Maria Elena Catacchini was born in Tuscany in around 1920, in the countryside outside Arezzo, into a very poor farming family. When she was ten years old, her father decided to emigrate to France to escape the violence of the fascist regime. Initially, the Catacchinis worked on a farm near Nice owned by another Italian family. The work was hard and their only payment was in the form of the food they needed to survive.
Her brother, who had remained in Italy to study in the seminary, needed money to pay for his tuition and was at risk of being expelled. His father asked the owners of the farm for help and, while they said they were willing to help their words were not followed by actions.
When the building site for the road from Cagnes-sur-mer to the Maritime Alps was opened, Mr Catacchini offered his services as a labourer, but was forced to agree to receiving his first wages after three months of work. Upon learning of this new job, the landlord cut off their supplies of food. In order to survive, Maria Elena's father went out selling wood for three months at the end of his shift at the construction site every day, walking seven kilometres with a bundle on his shoulders and seven kilometres back home.
Almost all of his first wage from the construction site was sent to his son in Italy. After a few months, the debt with the school was paid off and the Catacchinis left the farm and moved to a smaller, shabby house in Cagnes-sur-mer, where there was also a chance that the women would find work. Maria Elena's mother was employed picking and cleaning strawberries, while Maria Elena became a cook's assistant at the Le Cagnard boarding house. However, one of the waiters there tried to rape her. Fortunately she escaped but she refused to return to work, without telling her parents why.
Story collected in cooperation with the Archivio Diaristico Nazionale.
Maria Elena Catacchini was born in Tuscany in around 1920, in the countryside outside Arezzo, into a very poor farming family.