They arrived at the spa hotel late in the evening after an incongruous Neapolitan dinner in the centre of Cuneo. The big town had had an airy French feel, complete with tree-lined boulevards, yet was situated firmly on the Italian side of the Alps.
Judy helped Abe out of the small hire car with difficulty owing to his age and also, as she would have said grimacing to other family members behind his back, “to his size”.
It was windy in the parking lot and cool compared to the heat and humidity of the afternoon. Tall, thin beeches wafted their fronds overhead and there was the sound of rushing water. And a strong, almost unpleasant, whiff of sulphur. Judy wrinkled her nose at the smell and shivered in the silk chemise top that she’d bought in a boutique on the Riviera two days previously. She’d kept the bag that had Montecarlo printed on it amidst a pattern of tropical flowers.
Now that was a place for a vacation, Judy thought, something to tell her friend Patti about on their mornings off. This place – under-lit parking lot, weird smell, this huge blank-facaded old hotel with its dingy red carpet up uneven concrete steps, flower-beds crammed full of untidy tiger-lilies framing the entrance – this was all decidedly odd. But they were here for Abe. He was getting old and forgetful, Leo said, and if they didn’t do the trip this year, it might be too late.
Judy sighed and prised her own suitcase from the car’s tiny trunk, heaving it up the concrete steps herself into a hotel reception so vast it resembled a railway station.
“…not drains,” Leo was saying to Abe in that I’ll-speak-slowly-and-try-not-to-get-mad-but-you’re-being-impossible voice he’d tried not to use several times already during the vacation. “It’s the spa waters, they smell that way.” Never act with children and animals, never travel with the elderly and cantankerous, she’d texted to Patti.
Abe said he was just plain bushed and wanted to get to bed “to rest his dogs”.
They had a little difficulty in making themselves understood at the desk. Not that the boy didn’t try hard enough, but it was obvious that English-speaking customers were not that frequent. His stuffy uniform seemed to belong to one of the sepia photographs of ladies in white and men with big whiskers that hung on the walls of the reception. In a corner of the vastness, beneath some great, arched windows, a few old folks were playing cards at green baize-covered card tables. Actually playing cards, could you imagine! Judy texted Patti later. She was given a room key with a tag as heavy and cumbersome as a wrench and from the entrance hall’s hugeness they crammed into an elevator so small that they made it to the second floor with their luggage in three separate trips.
They saw Abe to his room first. As he rolled his weight onto the rudimentary bed with a great creaking of springs, Judy hoped it would last their stay. The room was spartan with a very high ceiling and plainly-whitewashed walls. She peeked into the bathroom: slime-green in colour, but adequate in a minimal way and clean, scrupulously clean.
“It must be hard for him,” she began, once she and Leo had creaked their own way into their matching beige twins. “I expect there’s, well, angst”, she added, glad to be able to draw on at least one of Patti’s favourites.
Leo was checking his e-mails and didn’t answer so she got up and went to the window while she waited for him to stop. A big half-moon glared down at her and the crag opposite was looming in black and silver. But the noise of tumultuous water made her need the bathroom and she stubbed her toe hard on the wardrobe leg as she made her way back into bed.
Over breakfast next day, she read from a print-out that she’d brought from home. “…hmm says here that Jews thought the Armistice of 1943 would make Italy a safe haven, that’s why the choice was made to leave St Martin Vesubie in France on the other side of these mountains and trek into this valley. Says the exodus included babies and pensioners, and, well, these folks had been living in France in so-called assigned residence for several months, some even up to a year, they’d been relatively safe there but well, then that all changed, German troops were advancing and they had to leave in a hurry, at the beginning of September 1943. More than a thousand people followed in the footsteps of the Italian 4th Army as it retreated through the Ciriegia and Finestra passes at nearly 8,000 feet altitude… Those who’d decided to stay behind in St Martin were immediately captured and deported to the camps”.
