Martin Adler has kept a black-and-white photograph of himself as a young American soldier with a bright smile and three immaculately dressed Italian children that he is credited with saving as the Nazis retreated northward in 1944 for more than seven decades.
A WWII veteran from the United States reunites with Italians he rescued as children
For the first time since the war, the 97-year-old World War II veteran met the three siblings, all of whom are now octogenarians. After a 20-hour flight from Boca Raton, Florida, Adler extended his hand to Bruno, Mafalda, and Giuliana Naldi for a happy reunion at Bologna’s airport. He then handed them bars of American chocolate, just as he did as a 20-year-old soldier in their village of Monterenzio. “Look at my smile,” Adler remarked of the long-awaited face-to-face reunion, which was made possible by social media’s reach. It was a pleasant ending to a story that had the potential to be tragic. The three faces peered out of a giant wicker basket where their mother had placed them as soldiers approached the first time the soldier and the children saw each other, in 1944. Adler assumed the house was unoccupied, so when he heard a noise, he pointed his machine gun on the basket, believing a German soldier was hiding within.
“The mother, Mamma, walked out and stood square in front of my rifle,” Adler recalled. “She pressed her stomach on my rifle, crying, ‘Bambinis! Bambinis! Bambinis!’ and pounded my chest,” Adler said. “The mother, not me, was a true hero. The mother was a hero in every sense of the word. “Can you picture standing in front of a pistol and yelling, ‘Children! No!’” he asked. When Adler recalls that he was mere seconds away from opening fire on the basket, he still trembles. And, according to his daughter, Rachelle Donley, dad still has dreams about the conflict after all these years. The children, who were between the ages of 3 and 6, were a lovely memory. For a while, his crew lingered in the village, and he would stop by and play with them. The youngest, Giuliana Naldi, is the only one of the three who remembers anything about the incident. Climbing out of the basket, she recalls seeing Adler and another American soldier, who has since died. “They were laughing,” recalls Naldi, who is now 80 years old. “They were relieved they didn’t have to shoot.” She, on the other hand, was perplexed by the close call. She remarked, “We weren’t afraid of anything.” She also recalls the soldier’s chocolate, which was wrapped in blue and white. She chuckled, “We ate so much of that chocolate.” Donley planned to use social media during the COVID-19 lockdown to try to locate the children in the old black-and-white photograph, beginning with veterans’ groups in North America.
The photo was eventually discovered by Italian journalist Matteo Incerti, who had published books about WWII. From a little detail in another shot, he was able to locate Adler’s unit and the location where it had been stationed. After the photo was published in a local newspaper, the identities of the three children, who were by that time grandparents, were discovered. They had a video reunion in December and waited for the loosening of pandemic travel restrictions to allow them to make the trans-Atlantic voyage. “I am overjoyed and proud of him. Because everything could have changed in a split second. There have been generations of people who have suffered as a result of his hesitation,” Donley added. Roberta Fontana, Giuliana Naldi’s 30-year-old granddaughter and one of six children, eight grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren descended from the three children hidden in the wicker basket, is aware of the serendipity. Fontana stated, “Knowing Martin could have fired and none of my family would exist is something very important.” “It’s a really emotional situation.” Adler will spend some time in the area where he was stationed during his stint in Italy before flying to Florence, Naples, and Rome, where he expects to see Pope Francis.
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