Walking in the Footsteps of the Righteous

Heroes crop up in the most unlikely places. And we certainly had not been expecting to come across one as part of a Sunday morning hike in the gently rolling hills between Tolentino and San Ginesio just to the north of the Sibillini Mountains and about thirty kilometres south-west of our place.

These hikes normally take us to some of Le Marche’s more remote and rugged corners, up where the wind is brisk and the air is cool. And on this particular Sunday, when the whole country was tightly swaddled within a steamy blanket of suffocating heat, we could certainly have done with a few hours in one of those fresher corners. But on this occasion, starting from just outside the tiny village of Camporotondo at a pretty agriturismo (whose owner, Luca, was our guide for the day), our hike took us along well-used gravel tracks and even tarmac-ed roads, past fields of wheat and sunflowers and through groves of olive, fig and cherry trees, seldom climbing higher than 300m above sea level. There was method in the untimely choice of routes, however. On this particular hike, one of the organisers, Franco, had invited along members of a local cultural group in which he is also a leading light. This group has a particular interest in the Marchigian poet, Tullio Colsalvatico, who was born at his family’s farm in the nearby hamlet of Colvenale in 1901. Since Colsalvatico had drawn much of his inspiration for his poems from the local landscape, the idea was to intersperse the walk with readings from his works, with the intention that landscape and poetry should illuminate and enrich each other.

At this point I should mention that neither Mr Blue-Shirt nor I had heard of Tullio Colsalvatico, our limited knowledge of Italian poets not really extending beyond Dante, Primo Levi and Giacomo Leopardi (and we only know anything about him because he was born just across the valley from us in Recanati). Added to which, our Italian language skills are not yet at a level that enabled us to appreciate fully the finer points of Colsalvatico’s poetry. But the brief readings nonetheless provided us with moments of stillness and repose in which to contemplate the splendour of the surrounding countryside (as well as find a patch of shade and take a few swigs of water) as we let the beautiful music and richness of the language wash over us.

The final reading – for which the longest poem had been selected – was conducted at the highest point of the walk on a grassy ridge that to the south gave over the Tenna valley – and on to a wall of solid heat haze behind which lurked the northern crags of the Sibillini, and to the north over the Chienti valley – and a matching wall of heat haze that concealed the distinctive forest-clad mound of the Cònero Peninsular. Beneath the hot, colourless sky in which the sun appeared as no more than a pale blur, we eased our rucksacks from our sweat-drenched backs and drained the last tepid drops from our water bottles as we strained to catch the words of the poem before they were scattered on the sultry breeze. After a polite round of applause at the end of the reading, few of us were able to conceal our relief when Franco announced that it was lunchtime.

We descended to a dense copse of oak trees in whose welcome shade we gratefully plonked down and enjoyed a leisurely (socially-distanced) picnic lunch. This had been ferried up to us by Franco’s wife Silvana and Luca’s son Tobias, and consisted of local organic meats and cheeses, artisan bread and locally grown fruit, all washed down with young white wine from Luca’s organic vineyard. As we finished our picnic, Franco, an enthusiastic and loquacious Colsalvatico expert, filled us in on the poet’s life-story.

Now, I have to confess that Mr Blue-Shirt and I were a tad ‘Tullio-ed out’ by this stage. In all honesty, we would probably have preferred to spend the break getting to know our fellow walkers a little better, or even having a brief post-lunch snooze before winding our way back down to the agriturismo. So we did rather zone out, keeping just half an ear on proceedings while picking at the remains of our hearty lunch and conducting our exchanges sotto voce as Franco held forth.
“… father sent him to agricultural college in Fabriano… love of books and literature…”
“Pass me just one more bit of that yummy prosciutto, will you?”
“…deeply religious… abiding love of the land and those who work it…”
“Do you want any more of Luca’s wine? It’s rather good, isn’t it.”
“… published his first collection of poems when he was just eighteen…”
“Ow! Something’s just bitten me…”
“… interested in left-wing politics… moved to Rome but often returned to Colvenale…”
“I must ask Silvana where that fantastic bread came from.”
“…journalism and short stories as well as poetry…”
“Look! I think Primo has nodded off…”
“…always a passionate champion of Le Marche… role in setting up what became the Monti Sibillini National Park…”
“Stelvio has too, by the look of it… ”
“…a vocal critic of Mussolini… became involved in the resistance….helped organise shelter and safe passage for partisans in these very hills…”
I perked up a little at that.
“Oh, that’s interesting. I’d love to know more about the partigiani in Le Marche…”
“But it wasn’t only partigiani that he helped shelter…”

