Our Mothers at War: a collection of essays about heroic women during WWII
We include here a sample chapter from our book that typifies the kind of story our book relays. We believe this sample anecdote and other memoirs of women we interviewed will answer many of the questions citizens all over the world are asking about the "war to end all wars."
We are actively seeking stories about women's experiences during WWII. We are also interested in women's stories from the Korean War, the Vietnam conflict, and Iraqi wars. If you are interested in sharing your story with us, please contact us through the link below, and we will arrange for an interview. Please also understand these stories will be added to ours and compiled into an e-book, and that your sharing of the story will provide implicit permission to use your story in the e-book.
Laura Ariatti Colonelli: Mid-wife of Padulle
Giovanna Colonelli Lammers smiles with pride as she enters the tapestry-lined dining room of her suburban Michigan home. In her hands is a red velvet box, worn from multiple handlings over the years. She leans over and opens the lid to expose a copper medal the size of a Kennedy half dollar. On it is the seal of the city of Bologna, Italy: two deer holding flags around a shield. She tells us it is one of her most cherished possessions, a posthumous honor awarded her mother, Laura Ariatti Colonelli, some 25 years ago, shortly after she died unexpectedly of a stroke. Holding the medal gently between her thumb and forefinger, she develops a far away look as she recites the story of how her mother earned the honor during World War II on the outskirts of her hometown of Bologna in the region of Emilia, where she served as a midwife. As Giovanna begins, it becomes clear that she has heard this story many times from many sources, her mother's version the most modest. It is one of many unique experiences of living through a cataclysmic event. Giovanna begins with some background about the war:
“The year of 1943 had been particularly bad for the Italians. The Italian army disbanded and joined the Allied forces, which my family was happy about, but the bombing continued, and food was scarcer than at any time during the war. My father, Armando, returned home frail and ill after having his teeth pulled to avoid African service, a particularly terrifying assignment in the Great War. I was afraid of Father at first because he looked old, had no teeth, and was sick for a long period of time. Mother, always in the role of nurse, concocted one of her usual home remedies using lemon juice and a potion mixed with sugar and wine. This enabled Father to regain his health.
The countryside was filling with refugees from the cities. Bologna was bombed until the last day of the war because it was a key transportation center. Mother, forced to serve a swelling population with limited supplies and transportation possessed only one rickety bike with very weak tubes. She often had to stop to pump them up at every lamp post. As the area's only certified midwife, she delivered babies everywhere: in bomb shelters, grain silos, and stables. One experience in particular led to the receipt of this award.
Toward the end of the war, a young woman in the middle of a very difficult labor had to be transported by my mother and the patient's husband to a hospital ten miles away. On the way, a bombardment started which forced them off the road into the woods. The patient, suffering a placenta previa, needed a transfusion to keep her alive long enough to reach a hospital. Since my mother's blood type was O negative, she knew it would be compatible with her patient's. She immediately set up a transfusion under the worst of conditions: no water was available to sterilize instruments, and bombs rained down on those trying to make their way to a safe haven. No shelter was obtainable, so with the help of the woman's husband, who applied a tourniquet, Mother sucked the blood out of her own arm in quantities enough to transfuse the patient. As the bombing stopped, my mother knew she had kept this woman alive, but she regarded it as no more than her duty as a nurse. Twenty years later, that woman told her story to Bologna city officials, and my mother was given a prestigious honor: the official seal of the city….
Part Two of Laura Ariatti Colonelli: Mid-wife of Padulle, Italy (from Our Mothers at War)
My mother, a talented poet, told similar stories in great detail. In one, she described precisely the tiny wail of a newborn, which broke the momentary silence in the woods outside Bologna, Italy. Bombs, falling during the entire labor and delivery, had exploded at random, she said, throughout the Italian countryside. A few close calls had flung dirt and stones over what she described as a make-shift delivery room hastily erected under a canopy of trees. As Mother slumped in exhaustion from the difficult delivery, she recalled how the sight of the new mother with the babe sleeping at her breast reminded her of so many other births over the years prior to this one in 1943.
Mother remembered wiping the blood and debris from the red cross stitched on the cape she had earlier spread over the rocky terrain in the woods. Many times she mentioned how ironic it was that her own mother had worked so hard to teach all of her children that there was more to life than working in the fields. Yet here she was, using the education her mother sacrificed to provide, covered in dirt and muck, looking worse than any field worker.
