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World War II. This is the story of Giuseppe Bassi, one of the few survivors of the Italian Campaign in Russia, who, captured by the Soviets in 1942, was imprisoned in the concentration camps of Tambov, Oranki and Suzdal and returned to Italy a year and a half after the end of the war.
Katerina, a woman of Russian origin, has lived for many years in Mestre, a large town in the Venetian hinterland. She is 45 years old, has a barely perceptible eastern accent, lives in an apartment on the outskirts of the city and teaches in an elementary school. Her memories take us back to the day she met Giuseppe Bassi, a sprightly centenarian who took part in the Russian Campaign during World War II.
Katerina retraces the times she met with Giuseppe and brings to mind the moments they shared, his words and his story that, little by little, takes shape in her story-telling.
Giuseppe Bassi: a man with blue and smiling eyes that tell a painful journey through time in a cold and searing Russia between 1941 and 1946.
The last century generation that can still meet the gaze of contemporary generations.
Giuseppe Bassi was born in Villanova di Camposampiero in 1919. He is one of the few survivors of the Italian Campaign in Russia.
In February 1942, he arrived in Russia as Second Lieutenant of the 120th Motorized Artillery Regiment, Celere Division.
Captured by the Soviets on Christmas eve 1942 in Arbuzovka, the "valley of death", he was imprisoned in Tambov, Oranki and then Suzdal. After breathing the cold of four winters, he returned to Italy in the summer of 1946.
Today he is 101 years old and has a clear mind, vivid memories and an intense spirit.
A man whose life was turned upside-down in December of 1942, when he lost his freedom and became a "slave without dignity”. After his capture, endless marches in an icy winter began. Without food or water, eating snow, a few crusts of bread and pieces of iced vegetables furtively picked from the fields, Bassi and the other prisoners endured endless hours of walking, with equally endless suffering.
In the frosty nights of the marches, many did not make it, their bodies became as hard as marble, and many died silently without even realizing it, surrounded by frost. Others were shot only because they collapsed to the ground, exhausted.
After his capture, Giuseppe and the others were deeply tried by the marches and the long journeys on freight trains in inhumane conditions, as well as by the imprisonment in Tambov and Oranki.
Resignation and pain overwhelmed so many men. However, Bassi endured, always. Of the 70,000 Armir soldiers who were made captive in Russia, only 14% managed to return home. An even more dramatic tragedy when compared to the percentage of Italian soldiers returning from other European countries, which is normally between 91% and 99%.
In the camps, hunger becomes "a real disaster" and the relationship with food obsessive. Men become skeletons and increasingly obsessed with getting something to eat. The stories of the survivors who came from other camps, especially those from Hrenovoe, told of madness and horrors, episodes of cannibalism, where any trace of humanity ceased to exist. In this universe of nothing, there were few glimmers of light…
Typhus, lice and malnutrition exterminate the most. In 1943, many died, but Bassi was as strong as a bull. One of the only seven prisoners who never got sick.
Searches, forced labour, threats, humiliation and the risk of being killed for trivial reasons. Everyday life unfolded around fear, fatigue and nothingness.
Being always at the mercy of the winner, a slavery made up of orders and discipline. A prison that no one could leave if not dead.
Italians, Romanians, Hungarians, Spanish, Germans... were all the same in this absurd adventure, sometimes as accomplices and sometimes as traitors.
During his imprisonment Giuseppe had become “Bassil’ora” (Bassi the time): the only holder of a watch repeatedly hidden from the Russians, which marked the time, recalling the habits of everyday life in a place made of constant uncertainty.
On 30 November 1943, after several days of travel, Bassi and other officers reached the former monastery of Suzdal, desecrated by the communists and turned into "camp 160". Here the living conditions improved considerably and, a year and a half later, on 8 May 1945, the news finally arrived from the speaker of the camp: the war was over. It seems absurd, but it will be over a year before Giuseppe Bassi returns home. Why?
He and other officers remained segregated in the concentration camp even after the end of the war.
Another act of violence that was perpetrated to indoctrinate, to continue the communist propaganda and silence the voices of those who would otherwise have told about the hell of the Russian Campaign.
On 27 April 1946, the time had come for Giuseppe to return home. In Villanova life resumed its course, but his soul was no longer the same.
Forty-two months spent in a world made of nothing, filled only with the worst "humanity". Thousands of lost companions... but despite this, Giuseppe never thought about death. He is a man who, while talking about the dark, manages to bring forth the light; a man who can convey the pain and the aberration of war, yet can see beyond that.
His goal had always been to come back to testify, to tell the fate of all those soldiers sent to the front by the Italian government "to do their duty" and then captured by the enemy, treated as slaves, as a commodity to be discarded, to be then abandoned even by their own government. Men to be silenced, voices to be suppressed.
"Bassil’ora" is a man who joined the army for a sense of civic duty, although he did not agree with the concept of war. He is an optimistic, cheerful and positive spirit. A brilliant mind, with a crystal clear memory. A constant desire to tell, to pass on, not to forget.
In 1996, for the first time, Giuseppe returned to Russia, to Suzdal, together with some other companions and his son. A different journey from the previous one, made of kind gestures, emotion, pain, and amazement at observing how a place can transform itself, losing the disquieting appearance for which it was remembered, and that was imprinted in his mind and every inch of his being.
Here he found his drawings, first used to identify the positions of the mass graves, and then collected in the Suzdal national museum, inside what used to be the concentration camp. A museum that keeps alive the historical memory of what happened. A journey as a metaphor - the positive return - which sums up Bassi’s attitude when he brings back a painful memory with a smile on his face.
The same face on which we can see his infinite joy of having returned among the living and being able to tell the tragedy he experienced. As the only reason to keep on living peacefully is not to forget... and to tell the tragedy of friends and of all the soldiers who perished in that chaos that was the war in Russia.
For me, telling Giuseppe’s story was a way of showing his beautifully strong soul, so full of humanity, despite the many difficulties that he has had to face. This film has helped to support something that is incredibly important to him, a true mission: keeping the memory of a tragedy alive, a tragedy that saw Italian soldiers held prisoner in Russia during the Second World War.
Something that really shocked me and that I never used to think about before is the fact that, on average, between 91% and 96% of prisoners in European countries during the Second World War returned to Italy, whereas only 14% of prisoners in Russia made it home. Just a handful of men compared with the 100,000 who left. This gives an idea of just how inhumane that tragedy really was and yet, nowadays, it does not get much coverage in school books, let alone being talked about enough.
Giuseppe went through some terrible things, he saw men deprived of their dignity, he escaped death on many occasions, and he saw his friends die on many others. He bravely faced imprisonment in the concentration camps and, despite everything, he always tells his story with a smile on his face, to the point that he even justifies his captors: now, he is over one hundred years old and brings a message of peace and brotherhood, at the same time as encouraging the new generations to live in harmony.
Making this film was a way of telling a relatively unknown part of Italy’s military history in Russia and, at the same time, it allowed us to share an extraordinary human story, carrying a positive message - a message of liberation. This story demonstrates how we can overcome any difficulty, with bravery and determination, without ever losing our sense of kindness and lust for life.