Martin Adler long wondered what had come of the three children he nearly mistook for hiding German soldiers in the Apennine Mountains 77 years ago.
A World War II veteran and three siblings from Italy had an emotional and long-awaited reunion this week, nearly eight decades after their paths crossed while the American soldier was hunting Nazis. 97-year-old Martin Adler from Boca Raton, Florida, had long wondered what had come of the three children he nearly mistook for hiding German soldiers in the Apennine Mountains 77 years ago. The veteran finally got a heartwarming end to his search on Monday when he was able to hug Bruno, Mafalda, and Giuliana Naldi at the Bologna airport in northern Italy following a 20-hour journey.
"He just lit up, just seeing the kids. It means everything to him," said Adler's daughter, Rachelle Adler Donley, who initiated the search to track down the siblings in an attempt to cheer up her father during the COVID-19 lockdown. According to AP, Adler was a 20-year-old private first class stationed in the Italian town of Monterenzio when he first met the children in 1944. In a Facebook page set up as part of efforts to raise funds for her father's trip to Italy, Donley shared the story of the wartime encounter. "While searching for hiding Germans, my father Martin Adler and John Bronsky (deceased), saw a large closed basket moving and making noise. No one came out even after they were warned," she wrote, reports CNN.
97-year-old former #WWII American soldier Martin Adler (C) meets with the 80-something former children he photographed after nearly killing them near the Emilian capital in 1944, in Bologna, #Italy. 📷 epa / ANSA / Elisabetta Baracchi#reunion #epaphotos #visualizingtheworld pic.twitter.com/kVmQHfTCgb— european pressphoto agency (@epaphotos) August 23, 2021
Since Adler was under the impression that the house was empty, he trained his machine gun on the basket when he heard noises coming from under the basket. "The mother, Mamma, came out and stood right in front of my gun to stop me (from) shooting," he recalled. "She put her stomach right against my gun, yelling, 'Bambinis! Bambinis! Bambinis!' pounding my chest. That was a real hero, the mother, not me. The mother was a real hero. Can you imagine you standing yourself in front of a gun and screaming 'Children! No!'"
Adler asked the woman if he could take a photo of her children, Donley revealed on Facebook. "Their mother agreed, but only after they changed into their Sunday best clothes," she wrote. "For seventy-seven years, Martin has cherished that photo and always wondered about them." Adler's company stayed on in the village for a while and the soldier would occasionally visit the children and play with them. Speaking to reporters following the heartwarming reunion, he revealed that he still trembles when he remembers that he was only seconds away from opening fire on the basket.
One of the happiest stories I’ve ever witnessed: meet Private Martin Adler. In WWII he was hunting for Nazis when he saw movement from beneath a blanket. But something made him hold his fire. Watch this miraculous reunion 77 years later. @CBSThisMorning pic.twitter.com/jq6G4fpvyu— Christopher Livesay (@SayChrisLive) August 25, 2021
Giuliana Naldi, the youngest of the Naldi siblings, is the only one with any recollection of the event. She recalls climbing out of the basket and seeing Adler with the late Bronsky. "They were laughing. They were happy they didn't shoot," she recalled, adding that she, on the other hand, didn't quite grasp how close she'd come to death. "We weren't afraid for anything," she said. Giuliana, now 80, also remembers the chocolates covered in a blue-and-white wrapper that Adler gave her and her siblings. "We ate so much of that chocolate," she said, laughing.
One of those who played a vital role in making the Adler-Naldi siblings reunion happen was Matteo Incerti, a local historian who helped Donley find the children in the photo and went on to write a book about it. "Now, after I told the story of Martin in my book and his dream was to meet the kids, and today it became true," Incerti told CBS News, calling it "like a tale of peace — a tale of life" to emerge from the horrors of war. "After 77 years, it becomes really, really incredible." Adler will now spend almost two weeks in Italy, visiting Bologna, Monterenzio, Florence, Rome, and Naples. "My dad really wants to meet [Pope Francis]," Donley said. "He wants to share his message of peace and love. My dad is all about peace."