Clelia Bertolami was cleaning out a cupboard in her home when she stumbled across a memory from her past.
It was a copy of a certificate, awarded to her late mother after the Second World War by the supreme commander of the Allied forces in the Mediterranean, Field-Marshall H.R. Alexander.
The certificate says it is a “token of appreciation” for the help Clelia’s mother, Rosa Turri, gave to sailors, soldiers and airmen of the British Commonwealth during the war, which helped them escape from and evade capture by German forces in Italy during the war.
Clelia, now 92, remembers that effort. She helped her mom and her cousin Sisto shelter the soldiers briefly near their home in Pontecosi, Italy as the war was coming to an end.
From the location of her grandparents’ farm in the Italian Tuscan countryside, Clelia said they could see the retreating German soldiers, who were rounding up men in the Italian villages as they went through.
Rosa would later write in a brief history of her time during the war that she felt compelled to help, despite dangers posed not only to her life, but also the lives of Clelia and her nephew.
“With all the horror of the war, there were some good people, too,” said Clelia this week at her home in Kelowna when asked about her life during the war in her home country of Italy.
Clelia’s cousin Sisto was a member of the Partisans, a resistance movement in Italy during the war, and he helped the British soldiers escape over the border and out of Italy.
Looking back, Clelia said she remembers her mom making tea for the British soldiers. But at first, they were too suspicious drink it.
“They wouldn’t drink it until we did,” said.
Shortly after the war ended in Europe, Clelia’s mom was called to the town hall in Pontecosi and was presented with the certificate by a British officer and awarded 1,000 Italian lira (the currency at the time) to “compensate” for helping the British soldiers.
The incident was just part of an eventful and frightening time during the war for Clelia and her mother.
When war broke out they, along with Clelia’s dad, were living in London, where they owned and ran an Italian restaurant.
When Italy declared war on Britain, Clelia’s dad was one of hundreds of Italian men in Britain rounded up and sent to a camp on the Isle of Man. He was held there for seven years.
Alone and scared, Rosa and Clelia stayed in their home in London for the first few weeks of the war with only candles for light, hiding behind the blacked out windows and surviving on rationed food.
“My daughter was just terrorized day and night,” wrote Rosa. “Often at the sound of an air raid siren, we had only a few minutes to equip ourselves with gas masks and take refuge in a bomb shelter. Sometimes instead of saving lives, gas and water explosions in the shelters cause death and people were buried alive.”
Rosa decided to apply to the Italian embassy for help and she and her daughter travelled by ship back to her home country, where they were taken in by Clelia’s grandparents on their farm in Pontecosi. They lived there until the war ended.
In the early 1950s, Clelia, by then a trained teacher, her husband, young son and her mother all emigrated to Canada and came straight to Kelowna where she had an uncle, an aunt and two cousins.
She got a job as a teacher and taught English to primary school students for 28 years, most of the time at Bankhead elementary.
Looking back at her time during the war, she laments the terrible loss of life and the horror and trauma of conflict.
And she worries about what is happening in the world today.
“There is so much hatred going on in the world,” she said.
But, with Remembrance Day coming up, she said she hopes remembering the past and learning from it can help make the future better.
“It’s not easy in this life. You have to accept the bad with the good.”
And when she thinks back to the help her mom gave those three British soldiers, she’s proud to say her mom contributed to the good.
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