Judy fixed Abe’s big head on the other side of the table, the unruly tufts of white hair an uncombed aureole around his pate. She wanted to know what he remembered. Just exactly where did he keep those incredible memories, historical, yet entirely personal? Leo had explained to her that his father, like many survivors, had talked little of it to his children. But it must be in there somewhere! She wanted Abe to be explicit about his suffering, for them, his heirs, and for posterity. He owed it to them.
“…gonna tell that waiter to take back this croissant and give me a fresh one. And when I say fresh, I mean fresh…” Abe enunciated slowly and irritably.
The day wasn’t starting too well. Judy nudged Leo, deeply engrossed in an incongruously baby-pink Italian sports newspaper. “Can’t get a single word,” Leo said finally, laying down the paper.
After breakfast was over, they wedged Abe into the back of the car and drove down the mountain again, rewinding the road’s spirals as far as the town of Borgo San Dalmazzo. It was easy to see how Borgo would have been a strategic place during the war, commented Leo as they drove towards it, planted as it was at the mouths of two separate mountain valleys, both leading to France. And it was equipped with a railway station.
“…the refugees from St. Martin, who’d left France from between the 8th and 13th of September 1943, all poured into Borgo. But half-way through September, Nazi troops occupied nearby Cuneo and they were trapped,” Judy, reciting from her print-out, turned to look meaningfully at Abe, but he was staring out of the window.
“So, they’d left a relatively safe haven in France that’d become a trap and they trudged right up those mountains and down into Borgo for nothing…” she was adding her own little comments as the human factor, to be tacked onto all the dates and names. “Some joined local partisan groups and went wearily back up the mountains to fight, some were captured…
“There were posters, calling all foreigners to report to the SS Command station in Borgo, on pain of death, then a big round-up. About half the refugees gave themselves up immediately – you know, the fear, then winter was coming on, maybe they had children, they didn’t know what on earth to do, stuck here in a strange country, not understanding the language… Well, these people were interned in the Alpine barracks in Borgo from where they were afterwards deported from this railway station on 7th December 1943. They were first taken to Drancy and from there to Auschwitz. At the end of the war, only twelve of these original 400 deported had survived.”
They drew up outside Borgo San Dalmazzo station, where stood a memorial to the deported: two stark, brown, windowless cattle trucks and a series of names, some inscribed into the monument’s granite paving and some standing in giant iron letters: like gaunt, brown signatures. Here were names from all over Europe: Poland, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania and Greece. Abe, shelled from the car like a fruit from its pod, walked slowly, shuffled almost, over to the epitaph and reached out to touch one of the standing names: Morgenstern, it read. The metal was frying-pan hot beneath his hand. The midday sun roasted the top of his bald, hat-less head.
Was this about to become ‘a moment’? Judy wondered. Was some revelation about to strike a plangent, unexpected chord from the hermetic silence that had completely muffled Abe’s ancient history? But no, Abe’s hand dropped to his side and he turned away, complaining of the heat.
“Let’s get us a beer,” suggested Leo. They rammed themselves back into the car and Leo turned into the web of cobbled streets at the town’s centre, none of which seemed to lead anywhere. The sun sucked humidity from the thick walls of the houses, their shutters firmly shut, and the car seemed to be advancing through a miasma that slowly melted their limbs, despite the rudimentary air-conditioning blasting a jet of moist air in their faces. Everywhere seemed shut and Abe began to grumble about hick foreign towns.
When they were finally seated at a tiny table in front of a café, Judy expressed her delight at its elegance and abundance. Cascades of impeccably foiled chocolates and miniature, multi-coloured cream pastries crammed its refrigerated display windows in artful mounds. Out of the sun at last, Leo relaxed and realised that he was going to ask his father a fruitless question.
“What do you remember about all this?”
“Not much,” replied Abe with that old guy’s twinkle that he used when he wasn’t going to give you a straight answer or, Leo suspected sometimes, just couldn’t remember, “but it sure was cold and dark.”
It was what his father had always answered if someone asked about his refugee experience: the cold and the dark. No recollection of names, places, anecdotes, even here, seated in this café, right in the middle of his past. How was this possible? Leo resented the limitations of Abe’s memory, this empty warehouse. And now that Abe was going – well, it was true wasn’t it? – senile, the precious yet intangible inheritance would soon be gone forever.
