A LETTER FROM THE PAST

THE EMOTIONAL TRUTH BEHIND FAMILY HISTORY

My family has recently been exploring our Italian heritage; sharing photos, family trees and anecdotes in a WhatsApp group. There is so much that each of us holds separately: memories scattered across the globe like a jigsaw. Some stories I have never heard, others I have forgotten until prompted. Brothers and sisters, cousins I haven’t seen since childhood; nieces and nephews, second cousins, great nieces and nephews, all holding fragments of the story.

One story in particular has intrigued us all.

It is the story of my Aunt Rose, my father, Rocco’s sister. Dad had told us that his younger sister, Rose died when she was 17. He was just a year older and heartbroken by her death. And then we found a letter she wrote to her father Nazarene, dated July 1941.

The letter was addressed from
Convict 103, Concentration Camp,
in which she says,
‘I turn sweet 17 on Friday.’

This story really set the hares racing; was she a prisoner? What had she done? Why was she in a concentration camp and where? It was all speculation at best as there is no-one left to verify the story. And so we speculated on WhatsApp, each adding what recollections we have; each making up our own version of the story.

My son had found records of a ship – The Arandora Star – which was sunk by a German u-boat in WWII. It was carrying German and Italian enemy aliens to Canada, under Defence Regulation 18B. 

There was a passenger on board with our family name. But it was not Rose.

As far as we know, our family was not interned. Although we were not considered to be enemy’s by the state, however, the locals had a different idea and the family ice cream business collapsed overnight. Rationing came later and would have curtailed the business anyway. But the bricks though the windows of the shop and family home in Salford happened immediately. The neighbours had turned against the popular Italian community overnight. 

During WWI, my grandfather Nazarene had proven his loyalty to Britain by fighting in the Italian Army alongside the allies, against fascism.

History matters. It provides perspective even though it is written by the victors. Working class history is often not written at all; it is held, like ours in the fallible memories of those who come later and must be pieced together through photos, letters and recollections.

Rose was not interned in a concentration camp. Our collective conclusion about the truth of this story is based on the facts we know and in between those facts lies the emotional truth.

Our grandmother, Maria Rosa, died at the age of 48 of tuberculosis having borne 12 children. Half of those, Rose included, didn’t make it into adulthood; accidental death, infant mortality, tuberculosis and extreme poverty claimed them. 

Tuberculosis claimed Rose shortly after her 17th birthday.

From this information we have concluded that the concentration camp referred to in Rose’s letter was in fact a Sanatorium. In order to manage the spread of TB, those suffering from the disease were moved into special hospitals in the countryside for treatment, fresh air and isolation from others. Before antibiotics, it was a highly contagious killer disease.

Convict 103 was how Rose must have felt about being locked up; as a teenager on the threshold of her adult life it must have felt like she had been interned in a prison camp. It also demonstrates her gallows humour in the face of death.

In a heartbreaking passage from the letter, Rose says that she would definitely be in bed for her 17th birthday as she had been spitting up blood.

She died 2 month later, aged 17.

I feel close to Rose and her story and I would love to know more about who she was. My father chose Rose as my middle name; he used to speak of her with love and I wish he was still around to tell us more about this, and the many other stories of our family.

Write Your Life

Published by Anita Belli

Author and Creative Writing Tutor. Novels: Divas, Dogs & Dreamers. Once Upon A Blue Moon. Ruby Sixpence Whistles Up A Storm. The Traveller & The Rose. The Art Forger's Daughter. Non-Fiction: How to be An Author in the Classroom. Write Your Life. Kickstart Your Writing. Unlock The Block. For Children: A Month of Writing Adventure

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