Italian Contacts

There were 5 contacts in Italy from whom we received children for holidays.   Don Mario Rocchi of Modena,  Mario Borrelli from Naples,  Danilo Dolci from Partinico, Sicily,  Professor Longo Vito Santo from Alberobello in Apulia, and Eileen Walters who had contacts in Carinari Refugee camp near Naples from where we received Tunisian refugees.   Journeys transporting the children by rail accross Europe could be chaotic and some stories of these may be found on this link - Italian anecdotes - along with accounts of how several of the children were managed when they came to live in foster families

THE STORY OF MODENA (written in 1965)

During the last war a certain Major Lewis, British Army Officer who had been captured in Italy, was being transported to the nearest camp when the train conveying him fortuitously stopped at Modena. By a remarkable chance, with the help of a signalman and members of the Italian Resistance Movement, he managed to escape here. It was this same man who in 1956 introduced I.H.C. to Monsignor Mario Rocchi and the "Boys' Town" of Modena.   Monsignor Rocchi and his colleague,, Don Monari, had been involved in the Italian Resistance and had saved many British lives. It was their ambition to form in Modena, when the war ended, somewhere to enable children of poor families to obtain technical training in various subjects.   In fact Don Monari was caught and executed by a Nazi firing squad, but Monsignor Rocchi with the support of some of the British Officers whose lives he had saved, founded the "Citta dei Ragazzi".   To-day the "Citta" offers a free training to over four hundred boys who could not normally get such education. There are facilities for learning to repair cars and televisions, to weld, to engineer, and so on; moreover Monsignor Rocchi is himself an expert in all mechanical procedures. Besides the school, there are also social and sporting activities similar to those in the Boys' Clubs at present being popularized in England

In fact Citta dei Ragazzi still flourishes now (in 2013) and Don Mario Rocchi will be 100 in September this year.


Mario Borrelli who sadly died in 2007, was introduced to us by Mario Rocchi.   His work in Naples is well documented.   Originally he was a priest but later he left the priesthood and married.  These extracts are from contemporary articles but I have also included the address I gave at the Mario Borrelli memorial service in Oxford and some follow up from that.

 (written in 1968)
The books Children of the Sun and Father Borrelli's autobiography A Street Lamp and the Stars were written about the Naples of the early *fifties". At this time Naples was seething with homeless and unemployed, victims of  post-war depression, and in consequence of this, the city was full of crime and disease. Up to 1960 Father Borrelli had concentrated almost exclusively oh caring for abandoned boys in his ruined church at Materdei, but at this point, the Casa degli Scugniz
zi as it was called being well established, he turned his attention to a very much bigger problem which had insidiously arisen.   Slums had been rife in Naplcs, and the State in a rather feeble attempt to got to grips with the problem had delineated them into nine separate areas and built a wall around each. Father Borrolli had always spent a lot of time in these "baracche" as they are called, and frequently slept there, but it was not until after 1960 that he began, by measures verging on civil disobedience, to push the State into rehousing their occupants. This work still goes on, but five areas have alrendy been cleared.   In Naples today there is less crime, less disease, probably less unemployment and less homelessness. However, there are still a large number of problems athough they arc not so dramatic in nature.    Rehousing itself is a problem, for frequently these people have never had to keep a house before and have little idea how to set about it. Families still have too many children many have no alternative but to pass their daily lives hanging about the streets. Schools are over­crowded and attendance is often irregular. . It is not unknown for families to rent out their new flats while they themselves returned to living in the slums.

