15 Feb,2018 By Jagabond
Today marks the 74th anniversary of the bombardment that destroyed the Monte Cassino abbey. It was a grievous casualty of the last great war. As shown in the artist rendition of the aftermath, the monks escaped. The hundreds of townspeople hiding within weren’t so lucky.
Saint Benedict converted this from a pagan temple to a monastery in the 6th century. He had a vision of its first destruction. History has seen the abbey destroyed on four separate occasions. First decimated by the Lombards, then the Saracens. An earthquake leveled the abbey hundreds of years before the World War II bombing. Why keep rebuilding? Maybe Benedict’s spirit lived on to inspire, with his most famous words ‘ora’ and ‘labora’, meaning ‘pray’ and ‘work’.
These two words became the foundation of the Benedictine monks. Saint Benedict also penned the Benedictine Rule, which acted as a ‘how to’ guide for monastic life. After skimming the basics, I realized the monk profession isn’t for everyone. It outlines humility in twelve not-so-simple steps, and forbids monks from defending or striking one another. It also prohibits eating the ‘flesh of four-footed animals.’ His writings are his legacy, still used by monks fifteen centuries later.
What happened on February 15th, 1944, was by nearly all historical accounts a tragic mistake. Even towards the end of the war, the Germans were holding strong in this region of Italy. According to intelligence reports, the German soldiers were hiding out inside the abbey…but they weren’t. Instead they spread out across the mountain in the adjacent wooded area. Allied forces began bombing the morning of the 15th, wiping out 85% of this magnificent building. Survivors focused on small miracles, like the artillery shell that never went off, now preserved in the abbey’s museum.
The war story of Monte Cassino didn’t end with the destruction of the abbey. German troops were still in the area, hoping to secure a strategic advantage. Unfortunately for them, a motivated group of Polish soldiers were also there, led by General Wladyslaw Anders. The ragtag group of Poles were formerly prisoners of the Soviet Union, trained by the British, and looking for a fight. Their battle with the Germans lasted for days, until they finally hoisted the Polish flag over the abbey ruins. This kept the Germans occupied allowing the British to advance. Heaven reclaimed more than 900 souls that day. The Polish cemetery next to the abbey honors their sacrifice.
The Polish people have immense pride for this moment in history. The battle inspired a famous song, entitled ‘The Red Poppies on Monte Cassino.’ General Anders survived, but lost his Polish citizenship due to the communist occupation. He later married Irena Jaroseiwicz, with whom he had a child. He died in 1970, and now lays eternally with the soldiers who fought so hard with him at Monte Cassino. His wife would later join him.
Rebuilding the abbey after the war took prayer and hard work…and money from the Italian government. Builders used modern materials while preserving the past when possible. The archway shown below dates back to the Roman Empire. The wooden door you see is where the Italian locals entered seeking refuge, and would later become casualties of the bombing.
Excavations of Monte Cassino and the surrounding area uncovered various artifacts among the ruins. A ‘museum wall’ in the abbey now proudly displays these remnants of history.
Today the abbey is a serene escape from the chaos of nearby Naples. Lovers of triumph through tragedy stories will appreciate how this building has stayed resilient over the ages. Spend an afternoon here, and let the peaceful interior and views of the countryside suppress the stress in your life.
Bottom Line: Monte Cassino is located approximately an hour north of Naples, and an hour south of Rome. The history and emotion you’ll find in the abbey makes it definitely worth a day trip. The drive up the mountain isn’t bad, even for an anxious driver like me. For those without a car, bus service is frequent from downtown Cassino. I highly recommend the private tour from Patrizia, who is extremely knowledgeable about the abbey and speaks both Italian and English fluently. Book the tour by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.