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NEXT STORY

Return from the war

RELATED STORIES

War experiences
Renato Dulbecco Scientist
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Dunque allora noi siamo ora qui alla fine dell'università, vado a fare il servizio militare e alla fine del servizio militare normale, ritorno a Torino per mettermi a lavorare di nuovo nel laboratorio di Levi. Quindi siamo un po' prima del '40, insomma '37 o qualcosa? La guerra è cominciata nel '36, perciò questo era il '35 forse. Mi sono messo a lavorare, lavoravo un po' con Rita lì e poi purtroppo è venuta la guerra e allora la guerra mi han chiamato a fare, ero ufficiale medico, ero sottotenente medico e mi hanno assegnato a un battaglione- reggimento che era lì a Imperia, che era il 90° Fanteria, si chiamava, della divisione Cosseria e sono stato lì parecchi parecchi mesi facendo niente, poi dopo, poi dopo- no, anzi, fermiamoci un momento- prima di questo io mi sono sposato a Imperia e dopo- Giovanissimo ti sei sposato! No, insomma, no- e poi quando ero lì nelle armi a Sanremo, abbiamo avuto un bambino- un bambino Pietro, Piero. Dunque, poi è venuta la guerra e mi hanno chiamato sotto le armi e per parecchio tempo sono stato lì facendo niente, lì a Sanremo, poi ci han mandato sul fronte francese, ma il fronte francese era una cosa da niente, perché è durato pochi giorni, la Francia era ormai distrutta insomma, per cui fondamentalmente eravamo lì- ci siamo spostati verso Mentone, insomma poca distanza e poi siamo ritornati. E poi la cosa seria è venuta quando ci hanno deciso, Mussolini ha deciso di mandare i soldati in Russia, al fronte russo, e il nostro reggimento è stato inviato lì, per cui, mi ricordo quando siamo partiti dalla stazione, questo bambino che aveva circa un anno, era così triste proprio pensare dilasciarlo lì non sapendo cosa sarebbe successo, forse non lo avrei mai più visto ecc-, insomma ricordo che era molto triste. Poi da lì siamo naturalmente avanti, avanti, avanti un pezzo per volta col treno attraverso la Polonia- Che periodo dell'anno era questo? Ricordi, era molto freddo? No, questa era estate Ah, era estate Era ancora la fine dell'estate. E lì anzi è avvenuta una cosa veramente che ha cambiato la mia vita, dico la verità ed è la seguente, un episodio accidentale. Questo treno attraversava la Polonia, mi pare dunque prima si era fermato a Varsavia, dove ero sceso camminando sul marciapiede su e giù e poi è ripartito, poi a un certo punto, verso sera, si è fermato in un posto dove evidentemente c'era una grande rete di binari, poi lì c'era evidentemente gente che lavorava, erano tutti uomini e donne, avevano vestiti neri e avevano una macchia gialla sulle spalle. Io allora ero innocente, non sapevo nulla di quello che stava succedendo, niente. Tutti non sapevano nulla Comunque uscendo giù dal treno perché era fermo, pure il tedesco lo conoscevo e c'era un impiegato che si avvicina e allora dico- Ma cos'è che stan facendo qui? Ma, dice- Ricostruiamo i binari, così. E dico- E tutta questa gente chi sono? Oh, dice,- Sono ebrei e quando hanno finito, kaput. Terribile, questo! Mi ricordo che sono salito sul treno spiegando ai miei colleghi quello che era successo, quello che voleva dire, tutti erano- sembrava una cosa incredibile che non ci avessero mai pensato, che una cosa simile fosse possibile. Per cui, da quel momento, io ho preso una decisione. Ho detto- Vabbè adesso son qui come- sono ufficiale medico, devo salvaguardare la salute, finché posso, dei miei soldati, continuerò a farlo, ma quando poi è finito, se ritorno indietro, non voglio più avere niente a che fare con l'esercito, coi militari, perché non posso approvare assolutamente la connessione del nostro paese con questi selvaggi e così ho passato circa nove mesi in Russia. Molto duri questi? Ma da principio c'era solo caldo, ogni tanto c'era qualcosa sul fiume Don, che è un fiume molto largo dove eravamo noi e ogni tanto c'era magari qualche incursione dei russi, brevi cose con qualche scontro, qualche ferito, così. Ma poi la cosa seria è venuta quando è venuto l'inverno, perché con l'inverno il fiume è gelato, per cui i russi potevano attraversare il fiume anche coi carri armati, perché era un gelo molto profondo e così è venuto l'attacco fondamentale su questo fiume, un punto così- Quindi, ti sei trovato nel vivo delle battaglie anche? Eh, altro che! Altrimenti io ero l'ufficiale medico ed ero il capo del servizio sanitario del reggimento, per cui non ero proprio sul fronte, ero magari poche centinaia di metri dietro. I feriti affluivano a me e io poi decidevo se erano cose lievi che potevano curarsi localmente oppure se dovevano andare all'ospedale. E naturalmente sono arrivate molte persone che conoscevo, amici con ferite gravissime e uno mi diceva- Rivedrò mai i miei figli? eccetera e dico- Ma, guarda, ti mando subito all'ospedale, ti opereranno. Poveretto, naturalmente, dopo un giorno o due era fatta e ce n'eran tanti di questi casi insomma. A un certo punto sono venuti i tedeschi, un battaglione tedesco è venuto a rinforzare quell'area e il medico del battaglione mi ha chiesto se poteva usare la nostra piccola infermeria, ma per i suoi soldati. Certo. E dice- Eh vedrà, dice- Li vinceremo i russi perché il nostro comandante ha la croce di ferro. Beh insomma! I pochi giorni successivi son tutti ritornati, tutti malandati tutti- povera gente.

