Learning his story

‘I certainly did not know very much about what it meant to be a Pierotti’

Photo submitted to the Times Observer Pictured is a monument at the top of the mountain at Sant’Anna, which depicts a young mother who has been shot with her crying baby trying to find comfort at her breast.

Writer and theologian C.S. Lewis once said, “You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.”

Tom Pierotti, of Corry, had no desire to change his beginning, but as he set his sights on unearthing his past, he went back and found an incredible story that “just doesn’t end.”

Pierotti said he always had an interest in learning more about his Italian heritage. Some of that interest sprouted from a couple of phrases his father repeatedly said to him as he was growing up.

His father often told him that he could have any career he wanted because he was a Pierotti. Unable to grasp the meaning as a young child, he struggled with those words.

“I did not understand why I should be privileged above any other boy my age,” he said. “Perhaps, more importantly, I certainly did not know very much about what it meant to be a Pierotti.”

Photo submitted to the Times Observer The village of Cesarana, one of seven small villages of the Commune di Fosciandora, the home of Tom Pierotti’s relatives in Italy.

His father also told him blood is thicker than water. “From a young age I understood this to mean that family was a most important part of life,” he said.

His journey to connect with his past started in 2008. That beginning of his journey would never have happened without the generosity of his congregation at Trinity Lutheran Church in Butler, he said. Funds from the Lilly Endowment allowed him, his wife and daughter to travel to Europe to search for relatives in Italy and Sweden.

Since that initial trip, there have been about five more trips to Italy, with the most recent trip over Easter. Pierotti will be making a speech at a place he first visited in 2013 with a man he never met. A man who spoke little English. A man who had not been back to the place Pierotti calls “holy” since he fled with his family 69 years prior, just one day prior to the Sant’Anna massacre in 1944.

Sant’Anna di Stazzema, officially Sant’Anna, is a village in Tuscany in central Italy.

In 1944, it was the site of a notorious Nazi crime against humanity committed by a part of 16th SS Panzergrenadier Division during World War II. On the morning of August 12, about 560 local villagers and refugees, including 130 children, were murdered and their bodies burnt in a scorched earth policy action. Following the war, the village was only partially rebuilt.

Photo submitted to the Times Observer Tom and Piero Pierotti stand in front of a wall with photos and names of all the children under age 16 who were slaughtered at Sant’Anna in 1944.

The massacre gained notoriety in 1994. During an investigation focused on war crimes in Italy during World War II, 695 files about war crimes were found in a wooden cabinet, known as the Armadio della vergogna (armoire of shame), located in a palace of Rome.

Since 2000, Sant’Anna has been the site of the Italian National Park of Peace (Parco Nazionale della Pace) with memorials and a museum dedicated to the massacre.

Piero Pierotti, his parents and baby brother were among the refugees living in Sant’Anna in 1944. His family sought refuge in the village when they fled their home in Pisa, in an attempt to escape the destruction and dangers of the war.

Piero was just four years old when he and his family fled Sant’Anna on foot, uncertain of where they would go and with little to sustain them. They left just one day prior to the massacre. Piero never went back until 69 years later when he drove his newly-acquired relative, Tom, there.

It took a series of events, people and social media to connect Tom and Piero Pierotti. In fact, Tom gives all the credit for the connection to Facebook.

Photo submitted to the Times Observer Tom and Piero Pierotti pose in the church at Sant’Anna. The pair visited the site in 2013. It was the first visit for Piero, whose family narrowly escaped a massacre of 562 people at the site in 1944.

Following Tom’s initial visit to Italy in 2008, he discovered a Facebook group dedicated to Pierottis from around the world. “There I learned of Piero,” he said. “But that would not have happened if I had not shared with that Facebook group a particular post and that post would not have happened if I had not read a particular book.”

The book was “The Cielo” by Paul Salsini. It’s a historical novel about wartime Tuscany. “It was the first time I heard about Sant’Anna,” he said. Once he confirmed that the story of the massacre was true and that 10 Pierottis were among those killed that day, Tom composed a post to the group announcing his intention to go to the site. “That’s when Piero contacted me,” he said.

Despite language barriers and a lack of cell phones to communicate, the pair of Pierottis connected and made their way up the mountain to Sant’Anna in October 2013. “I had no idea what I was getting into,” he said. “I was spending the day with a man I’d never met who hadn’t been back since he escaped many years ago.”

The pair didn’t speak much as they stood on the “same stones where people were mowed down with machine guns,” he said. “It was quiet. We were quiet.”

“It’s a holy place. It’s beautiful,” he said as he compared the occasion to one he experienced when he quietly touched the name of a friend on the Vietnam Memorial Wall. “Piero was coming back and I had never been there. It was emotional for both of us.”

Photo submitted to the Times Observer Tom Pierotti gathers with family in Italy during the end of the grape harvest.

As the pair were traveling away from the site, Tom asked Piero if he knew the words to a song he had discovered, “Bella Ciao.” Bella translates to beauty and Ciao means both goodbye and hello. Tom first heard the song in a video where an Italian priest led his congregation as they sang it. “It resonated with me,” Tom said. Piero knew the lyrics. The pair sang at the top of their lungs as they drove away from Sant’Anna that day.

The pair may have proven that music is food for the soul. And when it comes to food, dining in Italy is something Tom said is an experience like no other.

An invitation to lunch one day turned into an endless stream of “one course after another,” he said. “It wasn’t lunch. We still weren’t hungry the next day.”

Dining out at restaurants is unique also, he said. “They don’t rush you no matter how late it is,” he said. ‘They want you to take your time and enjoy your meal.”

It was while enjoying one meal, that he made another undeniable connection to his distant relatives. He was told that he eats pasta “like a Pierotti.” “I eat it with bread,” he said. “That’s a Pierotti-thing.”

There are many Pierotti-things he has realized since his father told him the importance of his heritage and family many years ago.

“My growing understanding of my father’s words about ‘Blood being thicker than water’ took on new meaning as I experienced Sant’Anna with Piero that day in October 2013,” he said. “My eyes were opened to see the world through a new lens.”

“This experience has made me so much more appreciative of simple things that I otherwise took for granted,” he said. “I came to see my family, my country, certainly all refugees, in a new light. And I also learned, through that day with Piero, that I can accomplish things that before I would have considered beyond my ability when I am committed to the task.”

“My day with Piero taught me that, even as an older person, new perspectives and new relationships are still available to me,” he said. “I am truly blessed.”

Following the trip in 2013, Piero emailed his recollections and story to Tom. Tom then started working on writing a book about his experience.

Pierotti will be at the Warren Public Library on Wednesday, May 15, from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m., to talk about his story “Bella Ciao-A Return to Sant’Anna,” and “The Little Red Coat,” by Piero Pierotti.