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'No bitterness, hate' at massacre memorial

  • Couple who attended San Pancrazio memorial share their feelings
  • Armando Rendón: To recollect the way they do it is really beautiful
  • Helen Rendón: The children were laughing, running and playing. They were very happy.

Editor's note: Armando Rendón is the founder and editor of Somos en escrito, an online literary magazine featuring U.S. Latino writers. Read his essay about his visit to San Pancrazio here. Watch CNN International's World's Untold Stories Saturday and Sunday.

San Pancrazio, Italy (CNN) -- Helen and Armando Rendón recently visited Tuscany, Italy, for the first time. Residents of northern California, the couple took part in the June 29 candlelight procession honoring massacre victims at San Pancrazio.

Rendón, an author, teacher and civil rights lawyer, describes how the experience allowed him a rare glimpse inside the "real Tuscany," not the storybook one depicted in the movies. A former schoolteacher, Helen was reminded of the injustices she witnessed in her native Baghdad during World War II.

Here is an edited transcript of their interview. And read the full story of San Pancrazio.

What was your experience participating in the San Pancrazio procession?

Armando Rendón: I realized that we were the only two people who weren't from Italy or Europe. It was like we were representing the whole rest of the world. I remember just before night fell there was a beautiful sunset. The whole sky was just ablaze.

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It made me wonder what it was like in 1944 on that date and whether the sky was as beautiful as that. I thought of what the people must have gone through because they thought they were out of the way. But all of a sudden they had these tanks and soldiers coming in and gathering all the men up and killing them. And it was such a contradiction between what we're looking at and what must have happened on that date. That really stayed with me.

Helen Rendón: I felt very sad to hear what was going on. I was really very, very sad. They were just a delightful group of people really. And I thought: "Oh my gosh, that's terrible. Why [did] this happen to them in 1944?" I know about the history of the Nazis, but I didn't know about that town and what they did.

Do you remember something from the evening that affected you?

AR: I didn't feel, or sense, any bitterness or hate. That struck me very strongly. They were just there to remember and not to hate. When everything was over, we went to this little club that sits in the back of the village. Some of the older guys were out in the front, chatting and smoking and having a beer or wine. And we went in and got something to drink. They knew that we couldn't really speak Italian. We could just say hello. But there were a feeling of acceptance of "thank you for being here."

What was your family's experience during WWII?

AR: I had grown up in San Antonio, Texas. My grandmother and my aunt were the ones who were raising me during the war years. My mother had gone off to Oakland, California to work. In fact, she worked in a parachute assembly plant. I lived mostly with my grandmother and she had five boys. Four of them went into the service during the war years.

You know how they put stars on the windows when you had somebody in service? She had four stars in her front window. I didn't realize all this until I was much older and then I started to ask questions. So I knew the kind of sacrifices my grandmother had gone through.

I don't think I really had experienced first-hand the kind of feeling that I felt at San Pancrazio and saw the place where the men had been killed and there were still some bullet holes in the wall. Just incredibly inhumane. That gave me a whole different sense of what the war must have been like to people who were otherwise innocent, and just waiting and hoping that it would be over and pass them by.

HR: I was sitting with my parents in Baghdad, Iraq and the Muslims were coming by our house to go to the Jews to kill them. And we told them: "No, no we don't have them." We were lying so that they would leave. That's what my father was doing.

I didn't know what was going on but I was listening and they said: "Be quiet. Get in the house." So they were going into the houses -- they were all empty -- and they started shooting. They stole all their clothes, all their furniture. They were very proud to be with Hitler. My dad was very worried about the beautiful neighbors, the Jewish neighbors we had.

How did the experience change your opinion of Tuscany?

AR: I had a romanticized idea about Tuscany: a lot of vineyards and people drinking wine out on their patios. I think it's still a romantic place. It's a very human place. What I learned from San Pancrazio was that people suffered. And there was a very difficult history.

To recollect the way they do it is really beautiful. It left me feeling very happy to have experienced those moments with them. We saw another side of the Italian people that not many people see. That was really a humbling experience.

HR: For me, Tuscany is great. When I finished seeing that beautiful little town, it's great. It didn't affect me negatively. I was sad for them, but it was so delightful. I was impressed by the children and the grandmothers because they were sitting and talking while the children were laughing, running and playing. They were very happy.

What thought would you like to leave us with?

AR: We honor the soldiers -- the warriors -- the men and women that fought for us and died for us to keep our freedom alive. But we often forget the people, the mothers and fathers, the families that were behind them, waiting for them to come back.

So we have to remember the people who sacrificed on the battlefield, but also those who sacrificed at home. And certainly, San Pancrazio gives us an example of the tremendous sacrifice of people who were otherwise innocent. It just reinforces my conviction that we cannot use war as an option in working out our problems.