Sometimes coincidences play a part of a story. On this occasion I was struck by a series of photographs that I happened to find in a U.S. Navy archive from the years ´43, ´44 and ´45. The photos were taken by photographer David Seymour, who served in the U.S. Army and was among the first to visit Naples. Who were these children of Naples who had not seen water in months by the looks of it.
Then you start to look for the story beyond these pictures. And it came in multiple forms. A movie, a book and some witness stories. I never knew it, this history of Naples, at least not to such an extent. But let me start at the beginning.
Naples in 1943
The Bay of Naples was of such importance to the invasion of the Allies in World War II that Hitler ordered the city to be levelled to the ground, no stone was allowed to remain on top of another. The city had a population of just under a million around 1940 and was comparatively prosperous, where Mussolini had done a lot of structural work, moreover it was an important port for the Italian Navy. In 1940 the first bombardments of the city by the Allies had started, in 1943 this culminated to 181 bombings, some of which were so-called "carpet bombing" that flattened entire neighborhoods, they continued until September of that year, until the city was abandoned by the Nazis and the Italian army and navy in Naples joined the Allies. But after that, the Germans started bombing Naples to finish the job and to erase everything what was left standing.
In Naples, living had become almost impossible. In 1943 there was no water supply and no infrastructure, much of the city in ruins, after the raids to send the men to work camps and the forced evacuation of a quarter of a million inhabitants who lived within 300 meters of the coast, there were few ordinary citizens left. Families with no place to go lived in the cave system below the city. And then there were the children.
A few hundred displaced children
A few hundred children ranging in ages from 4 to 17 wandered through the rubble for months in 1943 and 1944, most without parents and living on what they scavenged together. The group was close-knit and supported each other, in fact they had played an important part in the Four Days of Naples, the September 1943 uprising of the population that finally made the occupiers abandon the occupation.
American troops who entered Naples after the surrender and the departure of the occupation took pictures of the children and the population that stayed behind. It was these photos that led me to see the 1962 film ´Le quattro giornate di Napoli´ by director Nanni Loy, which won a number of awards at the time. I recommend everyone to see this shocking account of the uprising, it can be viewed for free on Youtube. Also, the book ´Street Boys´ by Lorenzo Carcaterra is a shocking portrait of these displaced children who knew only violence and destruction.
No one but children. Children orphaned or hidden by their parents in a final, rebellious gesture against the Nazis. Children, some as young as ten, armed with only a handful of guns, unexploded bombs and their own ingenuity. Children determined to take on the advancing enemy and save the city, or die trying. (Quote from the book)
The captions of the photos are by the photographer, they date from the years ´43 (after the surrender), ´44 and ´45.
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