“…says here that two local clergymen helped some of the families find hiding places, in barns, mountain huts, cellars, churches, any old place they could.” Judy added, to help him along.
“Yep,” nodded Abe, “ that’s right, in a barn or someplace, in the cold and dark.” Crouched behind the table, he seemed to be balancing it directly on the bulk of his knees, the three beers perched precariously on top of the miniature metal disc.
“But there’s not much more to see right here,” Judy continued, disappointed. “That memorial’s the only thing they have. They knocked the other stuff down, the barracks and the rest. And they don’t have a museum or an activity centre, or anything.”
“Guess not,” commented Abe, burying his mouth in the froth of his beer.
“And it’s soooo hot!” she commented finally, sighing and fanning herself with the print-out.
The town seemed to be withdrawing into its own centre as they made their way back to the car. Shut into its heat and humidity with its back to the mountains, it had no place to go. They drove back up to the hotel in silence.
The following day, Leo decided to organise an expedition. That’s what he’s calling it anyway, Judy texted to Patti. Wants to take Abe up the mountain for Godsakes. How’s anyone going to get Abe – 85 and as big as a barn – up a mountainside? Gimme a break.
Leo was talking to the guy at the desk, saying the word ‘jeep’ loudly, as if to wake him up. The guy began to wave his hands around and shrug his shoulders. Leo got impatient and began pacing up and down in front of the green baize-covered card tables.
Judy went off by herself to explore the spa, where treatments could be enjoyed based on a health-giving substance called ‘alga’ within the depths of mysterious grottoes. There was a leaflet printed in Italian, French and English. The English read “Since many centuries all persons are benefiting from sublime properties of alga”, which she texted to Patti.
Dinner that evening was a tense moment. In the hotel’s dining room, which was surprisingly small given the aircraft-hangar dimensions of most of its other spaces, Abe complained of exhaustion. Leo replied that Abe’d get a tired butt through sitting on his butt all day and no-one was interested in Judy’s story of the alga with miraculous properties. The evening meal was a seemingly random series of courses piroetted to their table by an excessive number of waiters.
As they were struggling to get up and leave the table, the young guy from reception appeared at Leo’s side in his over-tight uniform, his cheeks a little flushed. You didn’t need a jeep to get up the valley, he explained in halting but well-rehearsed sentences.
You could drive up in a car but at a certain point the asphalt gave way to an un-paved road and shortly afterwards you had to stop and find the path that led up to the pass.
“Why didn’t they just say so in the first place?” complained Leo.
“I don’t think they ever go out of the hotel,” Judy hissed back, hiding her mouth unnecessarily with one hand, as there was no-one capable of eavesdropping. “I read in the leaflet that this place only opens for the season. Come October, they shut it up and the snow falls and covers everything and the road is closed and it’s a white-out all winter.”
“Tomorrow we explore,” Leo announced to Abe’s back as his father forged a path through the dining room’s claustrophobic maze of furniture and diners.
They left Judy in the spa’s waiting room, busily texting Patti about a treatment she was to undergo, (deep within a cave, complete with its own natural fountain of boiling water, where they slap you all over with hot mud, then rinse you off with an icy hose. Enjoy!)
It was nearly midday as the asphalt ended and the rented car bounced vigorously over the rocks and pot-holes of what could just about be called a road and get away with it, as Abe, lurching heavily to and fro in the passenger seat commented. But it was here that the valley suddenly opened out and from the narrow section containing the hotel and spa, busy with grey-green rocks and heavily wooded, became a great, grassy, flat-floored meadow around half a mile wide. This hanging valley was walled in on both sides by steeply rising mountains whose lower flanks bore sparse larch woods interspersed with massive boulders that, loosened by water and ice in some previous aeon, had broken free from their moorings hundreds of feet up and rumbled down into the valley. Craning his neck, the peaks rose above vertical beaches of scree, each possessing its own convoluted physiognomy, an avenue of mountainous heads with their noses stuck in the bluest of skies. At his feet, a tracery of meandering streams.
