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from issue no. 08 - 2004

Those birthcries stronger than the bombs

In the early months of 1944 the inhabitants of the Castelli Romani were worn out by the war. Pius XII lodged twelve thousand people in the papal Villa. Thirty six babies were born in the apartments of the pope in that period. We met two of them, the twins Eugenio Pio and Pio Eugenio Zevini

by Lucio Brunelli

Above, the two Zevini twins, in front of the “house where they were born”; below, the newborn twins 
(the first to the right, in the arms of their mother) in the Pope’s bedroom at Castel Gandolfo

Above, the two Zevini twins, in front of the “house where they were born”; below, the newborn twins (the first to the right, in the arms of their mother) in the Pope’s bedroom at Castel Gandolfo

Pio Eugenio and Eugenio Pio naturally resemble each other. Same wardrobe-like shoulders, same handshake that makes it difficult to say “pleased to meet you” when they squeeze yours. And same party card. «Always paid-up members of the Communist Party, as our father learned us», they confide in perfect Castelli Romani slang. Pio Eugenio and Eugenio Pio are two very special twins. The only twins to the world born in the palace of a pope. They saw the light on 1 March 1944, in the pontifical Villa of Castel Gandolfo. Exactly in the bedroom of Pius XII, transformed for the occasion into a nursery. The Zevini parents had been taken in, together with thousands of other evacuees and people hiding from the Nazi SS, into the sumptuous summer residence of the popes. They had communist sympathies but they had no doubt when they came to choosing names for new arrivals: Pio Eugenio and Eugenio Pio, in gratitude to Pope Eugenio Pacelli who had saved them from the horrors of the war. An ex voto engraved on their identity cards. And in their memory. «We are honored to bear the name of that Pope», say the two sixty year old twins today strolling in front of the palace where they were born. «Pius XII made a noble gesture, we can’t forget him».

The way things went
On 22 January 1944, the Allies landed at Anzio, on the southern coast of Lazio. Pio and Eugenio were still unborn but had been already conceived. Their mother, a resident of Castel Gandolfo, was seven months pregnant. Like all the inhabitants of the area she was going through days of fear and of anguish. In fact, recovering from the surprise, the Nazi soldiers had reorganized, blocking the allies’ advance on Rome and were always ready to vent their anger at the disastrous course of the war on the civilian population. The American bombing became very violent and ever closer. Caught between two fires, the people fled their homes with the few things they were able to carry. Many in search of a safer refuge began to crowd in front of the gate of the papal Villa of Castel Gandolfo. It was a young monsignor in the Vatican Secretariat of State, Giovanni Battista Montini (the future Paul VI), who informed Pius XII, practically a prisoner in the Vatican at the time. The decision was taken with no hesitation. That same day, 22 January seventy years ago, the doors of the Castel Gandolfo residence opened to a crowd of around 12,000 refugees. None of them were asked for a baptism certificate or about their political beliefs. The few black and white photos in the museum archives show a long and silent column of people – burdened with mattresses and a few other personal belongings – entering the palace of the Pope through the front gateway that opens on the town’s main square. As a Vatican enclave, Pius XII’s residence enjoyed extra-territoriality. A particular diplomatic statute guaranteed the inviolability of its confines to all armies or militias.
Eugenio Pacelli’s aristocratic origins are often mentioned, his hieratic image and detachment from ordinary people. But how many churchmen today would open their doors to such an uncontrollable mass of people without thought for the financial costs and the political risks? Twelve thousand refugees stayed in the summer palace of the pope for all of four months. Until the fighting ended, with the liberation of Rome, on 4 June 1944. They were given a hot meal every day. Among them were many Jews and political activists on the run. In those four months the bombs came very close to the papal Villa: the marks made by fragments can still be seen on the outside walls. But no bomb exploded inside and there were no victims among the terrified people that had crowded there for shelter. Outside it was an inferno. Other consecrated buildings standing only a few hundred meters away were not spared by the violence of war. On 1 February 1944 an allied bomb destroyed the convent of the Clarissas and Basilians, killing 16 cloistered nuns. On 10 February another terrible raid hit the College of Propaganda Fide, where other refugees from nearby towns had been taken in, and the result was a massacre: there were more than 500 victims.
Pio Eugenio and Eugenio Pio, blissfully unaware of the dramatic happenings, lay calmly in the womb of Signora Zevini. They were not the only babies waiting to see the light. During those four months in the papal Villa 36 children were born. The private apartment of Pius XII was reserved for women close to term. «Every time the birthcry of a baby went up», remembers Marcello Costa, an18 year-old at the time and after the war Christian Democratic mayor of Castel Gandolfo for all of 33 years, «immediately the prayer of thanksgiving went up as well». Instants of joy, moments of praise, more intense than the blast of the bombs that sometimes shook the window of the palace. Almost all the newborn babies were called Pio or Eugenio. Gestures of gratitude towards Pius XII. Only one pair of twins was born, that to the Zevini couple. That was on 1 was March 1944. Sixty years later it is moving to chat with the two twins in the square of Castel Gandolfo; looking at the gateway that their parents entered six decades or so ago, with their hearts in their mouths. «Here everybody calls us the Pope’s twins», they smile. We go into a cafe in the main square and as soon as the woman behind the counter sees them she lights up and says: «You don’t know it, but I saw you get born in there… I was twelve years old, me and my family had been taken into the papal Villa … I slipped into the room and saw you get born… people cried, people laughed, what a racket…». Pio Eugenio and Eugenio Pio are two big men, they’ve always worked hard for a living, they’re not people who cry easily. Nor are they the kind that go on talk shows. But it’s clear they’re a bit moved. It sounds like a fairytale. But it’s history. The history of a pair of communist twins who bear in their names and souls the mark of the charity of a Pope.

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