So we are now here at the end of university, I'm going to do military service and at the end of normal military service, I return to Turin to start working again in Levi's laboratory. So we're a little earlier than 1940, 1937 or thereabouts? The war started in 1936, so this is perhaps about 1935. I started working, I was working a little with Rita and then unfortunately the war came and then the war called me forward, I was a medical officer, I was a medical sub-lieutenant and I was assigned to a battalion- regiment that was there in Imperia, which was the 90th Infantry, it was called, of the Cosseria division and I was there several months not doing very much, then afterwards, afterwards- no, in fact, let's stop a minute- before this I got married in Imperia and after- You were married very young! No, not really, no- and then when I was there in the army in Sanremo, we had a son- a son Pietro, Piero. So then the war started and I was called up to the army and for a long time I was there doing nothing, there in Sanremo, then we were sent to the French front, but nothing was really happening there, so that only lasted a few days, France was by this point destroyed, for which we were fundamentally there- we then moved on to Mentone, a short distance away and then we returned. And then the serious thing happened when they decided, Mussolini decided to send the soldiers to Russia, to the Russian front, and our regiment was sent there. I remember when we left the station, my son who was about one year old, it was so sad thinking about leaving him there not knowing what would happen, perhaps I would never have seen him again, etc.- In short, I remember that it was really sad. Then from there we naturally advanced on the train through Poland- What time of the year was this? Do you remember, was it very cold? No, this was summertime Oh, it was summer It was at the end of summer. And then in fact something happened that changed my life, No lie. It was an accidental episode. This train was crossing Poland, I think it was before it stopped in Warsaw, where I got off, was walking on the pavement back and forth and then it left again, then at a certain point, towards nightfall, it stopped at what was obviously a large station, there were lots of railway tracks, then there were people working there, there were men and women, they were wearing black clothes and had a yellow imprint on their shoulders. I was innocent then, I didn't know anything about what was happening, nothing. No- one knew anything However, getting down from the train because it had stopped, I knew a little German and there was a worker approaching and I said- What are you doing here? To which he replied- We're rebuilding the tracks. And I said- And who are all these people? - Oh he said- They are Jews and as soon as they've finished, kaput. That's terrible! I remember that I got back onto the train and explained to my colleagues what had happened, what he meant, everyone was- it seemed such an incredible thing that I had never thought about, that such a thing were possible. So from that moment on, I made a decision. I said-I'm here as- I am a medical officer, I have to safeguard the health, as far as possible, of my soldiers, I shall continue to do this, but when this is over, if I make it back, I don't want to have any more to do with the army, with soldiers, because I absolutely cannot approve the association of our country with these savages and so I spent about nine months in Russia. Were these very hard months? Well from the beginning, only because it was hot, every so often there was something on the Don River, which is a very wide river where we were and every so often there was some raid by the Russians, short things with some collision, some casualties. But the serious thing happened when Autumn came, because as Autumn set in the river froze over, so that the Russians were able to cross the river even with their tanks, because the ice was very thick and so the main attack happened on this river, a point that was- So, you found yourself in the heart of battles as well? You bet! Likewise I was the medical officer and I was the head of the health service for the regiment, so I wasn't right on the front, I was a hundred or so metres back. Casualties flocked towards me and then I was having to decide if they were slight injuries that could be looked after locally or if they had to go to hospital. And of course many people that I knew arrived, friends with very serious injuries and one said to me-Will I ever see my children again? and I said-Listen, I'll send you straight to hospital and they'll operate on you. Poor fellow, after a day or two he was dead and there were many cases like this. At a certain point Germans came, a German battalion came to reinforce the area and the battalion doctor asked me if he could use our little infirmary, for his soldiers. Sure. And he said-We'll see he said-We'll beat the Russians because our commanding officer has the Iron Cross. Oh well! Everyone returned over the next few days, everyone battered. Poor people.

The Italian biologist Renato Dulbecco (1914-2012) had early success isolating a mutant of the polio virus which was used to create a life-saving vaccine. Later in his career, he initiated the Human Genome Project and was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1975 for furthering our understanding of cancer caused by viruses.

Listeners: Paola De Paoli Marchetti

Paola De Paoli Marchetti is a science journalist who graduated with an honours degree in foreign languages and literature from the University Ca’Foscari, Venice. She has been a science journalist since the 1960s and has been on the staff of the newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore since 1970. She was elected president of UGIS (Italian Association of Science Journalists) in 1984. She has been a Member of the Board of EUSJA (European Union of Science Journalists’ Associations, Strasbourg), and was its president in 1987-1988 and 1998-2000. In May 2000 she was unanimously elected president emeritus. She was a member of the National Council of Italian Journalists (1992-1998). From 2002 to 2004 she was member of the working group for scientific communication of the National Committee for Biotechnology. She has also been a consultant at the Italian Ministry of Research and Technology and editor-in-chief of the publication MRST, policy of science and technology. She has co-authored many publications in the field of scientific information, including Le biotecnologie in Italia, Le piste della ricerca and Luna vent’anni dopo.

Duration: 8 minutes, 3 seconds

Date story recorded: May 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008