(memorial address 2007)
We first gave holidays to the Scugnizzi in 1960 and over the next 10 years 390 stayed with families in such towns as Birmingham, Portsmouth, Kettering and Merthyr Tydfil, to name just a few .   One, Vincenzo, stayed on in England to become a chef.   Mario wrote to us following one such visit:- “Our fears about sending the shanty town children to England were quite unjustified and the holiday could not be more successful.   At first it was difficult to get a party of children together as the parents were afraid and a little suspicious.   Now however it is quite the reverse and they are always asking when the next holiday is going to be arranged.   I feel these holidays are very good for the children, but they probably need particularly patient and understanding foster parents.   Saints preferably”
The children were transported by train and the journeys, of which I made several were hair raising.   Trains were missed, the Neapolitans had no idea of punctuality of course, Italian trains frequently ran late sometimes with good reason as in 1965 when there was a typhoon in the alps; and of course there was little discipline amongst the Scugnizzi, but we managed without any serious incident.    At that time Mario was sleeping in the baracche (shanty towns).   There were nine of these shanty towns and one by one he would move into a crude hut in one, get to know the people and when he had got their trust, put pressure on the authorities to rehouse them.    Although Mario’s relationship with the church was always a bit fraught, the secular authorities did seem willing to act, and by 1966 when I went out to Naples he had managed to get 4 of the baracche cleared and was sleeping in a 5th one which he took us to.   He was always most hospitable and took great trouble to show us round and explain his work.  He also had a great sense of humour such as when he offered us our pasta with “poisonous mushrooms”.   In those days the Casa dello Scugnizzo was no more than an old church and a few surrounding rooms.   Mario told us a lot about the children he helped:-  These are his words.
Enzino’s father is seldom at home as he is wanted by the police. (He drives without a licence).  His mother has a bad leg and although she sometimes looks after other people’s children she has frequently been unable to raise enough money for food. 
In Petrizio’s family there are 11 children, none of who are recognised by their father who is married to another woman., although he lives with them.   The mother has a very strong character and they obey her immediately.
Ciro has 7 brothers and sisters.   Their father is in gaol and the mother wanted to put the children in an institution so that she can work as a maid.   The boy has improved tremendously since he came to the Casa 7 months ago.   He does not speak much but has learnt to explain himself in Italian as at first he spoke only Neapolitan dialect.   He has made friends with nearly all the boys at the Casa and resorts to fighting only to defend himself against the more lively and overbearing ones.   He is happy at the Casa but misses the company of his brothers and sisters.
Antonio was very backward at school, but since coming to the Casa he has made such tremendous progress that we think now that perhaps all he lacked was affection.

(written by Margaret McEwen in 1966)
Carmine (Father Borrelli's driver) met me at the airport and we took off in his well-used brake and shot along the motorway, The inevitable traffic jam started as soon as we reached the outskirts of Naples and we jerked forwards at irregular intervals until he suddenly dived down one of many narrow little side streets. At once we were involved in the teeming, pulsating life of an incredible city. We drove in and out and up and doom the tortuous alleyways with only inches to spare. How could the pedestrians - old people, small children, to say nothing of the chickens, dogs and cats, taking everything so calmly?   In fact the traffic was ignored and the constant tooting treated with contempt, On occasions when we stopped, I was able to peer down into the open cellars of the houses whore all kinds of activities were going on, A barber was shaving his customer with a confident and detached air such that one could have carried on a conversation with him at the same time. In the next cellar two young men, working in artificial light, were making beautiful picture frames. Wooden plants wore stacked up behind them and there was standing room only, Further on butchers, greengrocers and clothiers were serving their customers and one caught sight of a small shrine in each shop sometimes framed with electric lights.    The Neapolitans are completely absorbed in the art of living in a city where work is scarce, crime (but no hooliganism) is rife and the main means of livelihood has to cashing in on visiting  tourists and foreign sailors.    I marvelled at their acceptance of the constant threat to life and livelihood with : sterling indifference, although more really with the grim courage of those who expect trouble and often do get it.    But nevertheless they are gay and friendly and full of humour, which makes visiting them a wonderful experience.    I think the Neapolitans would agree with the quotation that "one crowded hour of glorious life is worth age without anything"

