Skip to main content

Franca's Story: Survival in World War II Italy

About the Book

Franca's Story: Survival in World War II Italy

This memoir of life in wartime Italy is based on the true story of a young girl, Franca Mercati Martin, as told by Diane Kinman. It provides a window into a fascinating time and an intriguing family determined to endure amidst increasing devastation and loss. Rich, compelling details of the story are told through the eyes of a teenager and accompanied by warmhearted, powerful sepia images of Franca's art, which introduce each chapter.

Franca’s Story chronicles the adventures of a remarkable young girl determined to help her family survive the trauma of World War II. Set in Florence, Italy, and on the Mediterranean Coast in the cities of Viareggio, La Spezia, and Capezzano, the memoir spans the era from 1937 to 1945.

Franca is a young girl of 11 as the growth of the Fascist movement in Italy becomes increasingly divisive and destructive. She is the youngest of seven children of wealthy but aging parents. The family’s close connections and affluent lifestyle deteriorate with the onset of war. Mussolini’s uneasy alliance with Hitler against the Coalition soon takes a lethal turn.

Franca’s life changes on June 10, 1940 when Mussolini announces that Italy is going to war; everyone in her family seems distracted and tense from that day on. When Florence becomes a bombing target, Franca’s father Ugo moves his family to their beach house at Viareggio. She accidentally overhears her father and the local priest planning to help Jewish children get out of Italy; she is frightened for him but proud, and vows to keep his secret. She rescues a British pilot shot down by enemy planes, survives direct hits of bombs at a train station, and an air raid on her sister Maria’s home and store.

Franca’s family suffers losses: the war claims her brother Luigi. Her oldest brother, Krimer, a famous journalist and author who ran with Hemingway and Picasso, is maimed while serving as a war correspondent. When her youngest brother Eddie is reported missing in action, Franca and her father are granted a private audience with Pope Pius, arranged by the Pope's secretary her father’s second cousin and receive immediate help in finding him.

Franca's surprising strength and resolution helps her aging parents survive the explosive destruction of their beach home and find refuge with 300 other older people at “Aunt” Elena’s palace at Pianore. Elena is a childhood friend of Franca’s mother and a distant relative. Franca is one of four youths who scavenge for food each day to feed all of the refugees. Elena knew the Germans would take over the old Bourbon palace if it sat empty, so she invited everyone she knew to come stay there when the cities were no longer safe. The Germans set up camp on the vast grounds, closely monitoring movement in and out of the palace.

The teenage Franca maintains a happy facade as she faces the obstacles and losses of war. Her body is in turmoil; death, destruction, lack of food, and constant stress cause jaundice and pancreatitis. Franca longs to have her large family together again, and to be able to do the normal things teenagers do. She doesn’t hate the Germans for what they have done to Italy, but she doesn’t understand their mentality how could they shoot starving people for simply trying to find food? Food is scarce and Franca is forced to trade her favorite gold medallion necklace to a farmwoman in exchange for flour and vegetables to feed the refugees at the palace.

Franca travels to Buggiano, 60 kilometers from Pianore, to help her sister whose innocent husband faces execution by the Fascists. The doctor who provides care to the S.S. officers who took over the house next door befriends her. Herr Doctor tells Franca of his plan to desert the Nazi forces and meet his family in Switzerland; she tells him she is desperate to return to her parents. Escaping in a stolen ambulance at midnight, Franca and Herr Doctor dodge air strikes by planes intent on destroying the road. She sneaks past armed guards to get back into the palace.
By Christmas 1944, many long months of confinement have deflated the spirit of the refugees. Their low morale is lifted as they create gifts for each other made from the heart – and the draperies and pillows. They sing spirited carols in a display of hope for peace to come back to Italy. The sound of bagpipes from the Scottish medical corps signals their rescue and an end to the terror, to sharing food and fear in the palace.

The bagpipes announce that a Scottish medical unit is at the gates to help them. The Germans flee, leaving landmines that endanger the rescuers efforts to deliver food and a little luxury once taken for granted soap. Franca sleeps that night without a worry, savoring the sound and smell of peace and freedom.


Franca's Story: Survival in World War II Italy
by Diane Kinman

  • Publication Date: April 30, 2008
  • Paperback: 204 pages
  • Publisher: Wimer Publishing Company
  • ISBN-10: 0976392925
  • ISBN-13: 9780976392927