The late Norman Lewis is today considered one of the great travel writers in English, but in 1944, he was a young intelligence officer in the British army stationed in Naples, Italy. Naples had just been liberated from the Nazis, and the Neapolitans were in a bad way. Simply put, there was practically no food for the locals, though British and American army forces had plenty. To survive, as documented by young Lewis, the Italians turned to prostitution and thievery. Mothers and fathers prostituted their daughters. Grandmothers prostituted their granddaughters. Husbands prostituted their wives. Princes prostituted their sisters. (Or they attempted to. Lewis tells of an Italian prince who came to him asking if his 24-year old sister could enter a British army brothel. When told there was no such thing, he sighed and said, “A pity.”)
Lewis, who spoke Italian, was witness to these things, and all that he saw, especially the inhumanity of not just the Nazis, but also of the Allied forces, moved him deeply. He did what he could to aid the desperate Italians, but what he could do was very little except bear witness, which he does in this book.
The Nazis, for example, planted delayed-action mines timed to go off in civilian locations like banks, days after they had withdrawn, the only object being the death of civilians. But Allied deserters also attacked the local peasants, subjecting, as Lewis says, Italian women “to every conceivable indignity, including attempted buggery.”
If they couldn’t earn money through prostituting their women, the Neapolitans stole. One thing they stole was the copper wire used to carry Allied telephone messages. Other things were jeeps, weapons, tires, even tanks.
Lewis memoir is a reminder that those who suffer most in war are women, the old and the young. Considering what is going on in various parts of the world today, it is an especially apt reminder.