Franco had got my full attention now.
“By late summer 1943, with conditions for Jews becoming harsher by the day and the bombing of Rome growing every more likely, a certain Cesare Di Tivoli had decided it was becoming too dangerous for him, his wife Ester and their three children Fiorella, Emma and David to remain in Rome’s ancient ghetto. He chose a village near Tolentino to evacuate everyone to, not only because it was in faraway Le Marche, but also because a Jewish woman they knew had been transferred there by the authorities and given the status of ‘free inmate’.”
“That was good timing – it must have been just before Italy surrendered, surely…? ”
“Dunno,” shrugged Mr Blue-Shirt.
“As soon as the Nazis’ occupied Rome after the surrender that September…”
“…thought so…”
“… other members of Di Tivoli’s family decided to join Cesare and Ester in Le Marche. But to the Di Tivolis’ dismay, only a few weeks later, the local Comandante of the Caribinieri received orders to arrest all the Jews in the area. Colsalvatico knew the Di Tivoli family and understood the danger they were in so advised them all to flee, but promised that he would help them. Over the following days he organised high quality false identity papers for all twenty-four of Cesare’s family and also arranged shelter for them with families in several different villages around Tolentino and Camporotondo.”

And there they all stayed for the rest of the war, effectively hiding in plain sight, partly thanks to the convincing new identities their forged papers enabled them to create, and partly by becoming regular church-goers and participating in local Christian rites and festivals. Colsalvatico, meanwhile, continued to oversee their welfare and to protect them from the reach of the authorities. On one occasion he saved Cesare’s then seven-year-old daughter Fiorella from certain capture by swiftly moving her to another village when German forces entered the village where she had been staying.

Only when the Di Tivoli family returned to Rome at the end of the war did they realise how fortunate they had been to have had the help of such a courageous friend as Colsalvatico. With the clearing of the ghetto in late 1943, their homes had been wrecked and plundered and two thousand of their neighbours had been deported, most of them to perish in Auschwitz, while the remaining six thousand of Rome’s Jewish population continued to live in hiding and under constant threat of discovery until the liberation of the city in June 1944.

“The thing is,” said Franco, “the story of Colsalvatico’s rescue of the Di Tivoli family only came to light in 2006.”
Everyone sat up. “Did he say 2006??” we all asked one another.
“Yes,” confirmed Franco. “Remember Fiorella, the seven-year-old daughter who had to flee when the Germans arrived? Well, she and her family emigrated to Israel at some point. But even though she was now in her eighties, she had never forgotten her wartime experience in the hills of Le Marche, or the poet who had saved her and the other twenty-three members of her family, and she wanted to have his bravery recognised.”

So after three years of rigorous and meticulous research, the details of Fiorella’s story were confirmed. And on 30th March 2009, and twenty-nine years after his death, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem officially recognised Tullio Colsalvatico as Righteous Among the Nations.

Photo courtesy of http://www.colsalvatico.it

The Righteous Among Nations are defined by Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, as non-Jews who during the Holocaust put themselves at risk to save the lives of Jews without any personal benefit to themselves. They currently number 27,712 individuals from 51 different nations. Italy has the 7th largest number of Righteous Among Nations, with 734 of its citizens having been awarded this title since the programme started in 1963. For more information, please visit https://www.yadvashem.org/righteous.html

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