On such occasions, my granddad and a few other men would take them food but, to ensure that they left no footprints close to the hideout, a basket containing the food would be attached to a very long pole and lowered down to Frank and Armand for them to collect.
They also had quiet moments where experiences, stories and family memories were exchanged in the winter nights inside the stable heated up by the animals. Frank could speak a bit of Italian and my granddad used to help him and passed him the newspapers for him to practise his reading. The bond between my granddad and Frank was growing with each month that passed.
Frank was an English soldier who had left four little boys and a wife back in England. Frank never explained to my grandparents what his orders were or why he was in the area, behind enemy lines, but with hindsight it was obviously something to do with the partisan activities going on in the vicinity of the village.
One day in January 1945 Frank and Armand disappeared without saying goodbye. They had spent the previous night with my grandparents, their girls and some other friends, talking and laughing. Yet, the day after, they had gone. My granddad was devastated and worried. He was sad Frank had left without saying goodbye.
The war ended and “normality” returned. The war had left deep scars in the little hamlet where my grandparents lived. One old man had been killed for no reason at all by the Germans, and two brothers aged 15 and 16 had also been killed. One day some German troops arrived at the hamlet, rounded up all the men that were left there, shut them in a house and set fire to them.
My granddad, along with Frank and Armand, had managed to escape thanks to other men who had warned them about the imminent arrival of the Germans. My grandmother with her girls and other children of the hamlet had been forced to stand in a courtyard with a machinegun pointed at them for several hours, fearing death. Tough moments, which were ingrained in the memories of my granny, granddad and my oldest auntie, who was nine years old, for the rest of their lives.
A few years after the war, in 1949, a letter arrived: it was Frank! He told my granddad he still remembered him and everybody else in the hamlet. He said how grateful he was to him for saving their lives and that he was still very fond of their friendship.
He explained that they had left without notice because they didn’t want to put them in danger. Frank and Armand had decided to go north while the other two soldiers hiding in the area decided to go south. Unfortunately that had been a bad choice. Their companions were freed by the Allies almost immediately but Frank and Armand were caught by the Germans and taken to a German camp. It was May 1945 before they managed to return to Britain.
Frank was back with family and his boys, John, Peter, Robert and Brian.
A few more cards followed but then for about five years my grandparents did not receive any news from Frank.
In 1954, Frank sent another letter but this time it was not from Britain but from Australia. He had moved there a few years earlier, taking advantage of job opportunities in the new land. He was working and living in Melbourne and still taking care of his wife and his boys, with the addition of a daughter too.
They were fine and happy. Over the following years a few more letters and Christmas cards were exchanged. My grandparents sent letters as well, translated into English by someone they knew. In the meantime my granddad’s family had also grown: there were seven daughters in total, the youngest born in 1950. The oldest one, Pia, still remembered Frank who used to play with her.
In 1973, unfortunately my granddad passed away. I never had the chance to meet him as I was born two years later. When speaking about Frank my mum and my granny always pointed out how my granddad never forgot Frank; he reminded everybody to “write to Frank when I pass away”.
And so they did. Frank wrote back to my grandmother, obviously really sad about their loss and encouraging my grandmother to be brave. He himself had suffered the loss of one of his children who had died at the young age of 37.
That was it. Probably the fact that Attilio had passed away had broken the bond and the connection with my mum’s family, and they never heard from Frank again.
I spent a lot of time with my granny and youngest auntie when I was little. As old people do, they talked a lot about the past, especially when the past has strong memories like the war. Frank’s story used to come up every time we gathered together in the winter nights in the same old house heated up by a warm stove. Letters, pictures and Christmas cards were shown to me as living proof of my granddad’s and Frank’s friendship.
I grew up and became a teenager. I started studying English at school and felt a connection with Frank’s story. I would listen to Frank’s story over and over again, always hoping to be able to find him one day.
Years passed and my grandmother passed away too. She was almost 90.
I moved to London for a while in 2000 and lived an amazing experience, which led me to meet my future husband, a Scot, in Edinburgh. We moved back to Verona, got married and over the years three lovely and lively kids came along. Then we had an abrupt interruption of our life with the loss of my mother in 2012.
My aunties tried to be close to us as much as they could and, in one of their visits, my youngest auntie brought me Frank’s letters and cards. We went through the whole story once again and this time managed to bring back old memories and compare information with my husband whose granddad had fought in the war and had arrived in Italy in 1943 along with the US army.
That night I had a sudden inspiration: during my staying in London I had met an Australian girl who had become a good friend of mine. She lived in Sidney and maybe she could help me to find Frank’s family. I knew already I would not be able to find Frank, as he would have been over 100 years old. But even being able to meet his sons or grandchildren would be positive.
For the next few days I read and re-read all Frank’s letters and cards, trying to trace his movements and the last address where he had lived in Melbourne.
My friend Kath and her mum were overjoyed to help me and take part of this search after hearing the story. It only took Kath’s mum three or four phone calls to track down Frank’s son, Peter. She simply went through all the Ashfords living in Melbourne until she found the right one.
When Kath emailed me, saying that they had found Peter, I was almost in tears. First thing I phoned my oldest auntie, who had met Frank, to give her the important news.
I received Peter’s email address and phone number and the following day I managed to speak to him on the phone. I was so emotional I had tears in my eyes while talking to him.
Peter told me his dad has passed away in 1984 but had managed to meet some of his grandchildren. Peter himself was a dad of three and a granddad. His oldest daughter was Frank’s first granddaughter and she had been lucky enough to spend time with her granddad Frank to know that, back when he was young and had to go to war, an Italian family had helped him to survive critical moments.
Nothing much had been shared by Frank, and even his duties in the army had been a bit of a mystery up until the recent years when the army archives were made accessible to the soldiers’ families.
I was delighted to receive Peter’s confirmation that Frank had never forgotten his friend Attilio. It would be wonderful to meet Peter, his family and whoever had a connection with Frank. Australia is far away and travelling there involves lots of money for a family of five.
For now I am just happy to keep in touch with Peter and his family, who to all of us feel like part of our family too.
“Ricordare sempre, dimenticare mai” (“always remember, never forget”). This is what Frank would always say to my granddad and how he would sign-off his letters, and this is why I want to pass onto my kids, and whoever is close to me, these memories of friendship, fraternal love, and hope for the future born in a terrible moment when darkness prevailed.