Friday, January 6, 2012

mountains of freedom

Mountains of Freedom is a small, privately published memoir written by a South African ex-POW about his experiences in Lybia, Italy and Germany during World War II. Martin Schou was in the battle of Tobruk, Lybia when nazi Field Marshall Rommel overwhelmed the allied forces there and retook Tobruk. Schou, and thousands of other allied forces, were rounded up and shipped to Italy to concentration camps.

For over a year, Schou was imprisoned, occasionally moving from camp to camp until he found himself on a working farm in northern Italy alongside a group of young, Italian women. Schou was very fond of the ladies after being in a concentration camp, so it wasn't too long before young Martin learned to speak Italian.

When the armistice came in September of 1943, Schou was released from the northern Italian working farm, and headed for the allied troops who had landed in southern Italy.

On foot.

This adventure, told in a series of stories or remembrances, has a glow about it that I think must come from the mellowing of years. Schou spent a number of years away from his home in South Africa in the service, and some of those years as a prisoner of war, but looking back from a current age of nearly 80 (in 1998 when the story was written) has warmed and softened the story so that it contains very little horror. The horror is there, but Schou doesn't seem to dwell on it too much.

What Martin Schou does dwell on are the relationships he formed with the local people in Italy as he made his way down the Italian peninsula through the Apennines. At almost every step of the way, the poor mountain people of iItaly helped, hid, clothed, fed and directed Schou and many others on there way. And it was dangerous. The Italians had given up and surrendered to the Allies, but Hitler had filled Italy with hundreds of thousands of German troops, who took control of the concentration camps only days after the armistice, and patrolled the streets throughout Italy, and could have shot Schou if he was discovered.

Schou's adventures had their ups and downs, but he obviously made it home eventually to settle down, start a family and write his book. The stories are lovingly told, by a man who knows he's not a writer but felt obligated to tell his story and to say thank you to the simple people who helped him, just because he needed help.

His book is both a thank you note, and a love letter to Italy and the people who saved him.

This book isn't for sale in bookstores* that I've found. We bought a copy at a fundraiser to support local communities while we were in Italy. Martin Schou spent quite a bit of time in and around Sulmona, Italy and he met people there who helped him do the research for his book, and I think that's why we found it there.

* I got one hit. Mountains of Freedom is included in this list of military books from a South African bookstore. Its number 152, and its listed as sold for 195 South African Rand (about $24 US).

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