GENERAL ARTICLES

SO THIS IS ROME

"Rome seemed like a golden treasure trove floating above the scorched and flaming earth"—A vivid impression of the Eternal City after liberation

PETER STURSBERG July 15 1944
GENERAL ARTICLES

SO THIS IS ROME

"Rome seemed like a golden treasure trove floating above the scorched and flaming earth"—A vivid impression of the Eternal City after liberation

PETER STURSBERG July 15 1944

SO THIS IS ROME

PETER STURSBERG

C.B.C. War Correspondent

"Rome seemed like a golden treasure trove floating above the scorched and flaming earth"—A vivid impression of the Eternal City after liberation

ROME (By Cable)—It was at George’s apartment overlooking the Tiber that someone—I can’t remember who now—asked us what was the most extraordinary thing we had seen in the last few days. George is an Esthonian journalist, working as a Swiss correspondent in Rome, and we were sitting on the terrace of his high flat, drinking in the scent from tubs of oleanders and jasmines around us.

All of us found the question intriguing because so much had happened in the last few days—so much that was extraordinary—and we sat back in our veranda chairs thinking about it.

The first to answer was an Italian count, who claimed to have always been anti-Fascist. The count pressed the ivory handle of his walking stick with long bony fingers. He was a thin man, with grey wisps of hair that did not quite cover a balding head. He had a dry face, with eyes that appeared always bored, although now they were almost shining with excitement.

“The most extraordinary thing I saw,” he said, “was in the Villa Borghese park. I was taking my morning walk the first day you arrived when I saw some American soldiers sitting under some trees eating. What food they had! It was better than any meal you could get at the Hotel Excelsior. And these were just doughboys, having lunch in the field. They were eating meat, and so much meat. And white bread - things we haven’t seen here for so long. What food ! I stood there in amazement until the last one of the American soldiers finished eating.”

The count sank back into his chair, as though he were still overcome by that sight. An American war correspondent, who had appeared amused by this quiz, now leaned forward and exclaimed: “I got it. Sure, I got it—-the wedding party. Don’t you remember when the battle was raging? We were watching the fighting from an upstairs room. That’s right, it was last Sunday. When up Highway Number Six comes a bunch of well-dressed Italians—both men and women. I know it wasn t much of a battle—just one of Jerry’s rear-guard actions, but there was an awful lot of steel flying around and none of us would stick our nose outside the house.

But up the road,” he went on, “comes these people, with shells whizzing and banging around them. It turns out that it’s a wedding party, with a bride and groom. They stop on the road while all hell’s breaking loose and talk to some of our soldiers, congratulating them. I tell yoy I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it.

One German shell must have landed about 20 feet from them, but the wedding party doesn’t hurry and finally gets safely over the ridge. It was sheer fantasy.

don t know whether the wedding took place behind the German lines and their home was on our side, or if the fighting caught them by surprise, or what.”

Brand said the most extraordinary thing to him was the appearance of Rome. Brand wears the silver wings of a pilot. Actually he is the air chauffeur of the commander of a mixed Amorican-Canadian force which was among the first units to enter this city. Brand looks like one of these wild boys of the sky but

underneath he is a serious guy who is very fond of music, and wonders what is going to happen to him after the war.

“The clean buildings!” he said. “Without any mark on them, without even one shrapnel hole! And the wide streets with no dust or rubble on them. We’ve got so used to seeing ruins that the lack of damage here was the most wonderful thing to me. The city was as thrilling as I’d expected, more thrilling in fact, but not because of its monuments and statues, but just because it was whole.”

Impressed By Canadians

GEORGE broke open a bottle of fine wine which he had preserved many months for just such an occasion. He turned to Brand and said, “You know I think this is most interesting, hearing such separate views from you who have come from the outside and the count and myself who remained in Rome all the

time. For my part I think I’ve been struck most by the attitude that you have to war.”

The Esthonian journalist spoke as slowly and incisively as Lord Haw Haw does on the radio, pronouncing carefully each English word.

“The Roman people,” he said, “have been tremendously impressed by the way the American and Canadian soldiers entered the city. They were laughing and gay and friendly, so different from the German soldiers, who are cold and sullen and distant even when winning. Maybe it’s the better way to fight a war - with a smile.

“I mean what I say. I’m not praising your troops because you are here. The wild enthusiasm with which you were greeted by the Romans was genuine. I’m sure that they cheered themselves hoarse and threw flowers because they were glad to see you. Your troops have captured the hearts of the people.

“I know this first rapture will wear off— but I think

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the Romans will always like you because of your qualities of humanity and especially because of the way your troops treat children.

