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Friederike Felbeck
Coming Through: Tonino Guerra Revisits Forced Labour and Imprisonment in Nazi Germany in his Writing

Tonino Guerra (16 March 1920 – 21 March 2012) was an Italian writer of poetry and prose and an illustrator. He is best known for the screenplays he wrote for directors like Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Theo Angelopoulos and Andrei Tarkovsky. His contribution to European cinema is nothing less than seminal. Newly translated prose and documentary material demonstrates the longevity and reverberation of memory, and reveals an artist contending with lived traumatic experience and its conjugation with his own writing.

As a young man of twenty-two, Tonino Guerra was caught by the German military at his hometown of Santarcangelo di Romagna (Emilia Romagna, Italy). He had returned to his village from a hiding place in the nearby woods in order to to feed his cat, after the alliance between nazi Germany and fascist Italy had broken down, as erstwhile allies conducted raids against the male Italian population. Tonino Guerra was first imprisoned in the nearby concentration camp Fossile in Italy, and then in a labour camp in Western Germany. There he was forced to dig trenches on the Western front and work for the company of Dynamit Nobel, a manufacturer of explosives and one of the foremost suppliers of the German army.

During his detention, Guerra started inventing poems and reciting recepes in his own Romagnolian dialect for his fellow prisoners. Crucially, a fellow prisoner who kept a diary took down these improvised poems. As a result, the diary of Giocchino Strocchi, Diario di una prigionia 1944/1945, followed by an interview with Tonino Guerra, was published in 2005 by the Comune di Ravenna, and is currently in the process of being translated into German. Furthermore, Tonino Guerra´s novel Equilibrio, first published in 1967 and finally being translated into German, emphasises the extent to which his memories of personal imprisonment as a presumed Italian anti-Fascist, and subsequent forced labour at both an armaments company and the front, entered his personal relationsships, his artistic work, and his career throughout his life.

In writing this article, we followed a methodological approach combining literary analysis, oral history interviews and field research at the city of Troisdorf, its archives and on location at Wahner Heide.

Geographically and historically connected, the following subjects should be distinguished in a noteworthy pentagon measuring a total of 177 square kilometres:
• 177 square kilometres of partially protected heath landscape (Wahner Heide);
• Archaeological sites including, amongst others, a former prisoner-of-war-camp, the remains and ruins of a military training ground used at different periods of time and for different purposes during World War 1, World War 2, during military occupation and by NATO allies (Belgium) until 2004;
• Cologne Bonn Airport “Konrad Adenauer” which handles approximately 8,9 million passengers and 870,000 tons of goods handeled p.a.
• The fuel storage tanks (NATO Tanklager Altenrath) at the terminal of a network of pipelines connecting 29 NATO depots for military and civil airports, refineries and
ports in Western Europe (Central Europe Pipeline System), with a total length of 5300 km;
• The Special Air Mission Wing of the German Federal Ministry of Defence (BMVg) and adjoining casern of the German Air Force (Luftwaffenkaserne Wahn), with a current deployment of 1,500 military and 1,000 civil staff positioned in the city centre of Troisdorf. The services of the Special Air Mission Wing include the transport of
people and goods for military and parliamentary purposes. Since the outbreak of the Russian-Ukrainian war in February 2022, the airport and Special Air Mission Wing has turned into a central airport hub for the transport of weapons, amunition and relief goods for Ukraine.

The public is aware of the constant tension and conflict of interests between the five neighbouring poles with many geographical, social and cultural cross-overs. In addition, the most recent conflict between the governing mayor of Troisdorf, Mr Alexander Bieber, and the Diehl Company has received national and international media coverage: Diehl, already present at Troisdorf in the form of Dynatec, has offered to buy the area of the former company Dynamit Nobel in its capacity as a component supplier for fuseheads, urgently needed to further support the military of Ukraine.

In conclusion, the confluence of the above factors and players demonstrate a delicate balance which, as a result, has led to a renewed interest in Tonino Guerra. As a resident of Troisdorf while a prisoner of war from late 1943 through early 1945, he later referred to this temporary place of residence as ‘home’ in one of his poems.

