“Happiness Trains” how Italian women came together after WWII to save the children of the south

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happiness trains

In the immediate aftermath of WWII, “treni della felicità”, or “happiness trains”, transported 70,000 children from southern Italy to stay with families in Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany to escape crushing poverty and unsanitary conditions

MARY MANNING

Even prior to the war, southern Italy was economically disadvantaged with respect to the north, and this was only exacerbated by the Allied bombing campaign. Cities like Naples and Cassino were left decimated and the country’s liberation from fascism was a long process, as Allied forces slowly worked their way up the peninsula. Naples was freed in September 1943 but Mussolini’s dictatorship only fell in the north in April 1945. This meant that Naples was under occupation for nearly two years, a period in which there was no opportunity to begin an economic recovery and people were starving due to hyperinflation.

As WWII ended and Italy began trying to rebuild itself, a group of women belonging to the UDI, a Communist women’s political party, began an initiative to save children who were suffering from malnutrition and disease, sending them to stay in welcoming homes in northern-central Italy. The families that took these children in weren’t wealthy by any means, they were mostly farmers and laborers. But they saw this as an opportunity to show solidarity with their neighbors who had paid such a heavy price during the war.

happiness train
Women from the UDI who organized the initiative leading children in a march. Their sign reads “We are the children of the South. The solidarity and love shown by the people of Emilia demonstrate that there is no north and south, only Italy”

The first “happiness train” left Rome’s Central Station on January 19, 1946, carrying about 1500 children from the city and surrounding countryside, with later trains taking children from Cassino, Naples, and Sicily. The first obstacle to overcome was ignorance. As the women organizing the initiative passed through the poorest districts of the cities, they were met with reluctance. It seems silly now, but at the time, there were persistent rumors that communists ate children, or turned them into soap. In the documentary, “Pasta Nera”, one woman recalls arriving at her new home as a little girl and seeing a fire in the fireplace. She immediately ran and hid, believing the communists were going to have her for dinner.

After convincing the families that the children would be well cared for, the organizers worked with the Italian Red Cross to plan the departure. The children were gathered and given coats for the journey to the much colder climes in the north, identification cards to wear around their necks, and, usually for the first time in their lives, a medical check-up. Then they boarded the trains for the long journey, which, depending on the departure city, could take as along as 2 days. The trains stopped in stations along the way, and volunteers would be waiting with food. In the documentary, one of the women who accompanied the children recalls being the sole adult responsible for a train car of over 100 children. She described it as a “nightmare”, worried that the children in their threadbare clothes and bare feet would fall ill, and constantly having to stop them from trading the identification cards they wore around their necks. However, the children recall the experience with joy. It was their first time on a train and they played with the other kids, running up and down the compartment. One said that she awoke from a nap and all of the children were staring out the window. One was murmuring, “It’s milk”, another, “No, its sugar”, another chimed in with “Don’t be ridiculous, it’s ricotta.” They were seeing snow for the first time.

happiness trains
Archivio UDI Ravenna

Obviously, what struck the children the most from their experience with their hosts was the food. Fresh bread and pasta, the first tastes of gelato and hot chocolate. Warm soup served in the school cafeteria. Their stomachs were actually full. But they also remember how geniunely they were welcomed, treated as part of the family from the very beginning. One man recalled how stunned he was to have a bed to himself, with fresh linens and a blanket. Another woman remembered that on the very first morning, a new outfit was ready and waiting for her to put on, sewn by her “foster mom” during the night. Communication between the guests and hosts wasn’t always easy, as during this period many Italians spoke only their regional language rather than Italian, but, as children do, they quickly adapted to their new surroundings.

The length of their stay with their host families varied, sometimes just a few months, in other cases as long as 2 years. A few even remained with their host families, not having much to go back home to. Many kept in touch with their hosts over the years. One of the women in the documentary, whose parents were hosts, noted that the focus was often on what they gave the children, providing for them when there was a very real possibility they may not otherwise have survived. But she maintained that the communities in Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany also received much in return. The two very different worlds of southern and northern Italy were brought together in a unique cultural exchange and both grew from the experience.

Sources: Documentary “Pasta Nera” by Alessandro Piva, and the book, “I treni della felicità: Storie di bambini in viaggio tra due Italie” by Giovanni Rinaldi

Fonte: post nel blog personale di Mary Manning (2019) https://www.marymanning.net/lingua-e-cultura/happiness-trains/