“Let me give you an illustration. I was in St. Peter’s Square the second day after Rome was freed and I noticed two American soldiers being trailed by some 20 or 30 children. These doughboys looked like Laurel and Hardy— one of them was thin and the other fat - and the children seemed as excifed I and happy as though they were at a ¡ circus.

“When they reached the steps of the j Cathedral the two soldiers put on some stunts for the children. They acted as clowns and stood on their heads—yes, j they stood on their heads on the steps j of St. Peter’s to entertain the children.

It is inconceivable to think of German ! soldiers doing such a thing. I can tell you the Romans who saw those Americans clowning for the children were absolutely delighted.”

It was my turn now to answer the question and I said that I thought it was the audience which the Pope gave : the correspondents at the Vatican,

! at which news cameramen were allowed to photograph His Holiness.

In Consistory Hall, under the gold ceiling made from the first ingots to come from the new world, cameramen shot the Pope from every angle as he addressed us from his red throne, some of them even lying on the floor. Bulbs flashing in his face interrupted his speech but he never motioned them away from him.

When the Pope walked around the hall, speaking to each of us individually, cameramen followed him, crowding and jostling each other. And j when His Holiness raised his arms to give us his blessing, and we knelt on the floor, flash bulbs kept popping.

I said I thought that the Pope had shown the greatest possible restraint I and dignity under the circumstances.

“It was disgusting,” the American correspondent declared, “I was never so embarrassed or ashamed at the

conduct of my fellow workers before.”

“How grotesque,” George interjected, yet his remark did not sound deprecatory.

It was pleasant sitting among the fragrant flowers in the soft coolness of the summer evening. The count said that jasmine was the scent of Rome and June was its best month. From the terrace we looked down on the city. We could see the green funnel made by the Tiber’s tree-lined banks and, beyond, St. Peter’s magnificent dome, all shining golden in the sunset.

Breakfast In Bed

There was still one of us to answer the question and everyone now looked at Sholto Watt, correspondent of the Montreal Star, who lay, half curled up in his veranda chair, smoking a cigarette.

“Mine is very personal,” Sholto said. “On the night before we entered Rome I slept in a ditch. The night after we had taken the city I slept between sheets at the Hotel Excelsior.

“That’s amazing enough,” he went on, “but when I woke up the next morning I looked around my luxurious room and saw a bell just above my head. I pressed it and a waiter appeared. I asked him if I could have some breakfast. He said, ‘Certainly,’ and brought it to me in bed. That really was extraordinary, don’t you think?”

Like Sholto I slept between sheets at a hotel the first night in Rome, but I was not as fortunate as he in picking the best hotel which had a reserve food stock. We ate field rations—hard tack and bully beef and mashed, dehydrated potatoes—in the most regal surroundings, with all kinds of silver and fine plates before us and with waiters in tails hovering around our chairs. Rut it was still hard tack and bully beef and mashed, dehydrated potatoes.

We can get unrationed meals at some restaurants and hotels which had been operating on the former black market. The prices are the highest I ever paid in Italy. Last night I ate dinner at the Grand Hotel and the bill was over $6, and the other day I had a two-course luncheon at a restaurant near Corso Umberto at a cost of $3.

If anything, these prices are lower than what they were before we entered Rome. They are, of course, beyond the pockets of most inhabitants of the city. It is no exaggeration to say that the Romans starved during the period of German occupation.

The Italian count who went into rhapsodies over the food of the American soldiers may have been an ascetic man, naturally, but Signor Hugo Pappi had lost 30 pounds. Signor Pappi is Secretary General of the International Institute of Agriculture, one of those international bodies that have somehow managed to keep going during the war. He smiled wryly as he pulled his double-breasted coat out and said: “See how much I’ve shrunk during the past year.”

Worry may have contributed to Signor Pappi’s loss of weight for he had a worrying time keeping his institute going without funds from abroad and protecting his international staff. However, Antonio Morelli, who works in a bank here, showed me a picture of himself taken only a short time ago which was unrecognizable. He was 35 pounds under normal weight.

All food was rationed in Rome but aside from 100 grams of black bread, which was not much more than a thick slice, there was nothing else that could be obtained by ration cards. In order to keep alive civilians had to buy food on the black market.

Morelli snorted. “Black market,” he

said. “It was the only market and the Nazis operated it. Of course they did, because they controlled the only exits to the city and, at any rate, the only means of transportation was in their hands.”

