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An Italian Remembrance

Illustrations and story by Jennifer Morse

Clockwise from top left: Student Celene Montgomery arrives at Canadian College Italy in Lanciano; college history teacher Dennis Makowetsky (left) chats with author Saverio Di Tullio during a visit to the Moro River Canadian War Cemetery; Cristina D’Alessandro (left) and Christine Tessaro (centre) sing at the Remembrance Day ceremony; Eric Pilon, Eric Rumi and Dai Yokoyama visit graves at Moro River Canadian War Cemetery; Jessica Melchiorre and David Muncaster in class; Francesca LaSorda, 83, shares a moment with students (from left) Zale Mednick, Celene Montgomery, Christine Tessaro, Aram Barra and Gordon Urquhart.

The leaves in Italy change colour only a few weeks after our own trees lose their leaves, and the cream and ochre villages set against that fall backdrop turn the land gold at sunset. It is a feast for the eyes. The depth and quality of both landscape and art is breathtaking, and in the midst of so much beauty Canadian high school students stop to remember.

Canadian College Italy opened its doors nine years ago in Lanciano, a small Italian town nestled in the mountains along the Adriatic coast. Since the private high school’s inception, the students have organized a remembrance program at the Moro River Canadian War Cemetery, five kilometres south of Ortona. Most of the 68 young men and women studying at CCI this year are senior students, some about the same age as the soldiers who fought in the vicious battle for Ortona in December 1943.

The head of the school, Marisa Di Carlo D’Alessandro, says between 25 and 30 per cent of the students come from military families stationed with NATO at Naples–approximately 150 kilometres to the south–and Brussels, Belgium. “Most of our students come for a year, although we do have some who come only for one semester, usually their last semester of high school. This year instead of offering them OAC we offer them Grades 10, 11 and 12, although 90 per cent of our student population is 17 or older.”

D’Alessandro describes some of the changes she sees in the young students: “They become extremely confident …being on your own and having to go through the growth pains…. It is all part of the process…. They go through tremendous anxiety if they have never been away from home before.”

While listening to her I could not help but draw parallels to Canadian soldiers who must have felt those same emotions as they fought their way through Italy. Dennis Makowetsky, the school’s history teacher, initiated the battle tours portion of the program four years ago. I asked him to tell me what motivated him to put it together. “When they walk into the Moro River Canadian War Cemetery the students are moved–struck by the enormity of what they see in front of them. While they were moved by the cemetery they had very little knowledge of how the men got there. They would stand in front of a young soldier’s grave and wonder. So I started working on the battle tour program. It took me most of that year to become familiar with it…. In the spring we ran a pilot tour on a Sunday with volunteers, and I asked the kids how they thought it would go over as a preliminary activity to Remembrance Day. It was unanimous, they thought it was a wonderful thing.”

Makowetsky feels passionately about the subject. “I am a Legion member and have been for 33 years and I am often questioned about why Canadian kids don’t know more about Canadian history? Why don’t Canadian kids know more about the wars? I’ve always felt badly about that…. I wanted a program for the kids in the school to look forward to and get something out of. It wasn’t just someone standing in front of them lecturing them about how they should remember these things. We get them to participate and be involved….When we look at what is happening in the world today a lot of it is because we don’t know what happened before and we walk the same path. It’s cliché and trite and all that but it is also true.”

On Nov. 10–the morning of our tour–the students gathered in the school’s common room where Makowetsky played the video Bloody Christmas and a segment of the video Return To Ortona. Both films provided important background information for the day. We boarded a bus and as we proceeded through the countryside Makowetsky described the events that took place at the Moro River, during the tank battle at San Leonardo and at Casa Berardi where Paul Triquet of the Royal 22nd Regiment earned the Victoria Cross.

That afternoon we visited the Ortona War Museum and took part in a walking tour of Ortona that ended at the Canadian war memorial aptly titled the Price of Peace. At the monument the students met 83-year-old Francesca LaSorda who has kept flowers on the site since the end of WW II.

The next morning I joined Makowetsky and his students in history class. Eric Rumi, 17, of Oakville, Ont., told me it was important to him to see the sacrifices of his country. “Usually we always hear about the Americans and the British. I like that we got to hear the Canadian story…. We get to hear where our soldiers were, we hear what they did for us…. I felt that a lot when we were at Casa Berardi, where the French Canadians (the Royal 22nd Regt.) stood. Even in the town you could feel it…that was the eerie thing about it.”

Jessica Melchiorre of Toronto added, ” I have brothers and I couldn’t ever imagine sending them away. The sacrifices made me feel so blessed…. Everyone in Canada should get that opportunity. It wasn’t just the Canadians and the Germans (who were involved), it was also the Italians.”

The sky was overcast and grey when we headed out to the Moro River Canadian War Cemetery. Of the 1,613 soldiers buried there, 1,375 are Canadian, many of them killed on the very ground we visited during our tour.

After walking among the rows of headstones, the students presented their own program to honour the fallen. It included the singing of Amazing Grace and some poetry. The Vice-Ambassador, Peter McKellar, came from Rome to place a wreath. Also present were 28 soldiers and their families from the NATO base in Naples. Warrant Officer Richard Levasseur told me all three services were represented.

Back at the school, after the other students had left the classroom, Rumi passed me a sheet of paper. It was a free-verse poem. The last lines are a tribute not only to those who died, but those who came home to many more autumn colours. His words are a tribute to CCI and its success in passing the torch. The poem ends with “remember us not for our glory, but for our sacrifice. If it is one you truly honour, you will not raise arms again, for then it shall have been in vain.”

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