How we met: 45. Eric and Wanda Newby
Sunday 02 August 1992
ERIC NEWBY: I first saw Wanda from the window of the orphanage where I was being held a prisoner of war. She was riding past on a bicycle waving, and stood out because she was blonde and rather nice-looking. She wasn't waving in a tarty way - it was sort of 'Ciao for now.' We weren't supposed to wave, and the sentries would fire at us - all the windows were shattered in our block.
The Allied prisoners became quite a landmark in Fontanellato, and on Sundays, crowds would walk past the cemetery, ostensibly to look at their loved ones, but really to gaze at us.
I'd broken my ankle running up and down the stairs of the orphanage trying to keep fit to escape, so I had to bust out very slowly on a mule. I often think I should have kept going for three hundred miles to cross the lines, but instead I hid in a hayloft where I nearly sneezed myself to death from hayfever, and there I met Wanda. 'I saw you vonce in the orphanage and you vaved,' she said solemnly.
She started to teach me Italian, and the lessons continued when I'd been smuggled into the hospital and hidden up on the maternity floor next to the labour room. We only had a Say it in Italian book, which tells you things like how to buy a ticket for a train. Wanda was a pretty tough teacher and kept threatening that if I didn't learn the grammar properly she'd go away and teach somebody else instead. 'Luk slipi,' she'd say, 'horry op]' We'd do our lessons in the garden, chaperoned by some enormous nun, but things began to blossom, and I managed to get in a quick kiss when nobody was looking.
News of my whereabouts leaked out, and two Italian carabinieri were posted guard on my door. My next meal arrived with a note from Wanda under a hot plate. 'Get out tonight at 10pm otherwise Germany tomorrow 6am' it said, with instructions as to which little backstreet I was to meet my helpers. I faked an upset stomach, and on my twelfth visit to the lavatory shinned down the drainpipe, complete with a foot in plaster, and was taken to a hiding place by Wanda's father and his friend the doctor. Prisoners were being rounded up all over the place because some bloody fool British officer had kept a list of addresses of the people who hid us.
The doctor's car ran on gas and frequently broke down, once in the main square of Parma and the German military started shouting at us. We also drove straight past the 16th Panzer division on the via Emilia. I only saw Wanda once after that, when she came to see me in the mountains. We both knew how strongly we felt about each other, but my main preoccupations were worry for her safety and for my own survival when the snows came.
Wanda had a pretty ghastly time. Her father was arrested by the German SS and she freed him by doing a deal with the commandant to inform on her village. Of course she told him nothing of importance, but if the villagers had discovered the deal she could have been shot as an informant.
After the war, I started to try and get in touch with her. One day I was in St James's walking past White's club and bumped into an acquaintance who'd just seen Wanda in Italy. He invited me into the club for a drink and announced to the assembled company that I needed to get to Italy, could anybody give me a lift? A man put up his hand, and it was generally agreed that the best way would be if I joined MI9. White's has always been a good place to get a job.
I proposed to Wanda in the stables of a great medieval castle, and we were eventually married in the chapel of Santa Croce, Florence. But it was all quite difficult, as she was considered an enemy alien, and the Army was trying to discourage such marriages - extraordinary goings on, Neapolitan women arriving in Wales and having to cook Welsh food.
I think I'm more romantic than Wanda is - I get affected by things and cry easily. I also like talking all the time and Wanda goes into long periods of thinking Slavonic thoughts - she's more pessimistic than I am.
We haven't done any trips lately because Wanda was badly bitten by a monkey in India last year, but we would like to do a film of us going down the Ganges. Mind you, if we don't hurry up we'll probably end up being cremated on the banks.
WANDA NEWBY: Eric was roaring with laughter the first time I set eyes on him. It was in Italy in 1943 and he was a POW. He and several hundred others were imprisoned in an orphanage in my village of Fontanellato in the Po valley. We girls would cycle by to wave at them. I remember picking him out as the prisoners were marched through the village for exercise. They were naughty and marched too quickly for the Italian guards who couldn't keep up.
When the Allies advanced into Italy and the Armistice was signed in 1943, the prisoners were released, but the Germans heard about it and came pretty quickly with tanks. We had to help the prisoners hide. Eric, who'd broken his ankle, was with a group who hid on a farm. The girls managed to get into the orphanage before the Germans looted the Red Cross food and my friend Valeria, who lived in the countryside with rich parents, was also able to supply food. Her mother was Jewish and had to hide constantly - sometimes under the floorboards.
So we cycled around with our bicycle baskets full of food during the curfew. Had we been stopped by the Germans, we'd have had some difficult explaining to do, but it was so exciting - nothing ever happened in the Po valley until then. Once Valeria and I even had to hide in the hay with the prisoners while the Germans came. I'd come to Italy from Slovenia when I was 10, and was working in a bank at the time. That was useful because the farmers would come in and give me news of Eric. When he got to the hospital to get his ankle set, I would go and teach him Italian because I knew he'd have to speak it in order to survive. And Eric would correct my English: he still does.
When the Germans reached the hospital he had to be hidden in the mountains by my father's friend, the local doctor.
I learnt where Eric was in the mountains from some girls who came down to my village to pray at the shrine to the Madonna. I visited him there on one occasion and had to get a permit to travel by bus. That was the last time I saw him before he was recaptured and sent to a camp in Czechoslovakia. He couldn't get news to me until the end of the war when he returned to England and managed to get himself attached to MI9 and came to find me.
I'd been quite seriously involved with an Italian boyfriend before I met Eric, but he died. At that time, many of the boys in Italy were busy trying to avoid being sent into the army. My boyfriend's brother was a doctor who said he would infect him to give him a slight fever. It all went terribly wrong and he died of meningitis.
In Italy they say that when you are born, an apple is cut in half and when you marry the two halves are joined. I knew I wanted to marry Eric. He has a bit of mystery about him and though he's cheerful and I'm gloomy, we've a lot in common.
England was a bit difficult for me to begin with because we had to live with my in-laws. I was untidy and didn't speak much English. Things like the class system and the tremendous shortage of fruit really got me down. I also grieved my mother a lot by leaving. But when you start having babies, the whole thing changes. All the same, I still dream in Italian or Slovene after all these years.
Eric doesn't travel without me. He cycled 700 miles across England with somebody else last winter because I didn't want to do it in the cold. But it didn't work. Eric said he couldn't write the piece without my dialogue.-
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