To draw a contrast between himself and the lead character of the novel Equilibrium, Tonino Guerra interrupts his protagonist’s narrative of a life torn between his wife and his mistress to reminisce about his arrival at the labour camp in Troisdorf:

Talking of cabbages, I shall never forget the cabbage the camp commandant (an S.S.
officer aged about sixteen) held in his arm that evening as if it were a baby in
swaddling clothes. (…) With the other arm, at the end of which there was a steel hook
instead of a hand, he detached the leaves one at a time and handed them out to the
prisoners lined up in front of the hut. He inserted the hook in the lower part of the leaf
near the stem, where it was thicker, tore it out and handed it to one of us. On that first
evening this cabbage leaf ritual made a big impact on me. I held it in my hand like a
fan. Everyone else did the samc. Then, when he ordered us to eat, we began munching
like rabbits, starting at the top of the leaf, where it was more tender, and working right
down to the white, which tasted much more bitter.” I

Preceding the novel are headlines reflecting the overall motive of balance that, by Guerra, are bound to page numbers rather than serving as titles for chapters. Some examples include:
Whenever I’m drowning, for instance, I forget to shout for help’ II, ‘Why are things that get lost, for instance, so unwilling to be found?III and ‘Whenever I tie up a parcel, for instance, I end by finding myself tied up inside itIV. Hence, it can be assumed that Guerra, who started writing as a creator of poetry, hereby sets up a chain of contrasting associations in the same manner that the book title suspends its final outcome. Accordingly, in these lines Guerra deliberately blurs the boundaries of time – past and present – and space – Italy and Germany – that he has been introducing throughout the novel:

“The sergeant arrived with the motor-cycle combination, and I jumped into the sidecar,
without waiting for him to take hold of me by the collar and put me in. We drove
through another wood and followed a variety of country roads until we got to the little
concentration camp and went in. I saw the ashes, Violini, the Polish priest, the
elephant man, the girl I was going to fall in love with, and everything else, including
the crows. The commandant emerged from the villa with his cabbage. He began
detaching the leaves with his hook and handing them out. With a smile on his face he
ordered the prisoner who had stolen his watch to step forward. All the prisoners round
me were quivering with fear. Not me, I laughed. I knew I was going to come through.
I was going to come through.” V

Many people claim that Guerra´s poem ‘Farfalle’ (‘Butterfly’) is his essential summary of the traumatic experience as a prisoner of war in Nazi-Germany. Regardless of the intensity and essentiality of this poem VI, it can well be argued that in Equilibrium Guerra also picks up on a key memory:

“It was a butterfly that made me realize I was really free. I followed it in order to look
at it. To look at its wings. Then I looked at the leaves of the trees, the branches, the
clouds over the wood. (…) But how can a man who is reembracing the world, looking
at the woods and the clouds and the birds, possibly concentrate on a petty domestic
problem?” VII

Our project will be continued soon.

Tonino Guerra, L´Equlibrio (Rom: Bompiano, 1967), chapter II, chapter IV p. 65-68, chapter
VI p. 89-102, chapter X p. 142-143.
Tonino Guerra, Equilibrium, translated from the Italian by Eric Mosbacher (New York:
Walker and Company, 1969), Internet Archive,
https://archive.org/details/equilibrium00guer/page/n5/mode/2up?view=theater, accessed 22
March 2024.
Tonino Guerra, Roland Günter, Aufbruch in Troisdorf Am Rhein begann das Werk des
Dichters und Drehbuch-Autors Tonino Guerra (Troisdorf: Kulturamt der Stadt Troisdorf,
Giocchino Strocchi, Diario di una prigonia 1944/1945 a.c. Matteo Banzola e Roberto
Giardini con un´intervista a Tonino Guerra (Ravenna: Comune di Ravenna, 2005).

I Guerra, 1969 p. 27
II Guerra, 1969 p. 10
III Guerra, 1969 p. 10
IV Guerra, 1969 p. 10
V Guerra, 1969 p. 136
VI T.b.d.
VII Guerra, 1969 p. 88

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