Before turning against the fascists, the writer Mario Rigoni Stern (1921–2008), a native of Asiago, in the northeast of Italy, served as a sergeant in Mussolini’s army. The experience informed his haunting memoir, The Sergeant in the Snow, the first of his many books. John Penuel has been a devoted translator of Rigoni Stern’s work for many years (two of his translations have appeared previously in these pages). Here is a passage from a new translation of Rigoni Stern’s story “In the Last Winter of War.”
One morning, when it was still dark, and the camp, buried in snow, was enveloped in total silence, the noncommissioned officer roused the third crew. The crew members were to go down to the Trofaiach station, board the civilian train, and go to Eisenerz, where they were to take the funicular railway up to the mine, go through the mountain in one of the many tunnels, and, finally, shovel the snow off a stretch of road, so the Belgian prisoners could bring up the snowplows.
During their 16 months of captivity, they had not once boarded a civilian train, and finding themselves in a warm compartment, in the midst of ordinary passengers and seats, was a strange and unthinkable experience. The passengers, women and children for the most part, were coming from Graz or Leoben and were perhaps going to Linz, and didn’t appear troubled by the presence of the crew. Although they weren’t exactly cordial, they did offer the occasional shy hint of a smile.
After the departure signal, the train, made up of just a few cars, and with a locomotive at the front and at the rear, puffed and whistled and began the climb in clouds of steam and accompanied by the creaking of the cog. It went through a few tunnels and was advancing slowly on the mountainside, through whirling snow whipped into a storm by the wind and blown onto the windowpanes, leaving nothing for the passengers to see. Then they stopped. Outside, there was just a whirling white light. The locomotive at the head let out two short blasts of the whistle, the one at the rear responded with three blasts, the train backed up about 30 meters as if to get a running start, the locomotives whistled, and they started out again. But not for long, because with the noise of buffers hitting each other and a shaking of the cars that almost knocked the passengers off their seats, the train stopped for good.
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