(written in 1962)
To maintain them
selves his urchins collect and sell scrap materials and I reproduce from a Neapolitan newspaper the advertisement on which their lives depend.
"Quello che a voi non serve per noi diventa pane e mezzo di vita" SE AVETE ROBA INUTILE MOBILI FUORI USO CARTA STRACCIA R0TTAMI METALLICI E desiderate disfarvene telefonate NAPOLI 342.259."   This advertisement, taken from the monthly newspaper of the Casa dello Scugnizzo is translated as follows:   "Things which are useless to you, for us become bread and means of life". If you have any old clothes, unused furniture, waste paper or scrap iron, and wish to get rid of it, telephone Naples etc."

(written in 1968)
Father Borrelli's theme at the Annual Conference was the "baracche" of Naples. Baracche are huts made up of pieces of wood and metal which have been erected by very poor Italian families, frequently those who have come in from the countryside to seek work. There used to be nine areas each covering about two acres where the slums could be seen, but through the work of Father Borrelli three of these have now been cleared. His method has been to live in one of the huts and slowly win the confidence of the two or three hundred people around him until he could lead them to the authorities and make them demand their own rehousing. This has been remarkably successful especially as the State have not been too unwilling to carry out a policy, which up to then had been repeatedly shelved. But Father Borrelli emphasized that there are many problems to be solved after rehousing, for these families have completely lost the ability to look after themselves.



In his turn Mario Borrelli introduced us to 2 other special people caring for children.   One was Professor Longo who had founded a home at Alberobello in Apulia for little girls abandoned in the streets of Bari, the other was Danilo Dolci from Partinico Sicily, who did so much to combat the local Mafiosi protection rackets.  

Professor Longo was a young man engaged to be married when he came accross an abandoned baby in the streets of Bari.   Moved by her plight he was determined to look after her, but his fiancee was not so keen and said he must choose between her and the baby.   The Professor chose the baby and subsequently founded a home for 36 little girls in the pretty town of Alberobello, famous for its Trullo houses.   It was a very remarkable venture despite the fact that the bishop would not consecrate the chapel because he felt it was wrong for one man to be looking after so many girls.   In practice however the oldest looked after the youngest and there were other staff.   We gave holidays to some of these children for several years.   Interestingly they went to Great Missenden where actress Patricia Neal and wife of Raoul Dahl played an active part on the local committee.   The home still exists but under different management. 

Danilo Dolci's work was of a very different nature in the mafiosi areas of Sicily, trying to fight the
protection rackets that had grown up there.   He went on a number of well publicized hunger strikes at his home in Partinico.   It was fascinating to visit the houses of the children who had come over in the 1960s - often only one room, with a couple of cows in an adjoining room - kept inside to prevent them from being stolen.   It was strange to revisit Partinico in 2005.   It had changed out of all recognition and seemed to have quite an air of prosperity.  The photo alongside shows the parents of Concetta who came over in 1961.
The room behind the old lady contains the cows.   Concetta herself took the photo.

There were quite a number of Tunisian refugees in Italy following Tunisian Independence in 1956 and the rule of Bourguiba.  Originally they were in camps, but later were rehoused in Rome and other places.   Our representative there used to make up parties of needy children for a holiday in England and below is an extract from a report she wrote.

(written 1966 by Eileen Walters)
Went to Carinari Camp yesterday and found them busy preparing for new refugees from Tunisia. My visit was well worthwhile as all the parents there were delighted at the news they are getting from England. It seems their children are all well and happy and writing most enthusiastically. Mr. Bellu (the father of two of the children in England) proudly brought me a great sheaf of letters and newspaper cuttings to wade through. His is the worst case in the camp. He's 63 and ill - unable to work and he receives 10, 000 lira (less than £6) a month (though not even that regulary) to maintain his wife and four children. The baby of 6 months has to have special baby food which is supposed to be supplied free, but which never materialises. Often these Bellu children just don't eat, so I'm sure this holiday is a miracle for them. Apparently the mother cried for a couple of days, but now that she's had such symphatetic letters she says this holiday has really saved their lives. She's a dear tiny African woman - quite young. Luciano hasn't written - maybe he can't write yet, and they have not heard from his foster parents. They'd like to, if possible.

