One day last April, months before Ruben Valdez would die in his sleep, he received a phone call from a woman in Rome whom he’d never met.
The woman, Raffaella Cortese, had been nervous to make the call. She wasn’t sure she had the right number, and even if she did, she wasn’t sure how to tell Valdez why she was calling: Cortese, a World War II historian, had tracked down the previously untold story of how Valdez’s brother, Paul, died in a small Italian town at the hands of the Nazis.
When Valdez picked up, Cortese introduced herself and explained that Paul Horatio Valdez had been a prisoner of the Nazis as early as December 1942, that in January 1944 he had been forced on a train headed for a German concentration camp. A bomb that hit the train killed hundreds, but Paul and seven other American soldiers survived and snuck off to the countryside outside of Rome. For weeks they lived in hiding, moving from place to place to evade the Nazis.
The eight Americans eventually reached the hilly town of Montebuono, where, on April 13, 1944, Nazis found and brutally murdered them, Cortese told Valdez. She explained that the monastery atop the town is decorated with frescoes, and that on some of them one can still see bullet holes from the day the Americans were slaughtered.
At the other end of the phone line in Colorado, Valdez, in his 80s and in declining health, said nothing.
“I was really embarrassed, thinking maybe I had the wrong person,” Cortese said.
He finally spoke.
“Horacio,” he whispered, correcting Cortese’s pronunciation of the middle name. “He was my brother.”
“At that point,” Cortese said last week by phone from Italy, “I said, ‘Sir what can I add? What can I do?’ ”
She could’ve stayed on the phone for hours. Finding the lost stories of dead World War II soldiers is her greatest passion, and she’s very good at it. Italy’s largest newspaper, La Repubblica, recently published her exhaustive report, “The Lost Platoon,” on 15 American soldiers of Italian origin who were murdered by Nazis in northern Italy.
“People deserve the little contribution in their desperation that I can give them, to close the circle,” she said. “The families have this huge question mark, and sorrow.”
“Don’t forget him”
To Ruben Valdez, the story of Paul had been filled with question marks. Ruben, the youngest of nine, would in his adult life ascend to become an influential figure in state politics, serving as the state’s first Latino speaker of the House. He was a giant at the Capitol whose presence, those who knew him say, is still felt.
But in 1944, Ruben was 7, and four of his brothers were World War II soldiers. The other three survived. But Paul died and then, two years later, their father did, too. These two events would eventually force Ruben to drop out of school at 15 to support his mother and siblings by taking a job at the Pueblo brickyard.
He later went back to school and became the first in his family to graduate college. He rose through union ranks and ran for, and won, a seat in the Colorado House in 1970.
His children said Ruben never forgot Paul. The family had Paul’s old prayer book, which had a bullet hole in it, and his prisoner-of-war tag, written in German. But Ruben never knew much more about him.
“He always wanted us to remember, especially on holidays or Veterans Day,” said Ruben’s eldest, who is also named Ruben. “He would remind us: ‘My brother, your uncle Paul, was killed in World War II, and don’t forget him.’ But as far as we knew, we just knew the basics, that he had been captured and killed in action.”
By the time Cortese called, the elder Ruben was too weak to engage at any length. But the closure she offered through her research elated him, said daughter Peggy Valdez.
“It was just amazing to see my dad light up,” she said. “It was one of the highlights of his final year.”
That final year was a constellation of ailments: Ruben’s legs got weaker, and doctors found he had an issue in his spinal cord. Soon he could not walk or get out of bed on his own. A doctor suggested surgery on his neck, which he got, but he needed another two surgeries after that. His leg was amputated, and he suffered heart problems, too. On Sept. 30 of this year, he went to sleep and never woke up.
Added son Ruben, of his father’s end of life, “He was pretty depressed about everything, not wanting to go on. When he found out about his brother, it lit a light inside of him, and I think it really made him feel the best that he had felt.”
A particular joy for him was a Skype call Cortese arranged between Valdez family members and residents of Montebuono, including the mayor and several elderly people who knew Paul and the seven other American soldiers, and who witnessed their slaughter. The two groups spoke for about an hour, with Cortese translating.
“We’re waiting for you”
Last week, through Cortese, some of these witnesses shared memories with The Denver Post.
“I have a special place in my heart for those young Americans,” said Alfredo Sapora, who was 12 when Paul Valdez died. “We were seven children in the family, and my mother managed to take care of us all by herself. Of course she took care of the eight young men, too.”
“The word about the murder spread very quickly,” said Nello Luchetti, who was 13. “I went up the mountain and saw these poor fellows riddled with bullets. A spy, a horrible spy, had given information to the Germans that they were there.”
“I was only 10, but I felt so sad,” said Tommaso Abati. “My father went up to the monastery with the parish priest. He had fought in World War I and had never seen anything as cruel.”
Montebuono is about 40 miles outside of Rome. Fewer than 1,000 people live there. And the massacre that claimed Paul Valdez remains a defining moment for the town.
“I told the mayor of Montebuono I’d come see him,” said the younger Ruben. “He said, ‘We’re waiting for you.’ ”
The elder Ruben also wanted very much to go there, but he was in no shape for such a trip. In November, five weeks after he died, his son and his daughter-in-law flew to Italy. They connected with Cortese and went together to Montebuono. They dined with the mayor and on the morning of Nov. 10 they walked in a procession through the town’s winding streets. There was a mass, and then they all went to the hilltop monument for the fallen soldiers. The son Ruben spoke to the crowd, and Cortese translated.
They retreated to Rome and shared memories and meals.
Ruben and his wife returned to Colorado two weeks ago. He described Cortese as “amazing” and “an angel.”
Peggy said other Valdez family members plan to make the trip to Montebuono next year. For all involved, the connection and the friendship that has resulted is surreal.
“If I close my eyes, to tell you what I remember in a flash,” Cortese said, “it’s Ruben coming all the way from Colorado, Ruben on top of a mountain in Italy, seeing for the first time the name of his uncle on a plaque.”
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