Tuesday, February 12, 2013

For The Lost of February '44 - PART II

For The Lost of February '44 - Part II: Seeking the Truth

One of my earliest memories is of a large framed photograph of Damiano leaning against boxes as we moved into a new home when I was around two years old.  When my father and grandmother lived in Molfetta, this photo had a prominent place beside a lit candle with other photographs of the dearly departed.  The tradition ceased in our household upon my grandmother's arrival in America, and the photo was respectfully stored away.  Nonetheless, Damiano's memory remained a strong presence.  My father and grandmother would occasionally speak of my grandfather's loss.  The most common theories shared was that he was placed on a boat by the Nazis who then sank it with explosives in retribution for his perceived treachery.  I now know that murderous revenge was the only logic they could project onto the vague information received from the Italian Ministry of Defense.  It was the closest thing to closure that they would be allowed for decades.

Since I was the first born male in a traditional Italian family, there was little debate over what I would be named.  As I grew up as Damiano's namesake, I would occasionally wonder about his fate and its impact on my family.  Had he lived, would I have paternal aunts, uncles, and first-cousins?  Would my family have come to America at all or just stayed in Italy?  Would I even exist?  However, one question was most prevalent: What really happened to him?  As I entered my early 30s, I was struck with the realization that I had reached the same age as Damiano at the time of his disappearance.  I just decided that learning the truth was worth a shot, and I had nothing to lose by simply trying.

First Steps

I started where most searches for information commence in the modern age: Google.  I just entered basic search terms based on the little information I had, such as shipwreck, February 11 1944, Rhodes and refined my searches from there.  Suddenly, I was surfing through forums and websites dedicated to diving, shipwrecks, and maritime disasters.  Using my functional grasp of Italian, I sifted through whatever information I could find online about Italian soldiers during World War II, Italian prisoners of war, and World War II campaigns in the Aegean.  I even found myself using tools like Google Translate to piece together information from Greek websites.  In time, I made several crucial discoveries:
  • The Oria - The steamship Oria left Rhodes on February 11, 1944 carrying over 4,000 Italian prisoners of war captured by the Nazis.  It's destination was Piraeus on the Greek mainland where the prisoners would be transported to prison camps.  However, in the early hours of February 12, during an intense storm, the ship hit a reef while navigating shallow waters along the island of Patroklou.  When I first learned about the Oria, most of the information was anecdotal and lacked documented evidence.  
  • Aristotelis "Telis" Zervoudis - In the early 2000s, Telis, a Greek diver, began to make inquiries into the debris of a shipwreck in Cape Sounion.  In addition, to collecting local information in Greece, he reached out across the globe for any relevant data available.  If it weren't for Telis, we may never have learned the truth, and we all owe him a great debt.
  • Serendipity Happens - Call it a lucky coincidence, but before long, I began to encounter others on a similar quest.  Each of us bore similar scraps of information concerning a lost relative who had been stationed in Rhodes, and in all our stories, the date February 11th or 12th, 1944, somehow played a significant role.  One of us started a Facebook group, which for a long period had less than half a dozen members.  As of this writing, it will soon surpass 150.

Seeking Documentation

Upper-left section of Damiano's registro di leva

In the meantime, I began to collect any documentation available.  I started by asking my parents to provide me with whatever documents my grandmother may have left for us.  My greatest challenge was wrestling with my angst towards the infamy of Italian bureaucracy.  I knew that I had to reach out to the Italian State Archives for official military documents, but tales of delays, runarounds, and indifference dissuaded me for longer than I would like to admit.  I finally overcame my aversion by using advice I found online, such as within this thread on the forum.  Once again, I learned that you only gain when you try, and what I gained was an unexpectedly intimate glimpse into the past, particularly within Damiano's "registro di leva". (conscription records).  Besides standard information like date of birth, parentage, and hometown, a registro di leva may also include very unique, personal details about a draftee.  Traits that further humanized my grandfather and weren't evident in black and white photos.  For example, I learned that Damiano was almost 5.5 feet (1.67 meters) tall.  Therefore, he was no giant by modern standards though his contemporaries may have disagreed.  His hair and eyes were brown, and he had a "rosy" complexion with a "Greek" nose.  The record itemized his military activities from shipping out from Barletta to Rhodes as part of the 35th Artillery Regiment to its haunting conclusion.  To paraphrase, it abruptly ends stating that he was imprisoned by the Germans on September 11, 1943, and by all accounts, he comported himself honorable.  No additional details were provided.

Last entry in Damiano's conscription records.
With no details of his fate, shipwreck or not, I felt as though I was back at square one.  My mind played with all kinds of fanciful scenarios. Perhaps my grandfather didn't die.  Maybe he escaped the prison camps and decided to start a new life on a Greek island like characters in the 1991 Academy Award winning Italian film Mediterraneo.  Both instinct and reason told me otherwise, but only documented proof could provide validation.

In the meantime, our small band of researchers began to grow as other descendants of Italian soldiers with similar ambiguous fates began to surface in response to posts on message boards, Facebook, and other social media.   Individuals from websites, such as Dodecaneso, and formal organizations, such as Associazione Nazionale Divisione Aqui, began to generously offer counsel and resources to facilitate our quest.  However, the Italian government kept us at a distance with diplomatic and often condescending responses.  Undeterred, we kept searching and asking questions.  We held onto the shaky belief that some form of official record must exist if a shipwreck of this magnitude occurred, even amidst the chaos of war.  However, the probability of an actual list of prisoners transported on the ship coming to light seemed the slimmest likelihood of all.

Our turning point arrived in the fall of 2010,  The International Committee of the Red Cross responded with what we saw as our Holy Grail.  The Germans had in fact created an extensive report about the shipwreck, and it included a list of passengers.  The list consisted of 4,116 lost on 64 pages in PDF form.  Almost overcome with emotion, we each combed through the list name by name.  Finally, this was the opportunity my family had been anticipating for over six decades!  When I reached the final page without recognizing my grandfather's name, I just sat staring at my computer screen.  Once again feeling that I was back at the beginning, my only consolation was that perhaps other members of my group would find the closure that they deserved.  I wrote to our email distribution list to share my mixed emotions and offer my continued support.  My plan was to put everything aside for a while and start fresh when inspiration struck me.  However, the next morning everything changed once again

Damiano's misspelled name on the Oria passenger list.
Why I expected Damiano's name to simply jump out at me is a question which embarrasses me to this day.  Had I read the list just one more time, I would probably have caught the obvious. Nonetheless, one of my research colleagues, Barbara, responded almost immediately to point out that De Virgilio Daniano was misspelled on the list as Di Virginio Damiano. To say I was ecstatic and relieved would be an understatement.  However, I also could not help but wonder how much this meager two letter typo had contributed to the mystery through the years.

Today is the 69th anniversary of the Oria shipwreck.  While no memorial has been erected and artifacts and human remains still lay along the bottom of the Aegean, various members of our group are taking steps to ensure that the date does not pass forgotten.   This includes a brief piece on the Italian television show La Vita in Diretta on Rai Uno.  In my next and final post in this series, I will share the successes and challenges faced as we try to make up for almost seven lost decades and counting.

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