On June 5, 1944 – 72 years ago today, and one day before the D-Day invasion of Normandy – American troops, advancing north in Italy, liberated Rome from the Nazis.
I am lucky to have had a personal glimpse of Rome’s liberation from one of my professors at Yale, the late Ivo Lederer.* Fourteen years old on the day of Rome’s liberation, Lederer saw it unfold before his eyes and described it to us one day during a lecture. It was a dramatic lesson on why America won World War II.
Lederer had been born, before the war broke out, to a Jewish family in Zagreb, Croatia. His father, an officer in the defeated Yugoslav army, escaped from an Italian POW camp and managed to take his family to the relative safety of Rome.** However, that safety evaporated overnight in September 1943, after Mussolini’s fall from power, when Italy’s new government surrendered to the advancing Americans and British and turned against its former German ally. Germany promptly occupied the northern two-thirds of Italy, and Jews like Lederer’s family had to go “underground.” Like Anne Frank’s family in Amsterdam, they found a hiding place in the attic of a building overlooking one of the main boulevards leading north out of the city.
As Lederer recounted the story, whenever the family would cautiously peep out a crack in the shutters at the street below, they would always see German troops and military vehicles below them, looking formidable, the soldiers in hobnailed jackboots and the trucks and Mercedes staff cars as impressive as the day they’d begun their occupation. Although they’d heard radio reports of the American advance – and, after a while, the boom of distant artillery – it was impossible for them to imagine a force strong enough to dislodge the impressive German might constantly on display beneath their window.
Then one day they watched the Germans pulling out and heading north. The troops and vehicles were in perfect order. They did not in the least resemble a defeated army. Lederer’s family whispered to each other that they’d soon be back.
All night, there was no movement on the deserted street. At daybreak, as they peered out the window, they saw a lone truck moving up the boulevard from the south, in pursuit, it seemed, of the Germans. It was a beat-up, open truck carrying a handful of Italian partisans bedecked with bandoliers and waving rifles. Some were in bloodied bandages. “THIS is what drove the Germans out?!” the family said to each other.
Several hours passed with no further movement on the street. The Lederers were sure the Germans would shortly be back.
Then a lone jeep appeared, carrying a few GIs, one with a bandaged head, all with open collars. It made a poor contrast with the gleaming Mercedes staff cars and the spit-and-polish of the German troopers. “THIS is what drove the Germans out?!” the family said again.
Then after another hour or two, a column of American troops and vehicles came up the road. Open collars. Soft-soled boots. A distinctly casual look. And once more: “THIS is what drove the Germans out?!”
But that column of GIs, trucks, jeeps and tanks rolled past their window … and kept on rolling. For four days.
The Lederers then understood that the Germans were never coming back.
It was a perfect demonstration of the depth of human and industrial resources that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had in mind when he called this country “the arsenal of democracy.” For me, hearing the story was not just a wonderful history lesson, but a goose flesh moment.
* Lederer taught a course on the history of Eastern Europe and co-taught (with Prof. Firuz Kazemzadeh, one of my all-time favorite profs) the introductory course on Russian history.
** Why would Rome have been safer than Croatia? Because Italy, under Mussolini’s Fascist government, unlike Nazi Germany, dealt relatively gently with Jews. In Croatia, on the other hand, the pro-German puppet government was ferociously anti-Semitic.