Fantastic Prices

I wanted to know the prices on the black market and in order to be sure I got the correct figures Morelli took me home to meet his wife. She gave me a list of the cost of foodstuffs on the black market during the month before we entered Rome. Here are a few items: brown flour, 230 to 240 lire kilo -—about $1.25 a pound. Any kind of meat, including horse meat, 300 lire kilo about $1.50 a pound. Brown sugar, 500 lire kilo—about $2.50 a pound. Olive oil, 1,200 lire litre— about $6 a pint. Watered milk, 50 lire litre—about 25 cents a pint. Eggs, 25 litre each—27 cents each.

The rate of exchange I have quoted is the present one and means nothing. The real prices can be judged from the fact that Morelli, who is fairly well to do, paid 4,000 lire a month to the black market and thus he had to sell his furniture to feed his wife and two children.

“The Germans are losing the war,” Í Morelli said, “but they’re the richest people in Europe. The Nazi Government received so many million lire a month from the Mussolini Government to maintain its forces in Italy—I forget the exact figures. Of course, the money j was just printed by the Fascists and ' was valueless.

“Of course, the Nazis knew this but they were able to control the black market and keep the price of food so high that people were forced to sell their jewels and valuables in order to live. They bought these with their wads of paper money and shipped them back to 1 Germany.

“That was just one way these ! gangsters looted us,” Morelli declared. ¡ “There were many others. They closed i the seaside resort where I had my small villa and gave us only a few hours to ! remove our belongings. As we had no transport beyond bicycles we were only able to take away a few valuables. Then the soldiers sacked the houses of everything.

“As soon as the Germans took over Rome they closed the factories and dismantled the machines, sending them ; to the Reich. They requisitioned all private cars as well as trucks and buses. They removed even our new streetcars, leaving us just old ones.”

Still the Germans had left a lot behind in Rome compared with other cities and towns. In Ceprano, which the Canadians took following their break-through on the Hitler Line, they had removed even the window frames and doors. I asked Morelli why he thought the Nazis had spared the city ; to such an extent.

“Well,” he said, “there are two reasons. First they had to contend with the Vatican. The Pope fought ; hard and successfully to preserve j Rome. Then they were caught short by your rapid advance and they had no time to carry out much more robbery or destruction. I know one German officer who changed his flat only three days before you arrived. He was quite certain that there was no immediate danger of having to abandon Rome.”

Although I protested that I would be eating what little food they had, Morelli insisted that I share their supper. The meal consisted of little squares of bread covered with dripping, and pastry in pretzel shapes flavored with salt or aniseed. There was enough to satisfy one’s hunger but I wondered what our nutritionists would think of

such a repast and how many calories and vitamins would count in it.

“We are getting white flour tomorrow,” Morelli said, and his wife, who could not speak English, although she could understand it, smiled happily, “it will be the first time we’ve seen white flour in four years,” he added. “My wife also tells me prices are going down. P’lour dropped from 230 lire kilo to 85 lire.”

“Aside from going hungry,” Morelli went on, “we’ve had terribly trying times in other ways. You know many of our friends were hiding and we had to help them. Nearly half the population was hiding. There were millions of false ration cards and identification papers. Then there was a great deal of lawlessness. There were scores of holdups in the streets every day and nearly everyone’s house was broken into sometime. Between the thieves and the police we did not know which way to turn. It’s no wonder we were glad to see you.”

As Thousands Cheered

The Morellis were an average Roman family. Their sufferings were typical of the sufferings of thousands of others in the city.

They were among the cheering throngs that welcomed us. They bought carnations and camellias to throw to our troops. They rushed forward to grasp the hand of a Canadian or American soldier, or if they could not do that, because of the press around him, they tried to touch his arm or sleeve just to make sure that he was real and that it was not all a dream.

They stood for days watching the great parade of our armored might roll through the city, following routes which so many armies before had take»

the Appian Way and the P’laminian Way passing arches that marked the triumphs of other soldiers who had fought and died 2,000 years ago.

The great demonstration which marked our entry into Rome and which continued for a couple of days after we had taken the city made an impression on our troops who had been used to passing through deserted towns and villages. But it was the city itself that thrilled them most, and especially the beauty of its unbroken surface.

Rome, which nad seemed like a mirage only a short few weeks agoa golden treasure trove floating above the scorched and flaming earth — that Rome now met every expectation. Standing among its shining buildings, beside its clean ruins and untouched monuments, they were so full of its splendor that all they could say at first was:

“So this is Rome. So this is Rome.”

Brand had come closest to the view of the majority when he said that the most extraordinary thing was the lack of damage to the city. One or two houses had been smashed during the brief fight on the outskirts of Rome hut that was all. Our Air Force had bombed the railway yards, which the Germans were using for the military traffic and supply dumps they had established in the city, and 1 made a tour of Rome to see what damage it had done.

