By David Abbott
Sonoma Seniors Today Editor
At the age of 90, Amos Coli is an active participant in the Sebastopol Area Senior Center’s In the News, a current events discussion group that has been meeting for many years. His perspectives add a lively element to the discussions, but with an outlook on life and politics filtered through the fog of war after a year spent imprisoned in a Nazi work camp, and a story that comes complete with a miraculous escape.
In May 1944, just a few months after his 17th birthday, German soldiers rounded up Coli and six others from his village near Pisa. The war was winding down, and after American bombers took out an anti-aircraft gun the Germans set up in the town, residents thought it was safe to come out of hiding.
But one day, approaching soldiers Coli thought were Americans turned out to be Germans.
Before they knew what was happening, the group was taken to one of the most brutal and little-known work camps in Germany, Mittelbau-Dora.
“The Americans came in and dropped bombs and we thought the Germans were gone, so we weren’t hiding anymore,” Coli remembers. “But two Germans picked me up and they took us to the work camp in the Harz Mountains near Nordhausen.”
They were thrown in with other prisoners and forced into hard labor, in an attempt to finish a production facility for V-2 rockets the Nazi regime hoped to use in a desperate attempt to turn the losing tide of the war.
Born in February 1927, Coli’s life was touched by war from the beginning.
His father, who fought against the Germans in WWI, was gassed in the trenches but survived to return home after the war without the use of an arm and a leg. In 1925, Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini declared himself dictator and in 1940 allied with Germany for the coming war.
Coli’s father died three years later, when the son was 15 years old. The following year, Coli found himself being intentionally worked to death by a fading regime aware the end was near.
“The Italian people were 90 percent against Mussolini. It was a big, stupid mistake to join the Germans,” Coli said. “We won the war (WWI) and then 20 years later there’s another war? In school, we learned about the Romans and the Greeks. After 2,000 years, you’d think we’d learn how to live together.”
Coli went to school in Pisa and grew up in a little town four or five miles away that was “much like Sebastopol.”
He was in school until he was 16, when the bombs started falling and one landed on his school. The school trained engineers, mechanics and other technical vocations to aid in the coming war. That war became a horrible reality for Coli in 1944.
By the end of 1943, Mittlebau had the highest death rate in the entire concentration camp system. The camp was in central Germany, away from the bombs of Allied forces that had severely damaged the production facility on the Baltic island of Usedom.
Out of an estimated 60,000 prisoners taken to the camp between October 1943 and April 1945, at least 20,000 died from overwork, disease, abuse or bombings.
Prisoners were slowly and intentionally starved in order to break spirits and quell resistance. Meals consisted of black bread and water for breakfast, no lunch, with thin cabbage soup and an occasional potato for dinner.
When prisoners first arrived, they were more or less healthy. They worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week building tunnels and a bunker for the factory. Running jackhammers, tying rebar and pouring concrete were jobs for new arrivals, but as they lost strength—usually within three months—workers were given less-taxing work, such as moving debris away from the site.
“When you arrive, you are strong, but after a few months you are not,” Coli said. “You worked, you died and more people came along. The trucks would come every day and take away the dead.”
The workers wasted away to skin and bones. There was no medical care, not even a bandage; no showers, lice infestations and Coli wore the same clothes for a year. His shoes wore out and he was fortunate to find a scrap of gunnysack to wrap around the remains to help protect his feet.
“They chewed us up; people died every day,” Coli said. “People died of tuberculosis, bronchitis, pneumonia … I was lucky.”
Under such horrible circumstances, what could possibly keep someone alive?
“Survival: I was young and physically strong,” he said. “You’d get so weak you couldn’t feel anything. Food was our main concern. The dirt didn’t matter.”
Coli hung on to whatever he could to keep going as he watched people weaken and die around him.
He found that a pile of dirt in a field near his barracks was for growing potatoes, so he contrived to retrieve a small portion of food and a bit of hope.
“I took a chance and went out in the moonlight and tried to reach for a potato. My hands were frozen it was so cold,” he said. “I brought them back to the barracks and we cooked them in a can. I only did it twice. It was very dangerous.”
Eventually, three of his neighbors died and in April 1945, the Germans began a large-scale evacuation ahead of the final Allied push to end the war. But the prisoners were not being freed, they were being taken to Dachau in order to “destroy the evidence.”
“They put us in animal cars, but when the Allies bombed the train I jumped off and ran into the woods,” Coli said.
He spent two days hiding from the Germans and listening to explosions as the final battles raged around him. When Allied troops found him, the 5’10” Italian weighed a mere 65 lbs and was days, if not hours, from death.
“They gave me a shower and sprayed me with DDT to get rid of the lice,” Coli said. “I was losing my hair from malnutrition.”
He was treated in Erfurt Hospital from April 17 to May 3, 1945 and was released to go home.
After the war, he returned home to Italy and went to work to support his mother. He found a job working on the railroad, manning a road crossing.
He briefly toured Germany hoping to come to grips with what happened.
“When I came back from Germany, I was out of my mind,” he said. “I couldn’t believe the destruction: In some towns there was nothing left. When I think about it, it was unbelievable what you saw. Skeletons walking; the kids become like zombies.”
Members of his family emigrated to the U.S. in 1900, so in February 1948, his uncle in California sponsored him to enter the U.S.
Coli turned 21 the day he boarded the ship for Ellis Island.
When he arrived, the first thing they asked was if he was willing to fight for the U.S. He responded that he had just survived a war and a labor camp, but they signed him up for the draft anyway.
He moved to Santa Clara in 1951 and found he had two German neighbors who went to Holland to get away from the Nazis.
“When we talked, we thought nothing of it,” he said. “They were nice people and we’d get together with a Russian neighbor.” There would be Russian food, Jewish, German and Italian.
He met a “nice little red-haired girl” named June, married her and moved to San Jose. They were married 62 years until her death in 2011.
When he became a resident, Coli was drafted for Korea, but June became pregnant, so he was reclassified and never called to service. After that, he became a U.S. citizen.
His uncle owned an Italian restaurant and taught him to cook and after two years he went to work for his uncle’s friend at Vahl’s Italian Restaurant in San Jose for the next 38 years.
He moved to Forestville to live with his daughter Christine Huemer after June died.
For a decade after the war, Coli was unable to talk about his experience, not even telling his wife or daughter.
“I went to Las Vegas with my wife and there were some Germans outside of the elevator. Hearing the language set me off,” he said. “I told her about it but never all the details.”
Huemer heard hints of it throughout her childhood, but did not know the full details until Coli opened up to her husband Bill decades later.
“When I was 10 or 11, we had neighbors that were German Jews and I overheard a conversation where she asked him not to wear a certain shirt because it reminded her of an SS uniform,” Huemer said. “He said he felt the same way about the German language, so they stopped speaking German around him.”
Coli is willing to talk about it now, offering his insights as a cautionary tale about the danger and horrors of war.
“You split with people and lose humanity,” he said. “I think of all the people that died for no reason at all….”
But Coli also thinks there are important takeaways too.
“Do it now,” Coli said. “Tomorrow is too late. You say you are too busy, but then you get sick and you die. Put away the telephone and take time for yourself and your family,” he concluded.
The In the News Discussion Group meets every Thursday from 10-11:30 a.m. at the Sebastopol Area Senior Center, located a 167 N. High St. Sebastopol. Call 829-2440 for details.