This month, A Slice of Life presents Part I of Tina’s Story, which is a slice of history. Tina Civita Orgera is a resident of Patterson now, but she was born in Italy in 1935, in a small village between Rome and Naples, just south of Monte Cassino, 5 kilometers from the center of the municipality of Minturno, which was a town in Roman times. Her family lived on a small farm which provided virtually all their needs; vegetables they grew, eggs from their chickens, milk from the goats and sheep. They made clothing from the wool and from linen they planted and harvested themselves. There were olive trees, nut trees, fruit trees. It was a pleasant childhood.
Tina was eight when she first heard the elders of her village talking with the priest about the war. The priest had the only radio in the town. Everyone looked to him for what to do. Italy was part of the Axis; but if anyone in Santa Maria Infante knew that, they didn’t care. Their lives were quiet and pastoral, and when the war came, it came as an invader.
One day, the priest announced that he was going to move up first communions, because he was afraid if he didn’t do them soon, circumstances might prohibit doing them later. Tina was due for her first communion. Usually, the girls and boys would be taken to Minturno, to buy nice dresses and good clothes for first communion, but by this time, transportation and communication out of Santa Maria was virtually cut. So, Tina’s mother took her wedding dress and cut it down to fit 8-year old Tina, complete with veil. Tina enjoys the memory of how happy she had been, thinking she was the prettiest girl at communion. [picture]
In the spring of 1943, the Allies began their push north through Italy. Retreating Germans, increasingly desperate, descended on the town, confiscating homes for the officers, animals for food. Tina’s family were confined to one room of their four-room house, the Germans took the other rooms as well as the good bed and useful furniture. Tina’s grandmother was the pillar of her family, and her quick thinking and courage saved not only her family, but neighbors as well. She usually managed the occupiers adroitly, but the day came when she decided, “we have to go – NOW”. Santa Maria was on the route to Monte Cassino. At Monte Cassino was the first monastery built by the Benedictines in 529, and it now lay directly on the Gustav Line, designed to halt the Allied advance through Italy. The Allies mistakenly believed a German emplacement was there, and despite a plea from the Pope himself, reduced it over a period of several months to rubble. Tina remembers the carpet bombing of Monte Cassino vividly, describing it as “a sheet of planes” crossing the skies. Records indicate 4,000 aircraft, 1,900 tanks and a quarter of a million men were engaged in that battle on the Allied side. By the time that battle began on Feb. 15 of 1944, Tina, her grandmother, mother, two aunts, and younger brother had taken to the hills, along with much of her village. They took only what they could carry, and what Tina carried was her little brother. The food ran out in just a few days. That was a difficult winter.
Threats surrounded them from bombs, disease, mercenaries, hunger, unexploded ordinance; travelling was as dangerous as staying put. Whether you lived or died was sometimes a matter of absurd luck, and one day, something as ordinary a braid saved the life of Tina and her mother.
The family spent a long, frightening winter in the hills, with resourceful grandmother showing a remarkably cool head in coping with the chaos. The Allies, including the Americans, eventually prevailed, and sent survivors on a winding journey to Sicily, inexplicable to most of them, who could almost see their homes across the valley.
Grandmother displayed astonishing courage and foresight. She orchestrated a return that included an escape, a boat, trucks and some fast talking. Eventually, the family did get home. This picture illustrates the main road into Santa Maria after the bombing. Americans erected shelters for the many homeless families (two rooms, no running water). Eventually, Tina’s family joined her father who had been in America, sending money home and keeping out of the grasp of the German conscriptors.
Please listen in to this month’s Slice of Life, to hear Tina tell her remarkable story. Part II will be broadcast on next month, on Slice of Life, True Stories of the Ridiculous and the Sublime.
Tina in her Mothers Wedding Dress
Destruction in Santa Maria in 1944