Somewhere in this valley was the path that had led his father and grandmother down into Italy during their exodus. In this very place, hidden from view, but here! And he was going to find it and retrace their steps back up to the French border – which, if he was not mistaken, was just over these mountain tops – then peer down into France as far as his sight would allow, look back as far as he could into Abe’s secret, turbulent past. Look back to where his father had stepped unknowingly, childishly, out of the path of deportation and death, had then climbed and scrambled unwittingly, desperately, up the giddy slopes and down again towards destruction a second time, only to be fortuitously hidden in a barn on a mountainside to wait and survive the cold and the dark and the rest of the war.
They left the car to one side of the dirt road. Abe looked tottery among the tufts of grass and loose rocks. He made his way to a flattish rock amid enormous cow-patties and sat down with a harumph.
“Hey, I got flat feet,” was all he said.
Leo felt suddenly impatient with his father’s geriatric contingencies. They were invading his space, weren’t they? Here they both were in the midst of his spectacular history and all he could do was whinge.
“You go,” Abe said to his son. “Have a look around. I’ll wait here.”
Leo nodded and set off. The rushing, rumbling sound he’d imagined to be the effect of the altitude on his ear-drums was, he realised, actually the sound of water. Two white cascades at the valley’s end sent their plumes and airy vapour down stretches of dark, raw rock. There was so much energy! Everything in the landscape was vast or sheer or fiercely turreted. Yet, apart from the water, everything rested in perfect stillness in the chill of the air and the heat of the sun.
After less than a half-hour’s walk, Leo found himself facing a choice of at least five different paths, all leading upwards. A wooden sign-post bore red circles and triangles but no mention of the Ciriegia pass. He had no idea which way to go.
Back at Abe’s rock, he found his father surrounded by cows, which had appeared from nowhere, peaceful beneath a tree in the midst of rumination and exhalations of maternal, milky breath. Abe and Leo turned back to the hotel.
Leo’s thinking up plan B, Judy texted Patti later that afternoon, mud was xtreme!!
While Leo organised his second mountain expedition, she spent the next couple of days lounging around the hotel’s small, spa-water swimming pool. The sun blazed, the air tingled and the spa water was a constant 37°C. And, although she had him in tow, Abe was no trouble – he had a crime-buster to read, and, to their mutual satisfaction, the two of them had discovered a bar just out of the hotel’s grounds that did a decently large tuna and mayo sandwich.
Three more days here for Abe, Judy texted, then finally on to Tuscany! She and Patti had a mutual friend who’d done Tuscany the year before and had brought back some really great souvenirs. Linen and ceramics is what I’ll be after, Judy texted happily.
Leo announced that he’d found a guide. A real mountain man, he explained, one of those guys with a compass and boots that knows their way around the peaks and the passes. “There’s an association of them, I’m guessing”, he said, “the hotel people will contact him for me.”
A date was fixed. Leo’s doing ab crunches, Judy texted, ready for the expedition, ha ha ha!
He slept fitfully the night before the trek, finally awaking at 5 am with a dry throat and watery eyes. It was still dark outside and the rushing of the torrent seemed unnecessarily incessant. He slipped silently into his carefully chosen kit: cotton shorts, one of his squash shirts, and a windbreaker. A neat, dark backpack perching on one shoulder contained sandwiches professionally foil-wrapped by the dinner waiter, and a couple of bottles of water. His sneakers were new and squeaked on the marble floor of the cavernous reception as he stepped from the lift.
The guide, a skinny little guy, seemed to materialise from the greyness of the reception. He had a mop of red hair and a few teeth missing. Various things were attached to his battered and faded backpack with string, including a tin cup, a rope, and a pair of rusty crampons. He stood in front of Leo, in the gloom, without saying a word, gesturing to the door. Leo was taken aback. Park people back home could be a little countrified but they were usually reasonable, informed folk, dressed in strong sensible clothing. This guy, with his drooping backpack and his stained jeans, looked like someone who’d just spent the night at a vagrant’s hostel. Smelled like a vagrant too, Leo thought as they got into the car and set off up the track to where the trail to the Ciriegia pass began, the one he’d been unable to identify among the many and which, after he’d parked the car on one side of the rocky track, the guide indicated with a brief gesture of one black-nailed thumb.
