For more than seven decades, Martin Adler treasured a black and white photo in which he appeared as a young American soldier with a wide smile next to three italian children The impeccably dressed he saved as the Nazis retreated north in 1944.
On Monday, the WWII veteran, 97 years old, met the three brothers – now in their eighties – in person for the first time since the war.
Adler reached out to take those of Bruno, Mafalda and Giuliana Naldi during the joyous reunion at the Bologna airport, after a 20-hour trip from Boca Raton (Florida). So, just like he did when he was a 20-year-old soldier in the village of Monterenzio, handed out American chocolate bars.
“Look at my smile,” Adler said of the long-awaited reunion, made possible by the power of social media.
Martin Adler upon his arrival in Italy for the reunion with Giulio, Mafalda and Giuliana Naldi. Photo: AP
It was a happy ending to a story that could easily have ended in tragedy.
Hidden in a basket
The first time the soldier and the boys saw each other, in 1944, their three faces peeked out of a huge wicker basket where their mother had hidden them when the soldiers approached. Adler believed the house was empty, so he pointed his machine gun at the basket when he heard a noise, thinking that a German soldier was hiding inside.
“The mother, Mamma, came out and stood in front of my gun to stop it from firing,” Adler recalls. “He put his stomach against the gun and yelled: ‘Bambini! Bambini! Bambini! ‘ while pounding my chest, “Adler recalled.
“She was a real hero, the mother, not me. The mother was the real hero. Can you imagine what it’s like to stand in front of a gun and yell ‘Boys! No!’?” said.
Adler still shudders to remember that he came within seconds of opening fire on the basket. And after all these decades he still has nightmares about the warsaid his daughter, Rachelle Donley.
Martin Adler poses with Giulio (left), Mafalda (right) and Giuliana Nald. Photo: AP
The children, who were between 3 and 6 years old when they met, were a happy memory. Adler’s company stayed in town for a time and he visited them to play with them.
Giuliana Naldi, the smallest, She is the only one of the three who remembers the fact. He remembers coming out of the basket and seeing Adler and another American soldier, who has already passed away.
“They laughed,” recalls Naldi, who is now 80 years old. “They were glad they didn’t shoot.”
Giuliana Naldi, the youngest, is the only one of the three who remembers the event. Photo: AP
She, on the other hand, did not fully understand how close they had come to danger.
“We weren’t afraid of anything,” he says.
He also remembers the chocolate the soldier gave them, which came in a blue and white wrapper.
“We ate a lot of that chocolate,” he laughed.
The place where the four of them took that photo. Photo: AP
During the COVID-19 lockdown, Donley decided to use social media to try to locate the children from the old black and white photo, starting with groups of North American veterans.
Eventually, the photo was discovered by Italian journalist Matteo Incerti, who had written books on World War II. He was able to track down Adler’s regiment and where he was stationed from a small detail in another photograph.
The smiling photo was then published in a local newspaper, which revealed the identity of the three children, who by then they were already grandparents.
Handshake of Martin Adler and Giuliana Naldi. Photo: AP
They had a video meeting in December and waited for the easing of travel restrictions due to the pandemic to make transatlantic flight possible.
“I’m very happy and very proud of him. Because things could have been very different in a second. Thanks to him hesitating, there have been generations of peopleDonley said.
The good luck of what happened does not escape Giuliana Naldi’s 30-year-old granddaughter, Roberta Fontana, who is part of a family of six children, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren descended from the three boys hidden in the wicker basket .
Martin Adler in front of the house where he found the boys. Photo: AP
“Knowing that Martin could have shot and that no one in my family would exist is very shocking,” Fontana said. “It is very emotional.”
During his stay in Italy, Adler will spend time in the town where he was stationed, before traveling to Florence, Naples and Rome, where hopes to meet the Pope Francisco.
“My father is looking forward to meeting the pope,” Donley said. “He wants to share his message of peace and love. My father is all peace.”
By Charlene Pele, Associated Press
Translation: Elisa Carnelli