Images and text by Selwyn Manning – Scoop Co-Editor
The Abbey high above the Italian town of Cassino was once the dread of thousands of New Zealanders during a famous Battle here from January to May 1944. But today, the once bombed out ruins have been restored to near original condition.
60 years ago, New Zealanders were bombed and gunned down from fortifications here held by German paratroopers. Today, New Zealand World War II veterans were welcomed to the former German fortress by the Benedictine Abbot who received a chalice and other valuables once taken from the ruins.
The restored Abbey is an almost exact replica of the creation turned into a fortress by the German Army in 1943. Today, above a main entry is the Roman word PAX, which means peace in English.
And peace is what resounds from this most holy place. Here birds sing high above the formidable slopes. Swallows soar with swept-backed wings feeding their young nested cosily in the crooks and crannies of the Abbey’s walls. The wind whistles a cherry song, and this culture masks what was once a hideous demonstration of mankind’s worst.
If past shadows lurk, they cannot be felt here. The gardens are immaculate, tended by the Benedictine monks, who live by a book simply titled The Rule. Their life is comparatively a simple existence of prayer and good works, where the beauty of inner peace rests naturally on their faces.
This is a place of peace. And how apt is this contrast to 60 years ago, when around 20,000 human beings died in the twisted rubble of this war-torn town.
Perhaps this, and the faces of the young children of Cassino, are what the old veterans here once fought for. But grandiose thoughts of honour and ideal they say are lost in the desperation of battle.
Let us not forget.
Prime Minister Helen Clark returns souvenirs taken from the bombed Abbey in 1944.
View over Cassino, including the railway station where New Zealand frontline soldiers were pinned down by the Germans occupying the Abbey.