The following  account is about the background of two of the Borrelli boys who came to England.   The word Scugnizzo means "spinning top" and was used of these boys because they were always on the move and had no permanent place to go.  It was written in 1962.

Luigi w
as a genuine scugnizzo. At the age of eight he had left his home at Pagani and walked forty kilometres to Naples. At first he nearly starved to death, but once he joined the scugnizzi his life became easier, for there is mutual trust and sharing amongst the members. From then on he learnt to thieve and pickpocket, (he managed to remove my watch off my wrist without me knowing); he worked also for the black market, and learnt to attract customers for prostitutes. In this way he lived for over a year sleeping on gratings in the street.   Then Father Borelli found him. At first the call of the streets was strong, but finally he entered the Casa degli Scugnizzi to live with nearly 50 other urchins in an atmosphere of love and trust so vital to young chil­dren. There are now 2 houses in Naples for the care of scugnizzi, and the money for maintaining them is obtained by the children by collecting and selling scrap material, and also through generous donations.

Most children leave home because there is neither space nor love enough to keep them there. But now that the Casa degli Scugnizzi is established many children can be rescued before they become fully engulfed in the vice of Naples.   Six year old Pinto is one of these, who is now living in the Casa. For him such a life has great advantages, for he has the security and love of the priests, he knows he can trust his friends (which very few Neapolitans can do), but at the same time he lives in and as part of the life of the city itself. He goes to school for at least an hour or two each day, and there are plenty of opportunities for sport and adventure.

And the following account, also written in 1962, similarly tells the background of two Sicilian children selected by Danilo Dolci

Filippa, a little dark haired, ear-ringed girl of eight, lives in Partinico, a traditional Sicilian town where one still sees Mules hauling painted carts - in fact I had to travel in one to get from the station to the town centre. . Her house consists of one room which is typical for nearly all the children we brought over and indeed in one house occupied by her friend Concetta, there was an adjoining room where several cows lived., and she sleeps in an outsize bed with her mother and two sisters. Her father died recently, so she has to dress in black for three years. Her family earn a little money preparing artichokes and tomatoes for canning, an occupation which is carried out in the home.   Her mother is strict with her-as Sicilian mothers are, and she does a large share of the housework. However she goes to school until she's fourteen to learn to read and write, and to sing folk­songs. Toys are unknown to her, but, with her friends, she plays traditional round games (like ring-a-ring o’ roses), can dance the tarantella and she can swim. There is also now a childrens' playground in Partinico.   At first Filippa didn’t like English food, had lice in her hair, didn’t like baths, and even complained that her new coloured dress was the wrong length; but she made friends with so many people that difficulties were soon forgotten.   Indeed she returned home a very happy little girl, full of wonderful experiences, and with the knowledge that there are people in the world, who care about her welfare and happiness.   Years later she wrote to me and asked me to send her a wedding dowry.   I could hardly send money out to an unknown address in Sicily, but I often wonder what happened to her!

One of Filipp
a's friends is ten year old Antonio, who lives in a flat with his brother and parents. His father works at an ancient trade, painting the brightly coloured carts which adorn Sicily, with stories of Saints and Paladins.   Antonio is fair haired, well built, but very thin. He eats over eight pounds of bread, pasta and potatoes a week, and perhaps some fruit and vegetables if he's lucky; but the cost of living is high-the peasants say because of the Mafia. He never tastes butter or milk, and meat only very rarely, so his diet is slightly deficient in protein and in Vitamins A and C.   Sicilian children are often anaemic, easily tired, and easy victims of illness. The government try to prevent both severe under-nourishment and serious epidemics of infectious diseases, but health facilities and sanitation are still very inadequate.


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