They started off in the cool lightening grey of the mountain dawn. There was silence, broken only by the sound of water, veering with the wind. The path wound flatly among huge whitish boulders that lay scattered over the valley floor with the stream’s meanders coiled around them. They trod over lush grass, and, isolation aside, the scene was docile, reminiscent of farmland. He wondered where the cows were and noticed that the end of the valley was invisible, hidden by mist or cloud. The weather had changed.
Half an hour into the walk, with his breath coming easy as his chest swung with the rhythm of his legs, the guide took a fork to the right around one of the boulders and the path abruptly steepened. The guy accelerated into the gradient and disappeared. Leo found himself mopping rivulets of sweat from his head with his T-shirt in the moisture-saturated morning air, trying to decided whether he felt hot or cold. The air was clammy on his skin and in his throat, the rags of grey cloud hovering over the rocks above him bulging with damp. The waterfall was an invisible torment of sound and the path an unkempt mass of crumbled rock and earth. There were no signs, no railings, no info boards, no other people. The lack of organisation, of evidence of human intervention, bothered him.
After a further half hour he made out the guide’s scrawny figure several vertical twists in the path above him. The guy had stopped and was deftly rolling a cigarette against a convenient rock. In the act of craning his head, Leo’s shoes slithered on the treacherous gravel-peppered path and he lunged sideways, his big limbs weighing him precipitously towards the edge. The guide’s red head twisted ferally to the noise of skidding and, before Leo had had a chance to wonder how, he’d bounded down the moist boulders that separated them. Leo straightened himself in tremulous irritation.
“Look,” he spreading his hands in front of him, as if to ward off this able but alien creature, “it’s ok, got that?” But an image of himself had formed somewhere in the back of his mind, standing before this crazy little guy, and it looked somehow entreating.
As the path steepened, the air thickened still further, the all-encompassing greyness gaining in moisture and rawness as they climbed. It was all Leo could do to keep his gaze fixed on the treacherous terrain, sheer force of will was required, as the greyness of the rock or earth that happened to pass beneath his feet confounded itself with the atmosphere. At times he felt as if only the path’s very steepness allowed him to distinguish the ground from the sky. And the path was indeed so steep that it was forcing his breathing into a series of asthmatic yelps and the sensation was nothing at all like being out of breath while playing a Saturday morning game of squash with his friend Frankie Esposito because squash was a game and this didn’t feel like a game. Maybe an of out-of-body experience would be like this, he thought. His steps resounded boxily as the route took him through a short, flat-sided gulch, only to lose themselves again in the granite-coloured air as he was back on the mess of loose stones and gravel, heading upwards and upwards.
He took stock of his large body’s unwieldiness: the fingers that had swollen with the damp and the altitude, the eyes that were watering into the omnipresent cloud, the unwilling thighs burdened with lactic exhaustion at every rocky step. He thought of Judy and her own willingness to have a good time despite having been drawn into his, Leo’s, worried insistence over his father’s history. He thought of Abe and his reluctant participation in the experience of his own past. None of this seemed to have much to do with what he was doing to himself right now. He found himself wanting to blame someone, and picked on Frankie, whose tendon injury had got them both so out of trim.
He looked at his watch and saw, drawing his breath, that three hours had gone by since they’d set out from the grassy valley. A gust of chilly wind thinned the cloud around him, allowing a glimpse of the slope of scree over which he was now gingerly picking his way: a great, grey amphitheatre of stone, ranging from the solid and house-sized to the fractured, heaped and tumultuous. Grey was everywhere, interrupted only by the occasional patch of yellow where the rocks were daubed with lichen. He realised that he hadn’t asked anyone just how long the ascent lasted before setting out. He’d thought he would have seen the top from the bottom, would have been able to figure out the distance for himself, had imagined a certain simplicity or straightforwardness in a path that should have gone, well, just up and then back down again. He leant against an outcrop, feeling the stone reach for his skin through the neoprene of his shirt. From somewhere above, he heard what he realised must be the guide’s voice calling him, not urgently but insistently. He lifted his head, that felt heavy enough to be about to topple off his neck, and carried on.
