We know Bruno Sammartino as the world-renowned wrestler who calls Pittsburgh his adopted home, but few people know the real story behind this champion and the harrowing childhood experiences that molded him.
Bruno’s hometown in Italy was occupied by the Nazis during World War II. His experience hiding out from the SS would have been frightening even for an adult.
Once his family escaped, Bruno swore he would never go back, but recently he was persuaded to return and KDKA Radio’s Larry Richert went along on the emotional journey.
Today, it’s hard to imagine the quiet and picturesque mountain village in Abruzzo, Italy, was a living hell in 1943 when the Nazi SS troops stormed in with their machine guns blazing, killing and scattering men, women and children.
Bruno escaped with his brother, sister and mother to a remote mountain top called Valla Rocca. For the first time in 67 years, he recently returned to their hiding place.
“I’ve seen people die, people buried up there, remembering when Mom couldn’t come down here we went as much as three or four days eating snow because there was nothing else that you could eat,” he recalled. “And I remember then getting sick and deathly sick and if the war had continued for another month or two nobody would have ever heard of Bruno Sammartino.”
For 14 months they struggled to survive – all while his father was working in Pittsburgh, trapped between worlds.
“I have very mixed emotions because I blocked all this stuff out,” he said. “Last night in fact I couldn’t sleep because that’s all I thought about.”
Bruno’s friend Marty Lazzaro was touched by this story of courage. He compelled Bruno to climb the rock again for a documentary that executive producer Ken Brown and videographer Josh Birt have been working on for seven years.
“I’m 75-years old. I think it is important to revisit, especially if the stories going to be told,” Bruno said.
With his son Daryl and friends by his side, they made the journey first driving one-third of the way, then pulled in a makeshift wagon by a local farmer and did the rest on foot.
A four-hour journey for the group took Bruno’s mother Emilia an entire day to walk back then.
“I’m overwhelmed by it because I put myself in her place and wonder if I was man enough if I could have ever done it,” he said.
This is where Bruno discovered his inner strength.
“My mom had the heart of a lion,” he said. “The sacrifices she made were beyond human.”
Emilia would sneak back into the village to get food under the noses of the SS guards.
“I remember sickly as I was, I used to sit on top of a rock looking down that path, waiting for mom to make sure that she would come back,” Bruno recalled. “And as the hours went by, we panicked more and more.”
She was captured once and escaped, but not before she was shot through the arm. She somehow made it back.
“I remember when I would spot her and she would be coming up and for a while, for a short while, there was no hunger, there was no pain, no sickness there was no thirst – nothing it was such a great joy to see,” Bruno said.
Then they were discovered by the SS troops.
“They lined us all up and they set a machine gun.
“I remember my mother holding me up and all she kept saying was not to be afraid, that we were going to be happy and no more suffering, no more hunger, no more cold.”
The would-be executioners were overpowered by some men from their village and they were saved.
Upon reaching the summit of Valla Rocca, the emotions were overwhelming.
“It’s tough, Larry, it’s tough,” Bruno said. “The memories are very painful. They really are.”
As painful and horrific an experience for 8-year-old Bruno, today he has no regrets.
“And look I’ve been so fortunate,” he said. “I got healthy, I got big, I got strong, I got to travel the world, I’ve been everywhere,” he said. “It was all because of my mom.”