There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.
-Zora Neale Hurston
Born and raised in Italy, I moved to the U.S. in my late twenties. As a child, I often asked my mother and grandmother to tell me stories about their experiences growing up. Most of these stories were about the Second World War which caused so much destruction and loss in Italy and throughout Europe. My family, who maintained strong socialist roots and contributed to building the first Italian union, were targeted by the Nazis. My mother and grandmother never hid their hatred of the Fascist and Nazi regimes, and had no problem expressing their mistrust. In their minds, the Germans had caused two wars and, without a doubt, could cause a third. Although my mother and grandmother recognized that hating an entire population for something that happened in the past was nothing to be proud of, their racism was evident. My mother used to say, “I just can’t help hating them. When I’m dead the new generation will hopefully be able to move on, but I can’t.” Somehow as a child this made sense to me.
Among the many stories they told, there is one especially that stays with me.
On the night of July 9, 1943, the Allies invaded Sicily in Operation Husky, beginning an Italian campaign that aimed to weaken the Nazi presence on the Eastern Front. A couple of months later, on September 8, Italy signed with the Allies the Armistice of Cassibile, finally putting an end to the Italian-German alliance. Unfortunately, the Armistice was signed while Nazi troops were still in Italy, throwing most of the peninsula under Nazi occupation. As retaliation for what was considered a betrayal by the Italians, the Nazis implemented a one-to-three rule: for each Nazi soldier killed, three Italian civilians were to be killed at random. While the Allies advanced, the Nazis moved back into the Italian peninsula until they arrived in Rome, my hometown.
My grandmother’s story began on a late summer evening in 1944. She and her three daughters were at home cooking while my grandfather was at work. During the day he repaired phone cables for a communication company; at night he sabotaged the very same cables he had fixed that morning. As a member of the Italian resistance, he tried to destroy communication between Italy and Germany. That evening there was a knock at the door. My grandmother opened the door to discover a wounded Nazi soldier.
When she told me this story, she would usually pause at this part. For a long time I thought it was for dramatic effect – after all, we are Italian! But now I know it was something much more: fear. Even now, after so many years and so many tellings, I see her eyes stare into space, a face exhibiting no expression. She was terrified, though the soldier was unarmed and too weak to even talk. She also felt furious with this man who, to her, represented pure evil. With a voice filled with pain and shame, she would confess her desire to murder this soldier. After another long pause and a deep breath, my grandmother continued her story.
Amidst all of her intense emotions – anger, hate and fear – she realized that the Nazi soldier was little more than a boy of maybe twenty. He was skinny, with blond hair, sitting on the steps at my grandmother’s door. She found herself thinking about a mother, somewhere in Germany, waiting for her son to come home. After staring at the German soldier for what seemed to her – and to me hearing the story – an eternity, my grandmother carried him inside the house, fed him, and nursed his wounds as best she could. Early in the morning the German soldier left. No words had been spoken between them. The day after, June 5, 1944, the first American soldiers reached the center of Rome.
This story always puzzled me as a young boy. How could my grandmother have felt so much hatred toward the German people, particularly the Nazis, and still find it in herself to help one of them? I could never get a straight answer from my grandmother. Now, so many years later, I find myself pondering how hate and racism were, and still are, a part of my many homes – my family of origin, my country of origin, my new country, my profession, and even my psychoanalytic training.
Recent events in my life and in the world, the recent racial violence in Charlottesville, for example, have brought my grandmother’s story back to mind. I wonder, what made her able to transform a dehumanized Nazi soldier into a human being in order to help him? Why did the thought of the Nazi soldier’s mother suddenly appear in her mind? How was she able to contain the intense anger she felt towards him? Wilfred Bion (1963) describes a mother’s ability to contain and hold the overwhelmed child’s anxiety and emotions. In doing so, the child internalizes the sense of being contained and experiences the mother’s emotional availability, which aids the development of the child’s capacity for self-regulation. I wonder if the act of containing intense emotions, like the anger and hatred for the Nazi soldier, in itself allowed my grandmother to create a space where compassion and identification with another mother was possible.
Also surprising is my grandmother’s decision to invite the Nazi soldier into her home. Philip Bromberg (1996) describes “standing in the spaces” as the capacity of a person to make room for a subjective reality, a space that belongs not to each person individually but to both individuals; a space in which “the impossible” (my grandmother’s ability to relate to and help the Nazi soldier) becomes possible; a space in which incompatible selves awaken to their own “truth” (her hatred for Germans on one side and her love as a mother on the other), and can “dream” the reality of the other without risk to the self’s own integrity.
Only now, decades later, have I begun to understand my grandmother’s struggle with the German soldier. Her lifelong hatred, anger and fear of Germans broke, if only for a few hours that summer night in 1944, when she simultaneously experienced feelings for a man who for her represented everything bad and evil in the world and a young, scared boy in desperate need of help. Her experience seems to have traveled through time and space to find me, a grown man living in the U.S., whispering hope for the stories of our future.
Roberto Colangeli, PhD, is a fifth-year psychoanalytic candidate at the Manhattan Institute for Psychoanalysis and an assistant professor of microbiology at Rutgers University.
Bion, W.R. (1963). Elements of psycho-analysis. London, UK: Heinemann.
Bromberg, P.M. (1996). Standing in the spaces: The multiplicity of self and the psychoanalytic relationship. Contemp. Psychoanal., 32(4), 509-535.