Waiting, waiting to go home

Published 4:49 pm Wednesday, May 23, 2007

“My momma was sick in Tripoli, my papa was dead, my brother was still in Naples and I was in Florence waiting, waiting to go home,” Giovanna Smith of Biloxi told the sixth grade students of Westside Elementary School on Monday morning. She told them of her experiences in Italy where Mussolini had decreed all Italian children must go for safety when WWII broke out. She was 10 years old when she was taken to the convent in Tripoli to be transported to Italy for the four months Mussolini thought the war would last.

The students sat enthralled as her story unfolded. Her daughter, Sylvia Smith Skrmetta of Ocean Springs, spoke for a little while when Giovanna became tired.

“I begged her to write down her experiences,” Skrmetta said, “but she never did. We tried to tape some of her stories, but nothing came of that either. One day I was listening to her tell her story to a group of sixth graders just like you. It unfolded in perfect chronological order and I knew I had to get her story in writing.”

“Giovanna: Angels in Hell”, written by Skrmetta is the story of a Jewish-Italian little girl before, during, and after WWII. This page-turner is filled with harrowing events that are nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat suspense.

Born in Tripoli, Libya, Giovanna lived a life of luxury for the first 10 years of her young life. Her Papa was Italian and Catholic, her Momma was Italian and a Jew.

Her Papa would answer every question Giovanna could think of, they would often discuss topics ranging from bankruptcy to politics. She was a very smart little girl.

Her mother contracted tuberculosis, and after her little brother Guido was born, her mother became gravely ill with it which required an extended stay in the hospital.

One day, Giovanna was “Waiting, waiting, for Papa to pick me up from school as he did faithfully everyday.” When he did not show up, she was forced to walk home in the dark, terribly frightened and wary of anyone who might cause her harm.

She found him in the bedroom laying on the floor, dead.

Heartbroken and inconsolable, Giovanna sat beside the bed her father was laid upon for the wake, willing him to breathe. But he never did.

Seven months later, Giovanna’s step-brother Renzo brought her to the convent in Tripoli. Mussolini had decreed it would be safer for all Italian children to come to Italy for four months, until the war was over. Renzo cried the day she walked up the convent steps, but Giovanna’s feelings of that day are gone.

“I remember Renzo crying,” she says. “Although I was leaving my mother, my baby brother, and all that I called my life…perhaps after my father’s death, I ceased trying to feel anything.”

About 35 to 40 girls ranging from 10 to 14 boarded a train in Naples, Italy and were taken to a resort in Cattolica. There they knew nothing of the war. Giovanna basked in the Mediterranean sun through the summer. At the end of the season in October, the resort closed and the girls were taken back to the convent castle in Naples where Giovanna was reunited with her baby brother, Guido.

“The war started to be really hot,” she told the sixth graders at Westside Elementary on Monday, “because all the Italian ships were being sunk.

We started to see planes flying over the town, and the nuns said they were taking pictures. ‘They’ll be back,’ they said. How they knew, I do not know.”

At night, the bombs would drop, coming down with screams and loud explosions. It didn’t take long for Giovanna to learn the difference between the near explosions and the ones far away. There was no precision like there is today. The bombs landed everywhere.

The nuns would hurry the children into the dungeons under the castle to be protected from the bombs. Giovanna recognized they might be protected from the bombs, but saw there was no other escape route other than the entrance to the dungeons.

“If the castle was demolished, it would be on top of us,” she said. “I kept trying to tell the nuns this. They kept saying, ‘Just pray.’ Everything with them was ‘Just pray.’

“It was cold, no heating at all. We had to take cold showers,” she said.

The nuns took Giovanna and four of the girls, the smartest girls who could possibly go on to college to a convent in Florence to study there.

The Nazis would come in and shoot at the floors demanding the nuns turn over all the Jews they had hidden.

“The nuns would deny they were hiding any Jews. There were bullet holes all over the floors and walls from previous visits like this one,” she said.

In August, 1944, the Americans came to Florence. The Germans were herding the people north, away from the invasion. The four girls held hands tightly, but were soon separated from their benefactresses the nuns. The only thing they knew to do was continue walking north.

They spotted a convent and headed there for food and rest. Pleading and banging on the door, they begged for entrance. It seemed like an eternity before the door finally opened and “four hysterical young women fell to the floor at the feet of their benefactors.”

After a meager supper, they fell asleep with only a thin blanket between them and the cold floor.

The next morning, they were told it was a miracle they had made it to the door of the convent. In every window of the convent, German soldiers stood guard and would shoot anyone attempting to infiltrate their fortress. The grace of God allowed them to find the convent at the time the evening shadows would provide cover and the German guards had sought their supper. However, the Germans soon discovered them and the only place for them to go was back to Florence.

Their trip back was quite horrific and fraught with danger from zinging bullets and ferocious Germans.

This is a very worthy read. I give it four stars. You can purchase this book from our local bookstore, Bell, Book and Candle. ISBN #0-595-39981-9. Vist the website at www.giovannaangelsinhell.com.

Giovanna now lives in Biloxi with her husband of 58 years, Ford “Smitty” Smith.