WWII, AUR, and the Spanish Steps Apartment

Many people ask me how I came to own the Spanish Steps Apartment. My part is simple: I inherited it from my father. The interesting part is how my father came to own it. He, also named David Colin, was born in, or about, 1912. Inspired by Richard Halliburton books, he had the itch to see the world, so he didn’t stay home long. He took off and, after a few adventures in different parts of the world he never related to me, he ended up in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to today’s CIA. The OSS during that time was run by the legendary “Wild Bill” Donovan. Although he spoke no Italian, my dad ended up in Rome, where he worked as a journalist and immersed himself in the language and culture. He was one of those rare human beings who gets on an elevator with three strangers and gets off the elevator with three invitations to dinner. He could talk to anyone in his strongly accented Italian (which somehow, everyone always understood), and his friends and aqaintances ranged from politics to the arts, science to business.

My father in Capri, late 1930's to early 1940's
My father in Capri, late 1930’s to early 1940’s

My father ultimately was captured by the Nazis while in northern Africa and taken to the POW camp at Torgau, Germany. One of his stories of WWII was that the food was so inadequate that he and other prisoners ate insects to stay alive (he also blamed his baldness on this malnutrition). Although he was scheduled for execution, luck was with him: before his sentence would be carried out, on April 25, 1945, the Soviet and American forces linked up at the Elbe River, near Torgau. Germany was effectively cut in half, and it was the beginning of the end for the war in Europe. According to my dad, the Nazi guards took off, leaving the prison camp deserted and several prison cells unlocked. My dad went through the Nazi offices there, and one of his discoveries was a Leica camera, which he used to take photos of the very moment when “East meets West,” and the Soviets and Americans shook hands.

He was sent back to the U.S. for debriefing and rehabilitation. Later, with the end of the war, he knew precisely what he wanted to do: head back to Rome, where he was to live out much of his life. One of the things he did was to buy an apartment on Via della Mercede, near the Spanish Steps, a central area that he liked for its Baroque architecture, restaurants, and cafes.

During the 1960’s my father realized that there was a tremendous energy in the cultural exchange between American students and professors visiting Rome, and their Italian counterparts. He enjoyed linking up people from Italy and America. With the assistance and support of multiple people in Rome, in 1969 he founded the American University of Rome. The apartment on Via della Mercede was the administrative office and occasional classroom (and sometimes party venue) for the newly-organized AUR for several years.

In 1970, when my dad was a lively 60 year old (or so), I was born in Rome.

My dad and me, 1970
My dad and me, 1970

I lived there for a decade,  then came to the Washington, DC area after my parents divorced. Later, he lived in California and Rome, eventually passing away in 1992. I brought his ashes home to Rome, where he is buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Testaccio. My wife Laura and I often visit his grave when we return to Rome, the city my father had fallen in love with.

 

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