After perhaps another twenty minutes, the path underwent a final transformation, becoming yet steeper but sandier, more precarious, until it was little more than a jumble of moveable rocks set in crumbling and vertically eroded channels. A shift of the imagination was required, at this point, to locate hand and foot-holds, and he had to subject his wide and cumbersome body to a series of contortions in order to stay upright.
As he toiled further upwards, feeling as out of breath and pleated as an accordion, the path became yet sketchier, in a panic with itself, criss-crossing to and fro manically until it finally lost its own trace in the crumbling earth. What now? Where now? The guide was still calling him. Well, that guy could go to hell! Leo thought, this was it, he’d had enough. And he was on the point of giving up and turning back – the whole damn episode was ridiculous!– when he arrived.
Through the thinning cloud, the guide was clearly visible, sitting on his haunches, his back to a long, low building that Leo recognised as a military barracks. The building loomed whitish out of the gloom, its plaster riddled with bullet holes. It had been built into the contours of the mountainside and its back wall was a rock face. From a distance, even in clear weather, it would have been almost invisible. This, he realised, must be the pass, once guarded by some of those Italian troops that, as they scrambled back down to the lowlands during September 1943, had drawn the refugees inexorably into their wake. Leo stood up and straightened out his legs: it was good to be on some level ground. Clumps of yellow, daisy-like flowers grew here and there and, on the far side, there was a plaque attached to the side of the barracks, commemorating the exodus.
The wind started a low, growling moan through the windows and blast-holes in the building, then, gathering momentum, screeched briefly and slapped Leo in the face. He sat down hard. He felt too exhausted to eat so he drained the last of his water bottles. Meanwhile, the guide was unwrapping a grimy-looking bread roll and biting into it hungrily. He wondered how many others the guy had brought up here, looking for a piece of history, as if it could be found somehow embedded in the rock. As the guide finished his sandwich and was fishing a water flask out of his faded sack, the wind lifted the cloud for a moment and the exact conformation of the Ciriegia pass was revealed. Above them, to both left and right, pinnacled ridges careered into an azure sky, dwarfing the barracks and the narrow strip of land it stood on. Leo leaped to his feet: in front of him, the path spun down into France, plummeting through the dark, polished green of a densely wooded valley until it was lost to view. This was where they’d come from, toiling up through the sparkling pines: the old, the ill, the families, their few possessions and exhausted children slung over their shoulders. He took a few steps back and the route that he himself had just climbed panned out on the other side of the pas s– a great, ruined valley of fractured rocks and immense slopes of scree – now screamed over by the wind.
Here, Abe had trudged along with the rest: Abe, of the Ciriegia exodus, then Abe, hidden, winter survivor in the cold and the dark.
The guide stood up, wiping his hands on his trousers. The cloud rolled back over the pinnacles, shutting away the airy scene of sky and light. It was time to go.
When he was, at last, back in the hotel, Leo showered, then joined Judy and Abe in the dining room. He found them sitting silently before a large plate of schnitzels. The room was pleasantly warm and the breadcrumbed steaks glowed golden in the evening light. Leo made it! Judy was texting to Patti, our hero!
Abe cut up one of the steaks and began forking it into his mouth. “’Pretty damn good,” he commented, happily, then, turning to Leo, remarked “Danny made it down from up there with shoes of different sizes”.
And who the hell was Danny? Leo opened his mouth to ask, but didn’t, biting into a slice of fried steak instead.
Really good – wanting to touch the past but only finding the smallest fragments.
A very atmospheric. You could feel you were in the mountains. A wonderful story of war time experiences