As the bombing resumed and the explosions became louder, the new mother, clutching her tiny baby, whimpered in fear. She moved restlessly, my mother recounted, worrying about the safety of her baby and whether she would ever see her husband again. Each time bombs would fall around her, Mother cursed in Italian and then fell to her knees to say an act of contrition. Moving to her patient’s side, my mother tried to distract her by saying in a soothing voice, ‘God will take care of us. We’re in His hands.’ She patted her agitated patient on the arm and wiped the tears from her cheeks, speaking softly not to wake the sleeping baby. Settling on the cape next to the mother and her newborn, Mother told her about her own family history to keep her from focusing on the horror all around.”
Here, Giovanna stops to sip her tea and points to a picture of the “Famiglia Ariatti” as she repeats the proud family history her mother recited and that Giovanna has memorized.
"It was a long arduous journey from a farm near a small town to life as a midwife in Padulle. My mother, Laura Ariatti Colonelli, was born in 1912 into a family of 4 girls and 3 boys. Her mother, my maternal grandmother, was Maria Manzi, another in a line of ambitious, intelligent Italian women, who placed a great deal of emphasis on the importance of education. She saw that there was more to life than working in the fields. As a result of wanting a better life for her children, especially the boys, Grandmother invited a spinster into her home to teach her children everything she knew. In exchange, she promised to take care of her until her death.
Her brother Giorgio, who was studying to become a priest, sent his textbooks to the my mother’s family once he finished with them. Although the arrangement was made mostly for the boys in the family, my mother proved more intelligent and learned quicker than her brothers. Her one desire was to be a teacher, but she could not pass the math classes necessary for certification. While at school she discovered she could go to nurse’s training, and with one more year, could become a midwife. Working to pay for her schooling by sewing army uniforms, she stayed one more year to work at a hospital to care for orphans. This is where Mother learned to care for pediatric patients.
After this, she competed for her first government job as a midwife. It was based on experience and test scores, but was one which would give her an assured salary. Her first job at age 23 was in the region of Marche, in the mountains, in an area so remote, it took a three hour trip by donkey to reach the city and three hours back if she wished to return home. Because of her lack of experience, Mother had to start there. Since she was so young, nobody trusted her. However, there was an extremely high mortality rate in this area. The prior midwife, in order to survive, worked in a tannery and often went directly from the job to a patient, without washing herself or sterilizing her instruments. Because my mother was careful to boil everything that came in contact with any patient during a delivery, her first patients and their babies survived. One by one, other women came to her for their deliveries. Mother worked there for 18 months before her promotion to Sant’Elpidio.
Mother told me of another pregnant woman in the same town, the wife of a famous doctor, who moved to a farm they owned in the country to escape the daily bombardment in the city. She was terrified she would have to deliver in such impoverished conditions. She told my mother later, ‘The country people reassured me by saying, ‘Don’t worry, we have a good woman here.’
Upon her return to Bologna, Mother re-met Armando Colonelli, the brother of a fellow classmate in midwife school. They fell in love and married in 1940. Armando, my father, started a job at City Hall as an Inspector of City Buildings. Following in his own father’s political footsteps, a man who was a strong anti-fascist, he was not interested in being a part of Mussolini’s army, but he was drafted in 1940 and left his little family to serve in the army far away from home. This forced my mother to find a home which would eventually house both of us until my father’s return.
Typical of her generosity, Mother refused the apartment which she learned came with her new job but instead gave it to a widow with small children. She searched for a place for our own family and eventually moved into a ghetto in Padulle. Thirteen families lived around a courtyard with one outhouse, chickens walking around, and pig sties lining the edges of the stone buildings. Despite the primitive surroundings, Mother claimed moving there was the best thing that ever happened to her. She always reminded me, ‘When one door is closed, a bigger one will open.’ Although she was alone with me, still a baby, there she had unlimited baby-sitters to use when she was called out during the day or the night. When a call came, she would plop me in a basket on the handlebars of her bike and knock on doors until she could find a baby-sitter who would be home the next day in case she was gone all night. In this way, I was a child of the ghetto.
Because supplies were rationed, Mother collected and paid for her own instruments. She placed everything in a suitcase, protecting the leather with a cover. She was readily identified by the residents of the area, who by this time had given their trust to the woman with the suitcase. This eventually became a family heirloom, one we still have today.