I visited the railway yards and warehouses south and west of the city and saw there definite proof that bombing can be accurate if it is carried out with great care and precision. Buildings adjoining the south yards were hardly scratched, although the yards themselves were badly smashed with lines of burned-out boxcars. The west yards were sandwiched between workers’ apartment blocks and one or two had been split open, although most of the bombs had landed in t he target area.

Nearly all the troops who come to

Rome visit St. Peter’s and try to see the Pope. They generally succeed as His Holiness has audiences every day at II o’clock. The richly decorated Hall of Saint Clement where the audience is held is packed with 400 soldiers, some of whom have just come from the battle front and others who are on their way there.

The Pope enters with his noble guards wearing golden helmets and gives a short speech of welcome. After blessing the troops he circulates among them before leaving. The soldiers mill around him and the Roman Catholics among them push their way forward to kiss the papal ring.

I met four Canadian soldiers at one of the first audiences. They were Cpl. Howard Tucker, Oshawa, Pte. Denis Gannon, Maynooth, Ont., Pte. Leo Angus Coady, Montreal, and Pte. Sidney Brown, Kitchener. They were thrilled at seeing the Pope and Cpl. Tucker said, “I never dreamed that I would ever get that close to him.”

Soldiers are great tourists and these Canadians had already seen some of the sights of the city. Although the Roman ruins have emerged unscathed they have suffered slightly from inattention. The grass is growing among the broken columns of the Forum and between the mosaic floors of the great baths of Caracalla.

A little wizened up attendant showed me around the massive remains of the Roman swimming pool and athletic club. When I asked him if the Germans were like us and if many of them visited these ruins he said, “Motto poco.” Very few, and added, “Barbaro brigante”—that they were barbarians and would not appreciate such historic monuments.

With other correspondents I had the privilege of seeing the treasures of the Vatican and noting how carefully and lovingly they had been preserved. We were probably the first outsiders to visit the Sistine Chapel and the museums for many years.

I remember a British correspondent remarking as we entered the Sistine Chapel, “My God, it’s wonderful to know that these paintings which we’ve seen so often in books and in prints still exist.” He said it almost as if he were saying a prayer—a prayer of thanksgiving.

We put cricks in our necks looking at the frescoes of Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Chapel. All of us marvelled at the trials of this artist who lay on a scaffolding for years painting these immortal visions. What a worker Michelangelo must have been and what a genius! Only a genius of the most universal order could have undertaken such subjects as the creation of

the world on the ceiling, and the awesome Last Judgment, which covers the whole wall at the end of the Chapel.

It was a quick transition from the burning fire of Michelangelo to the resplendent dignity of Raphael in the four rooms he decorated for the Vatican. The transition was almost too quick and I felt that we saw so much that day that we did not have time to absorb it all.

We walked through galleries full of pictures and sculptures. We stood in the cool alcove which serves as a niche for the Apollo Belvedere—probably the most famous piece of antique statuary in the world. We looked down on the gloriously proportioned court that Bramante designed and in which were parked the yellow and white trucks of the Vatican—the only civilian vehicles left in Rome. They were being used to help feed the population.

Colosseum By Moonlight

There are lots of things in Rome the boys will not remember but they will all talk about the Colosseum when they get back home. I visited this amphitheatre by the moonlight with Captain Yvon Beaulne, Ottawa, and an Italian friend who acted as guide. When we entered the arena Yvon, who is a poet by heart, recited an ancient prophecy found in Bede:

“While stands the Colosseum Rome shall stand. When falls the Colosseum Rome shall fall and when Rome falls with it shall fall the world.”

The Italian told us the Colosseum held more than 50,000 people, that it was faced with marble and that the arena could be flooded for naval battles.

“The emperor sat over there,” he said. “Senators and chief officials there. Through those two archways gladiators entered and from there wild beasts were released.”

We sat at the edge of the arena looking at the wooden cross which was erected to the early Christians who had died here. The ghosts of the Romans arose from the dust of centuries and filled the great amphitheatre, which seemed so real in the witching light of the moon. A gladiatorial combat was in progress and a howl rose from the crowd as a man fell wounded, his blood flowing on the wooden floor of the arena. In the imperial box a thumb turned down.

The crunch of boots brought us back to the present. Two American soldiers stood beside us, looking across the arena. They said nothing for several minutes and I thought they were probably lost in thoughts as we were.

Then one turned to the other and said, “We got a bigger place than this in Philadelphia,” and they both walked out.