Wednesday, 23 May 1945

Liberation and post-war period: Ugo Brilli

"Then we left. We went towards Poland. Sometimes they [the Soviets] stopped us, they needed workers. Because they all had field kitchens and they told us that we should help them with the work. They made us peel potatoes, wash the vegetables. In the evening we left again and went on... Then they arrested me and took me to a factory to dismantle it. A textile factory that made fabrics. They made us pack the machines with wood and nail them together. We Italians were really happy, they gave us food... They took us back to this camp. Then the disease broke out and they let us go. We Italians were among the first. There was a rumor, 'Tomorrow we're going home, going back to Italy.' Oh, my goodness, what a joy. And they took us as far as the Brenner Pass." (Memories of the former forced laborer Ugo Brilli)

Ugo Brilli was born in 1922 as a second child in the Tuscan community of Pratovecchio. In May 1943 the Italian army drafted the 21-year-old into military service. When Italy withdraws from the war in September of the same year, Wehrmacht soldiers arrest all Italian military personnel, including Ugo Brilli. Like many other Italian soldiers, Brilli refused to continue fighting for Hitler and Mussolini. The Wehrmacht then deported him to a prisoner of war camp in Luckenwalde, Brandenburg.

From there Brilli is sent to Berlin as a forced labourer. At Siemens he first has to clear rubble. During his imprisonment, Brilli learns how to ensure his own survival: "When I became a prisoner of war, I quickly realized that I had to pick up everything I could. Whether it was potato peels or dropped cigarette butts, they were more valuable to my comrades and me than gold." Ugo Brilli weighs 71 kg at the start of his captivity, but only 48 kg by the end.

In a forced labour camp in Berlin-Weissensee, working as a kitchen assistant saves his life. Brilli buys cigarettes on the black market, with which he bribes the German chef to stay at his workplace. Working in the kitchen is comparatively easier, and he gets more to eat. Equipped with these privileges, Brilli soon begins to supply his comrades with food.

When a bomb hits the shelter of his fellow prisoners on 7 May 1944, 53 of them die. Brilli survives with great luck. Ugo Brilli experiences the liberation in the GBI camp 75/76 (today the Nazi Forced Labour Documentation Centre). He had waited for the last days of the war in an air-raid shelter: "On the second day came ... you could hear a rattling noise and a convoy of tanks came and you saw the sickle and the hammer, there was red ... it was the Russians."
The supply collapses, and Brilli has to search the cellars of neighbouring houses for something to eat: "I didn't want to steal, but I was forced to by hunger. (...) Suddenly I looked into the barrel of a pistol. The owner was defending his food, so I had to flee without potatoes."

But the liberation of Berlin does not mean the end of his time far from home for Brilli. The Red Army lets him march towards Poland with other liberated Italians. There they are again placed in a camp and used to dismantle a factory.

When typhus spread in the camp, the Soviets decided to send the Italians home. In September 1945 Ugo Brilli returns to his family in Italy, seriously ill with typhus. He marries and has two children. Today he lives in northern Italy.

On 9 December 2019 Ugo Brilli is awarded the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in recognition of his contribution to a common culture of remembrance in Germany and Italy.

(Source: Interview with Ugo Brilli on 22 April 2012 in Campi Bisenzio, Tuscany, Collection of the Nazi Forced Labour Documentation Centre)