Difficult as they were, I remember these years fondly. Like her mother, my mother decided education was the key to eliminating poverty. One family of five orphans was a special project of Mother’s. She taught them and the other children everything she knew, especially languages. Most people in the ghetto tried to learn as much as they could.
Mother also tried to add a touch of elegance to their ceremonies. Up to this time because of the poverty in the ghetto, weddings were very routine, celebrated with only a glass of wine and maybe a cookie to mark the special day. She changed this by writing a poem to the bride, which I delivered with flowers, and the bride then carried to the ceremony. Sometimes, it was something simple such as starting, ‘They told me today you will be a bride….’ My mother also added hot chocolate as a special treat before the bridal couple toured the cemetery to visit the graves of deceased relatives. When she could, she added a festive touch by styling the bride’s hair in curls or adding arrangements of tulle. Regardless of the poverty, it became something special before the bridal party returned to the routine of their work in the fields the next day. The people repaid us a million times over by becoming a support system for us, which enabled Mother to continue her duties as a midwife. I still keep in contact with some of them. Today, these people are closer to me today than many of my own relatives.
The people my family did not want to become close to were the Germans who occupied the city, causing grief to us all. One soldier moved into our house in Bologna. One evening, as we sat around, someone said, ‘Teach us a dance.’ Since I was only two and a half, I often mixed up my words, saying I wanted to see the ‘Danza Partigiana,’ meaning “freedom-fighter,” instead of using the almost identical sounding correct term ‘Danza Marchigiana,’ a folk dance we would use as entertainment in the evenings. Upon hearing ‘Partigiana,’ the German soldier froze and looked at us suspiciously. He reported to his superiors that he felt our family was supporting the partisans. As a result, the Germans put the house under constant surveillance.
We were followed everywhere, but Mother continued on with her work. Because of her job, she was able to move quite freely, and actually often did carry secret messages, hidden in ways the Germans did not discover, such as baked into the middle of loaves of bread. Her red cross kept her safe from the fire of partisan snipers, but not necessarily the German ones.”
Giovanna stops, looking at a picture of her father in a group of newly released Italian soldiers. One, in a dejected stance, had a cigarette dangling from his mouth. It brings back another story, this time of post war Italy.
“After the war, the Allied troops took over the city. The same buildings, which had once been occupied by German soldiers, were restored for the Allies. Father remembers the Americans as the best to work for and the British as the stingiest. One story is that of a British officer whose jeep with a steaming radiator was pulled to the side of the road. Father offered to walk two miles to get water for the officer. When he returned with the water, after a four mile trip, he asked, ‘Could I have some cigarettes?’ The British officer gave him ONE cigarette.”
Some years later Giovanna would exchange similar post war stories with a young man she met who became her first serious boyfriend. A shy smile appears as she continues.
“Riding to singing lessons with the most successful voice teacher in Italy, I was attracted to the singer from Modena named Luciano. Our friendship became closer to romance as we spent several days a week for four years traveling to our voice teacher, sharing stories of the war and of our love for music. This man had a good voice at that time but not a great one. It was his time spent working with Joan Sutherland in Australia where my good friend Luciano Pavarotti learned what it takes to move into the realm of greatness. Years later, I saw Pavarotti whenever he comes to the Midwest, and he always asked me to join him backstage after a concert.”
A slight flush of modesty covers her face as Giovanna finishes her story and pours steaming Earl Grey tea from her white and gold porcelain teapot, one she brought back from her native country. She is careful not to spill any drop on the photo albums filled with black and white pictures of her family, memories of growing up in Padulle. The music of Pavarotti is in the background, selected carefully from the oak shelves lined with literally hundreds of albums. She listens for a moment, then tells of her invitation to Naples in the next few weeks to sing at a wedding in the cathedral. She laments that her mother’s premature death prevents her from seeing her daughter perform in this setting. However, she takes comfort from the fact that her mother, optimistic by nature, espoused the belief that “All bad things don’t come to hurt.”
Laura Ariatti Colonelli had survived the trauma of a war, grueling nursing classes, rigorous tests for promotions, complicated births and horrifying deaths. Her own, ironically, came from a stroke, suffered shortly before her own retirement, while she was bending over a crib to change the diapers of yet another baby. Like her mother, Giovanna’s golden years now consist of helping others as her mother had: through her teaching, volunteerism, artistic endeavors, and even cooking. Life has come full circle for this child of Laura Colonelli, a legend as the midwife of Padulle.