Maria Price’s remarkable story is one of those mid-20th century war chronicles that is worthy of a scramble for the film rights.
By turns harrowing and inspiring, it includes the times she was captured by the Gestapo and escaped in a wine barrel, the destruction of her home by bombs and getting married after seeking advice from a fortune teller.
Now 96 and living in Leeds where she settled with her late husband Les, who was a Second World War veteran, she has sold books charting the course of her life to raise money for the Royal British Legion’s Poppy Appeal in its 100th anniversary year.
Maria was born to a single mother on a farm in northern Italy but the Gestapo snatched her from home at gunpoint when she was just 14 years old. She was put into forced employment as a nanny and escaped, but fell into the clutches of a German officer, who subjected her to a horrific experience detailed in her book Maria’s life story: The girl who had to grow up fast.
“I kept silent about it for 30 years, I was so ashamed, I couldn’t tell anyone what that man had done to me,” says Maria.
She later found work at a post office in Innsbruck, but her flat was destroyed in an Allied air raid, and Maria was left in the street in her nightclothes clutching just a suitcase and an umbrella. “It was carnage, there were limbs and dead bodies everywhere, it was heartbreaking, I was blinded for three days,” she says.
But in 1945, Maria was liberated by Allied troops and returned to her village, Andrian-Sudtirol. “I still don’t know how I survived the war, it was like going to hell and back,” she says.
She got a job with the British Army in Bolzano and, on the advice of a fortune-teller, found her way to Rome where she met her husband-to-be, army officer Les, and they were married in the British Consulate in 1947.
Les joined the General Service Army Corps in 1942 and was transferred into the Royal Army Service Corps in 1943 until 1948. He served overseas in Africa and Italy, was injured in the Battle of Monte Cassino and was awarded several campaign medals including the Africa Star and Italy Star.
In 1948, Les was demobbed and the couple moved to Leeds, where they set up home and had two children. Les made a living at the Towler Brothers’ Oilgear for more than 40 years, while Maria worked making scratch cards.
There was more trauma when Maria underwent surgery for a brain tumour in 1996. Despite being given just six months to live, she survived and went on to care for Les until he died in 2015, aged 90. Maria said: “It was fate that brought us together in Italy and then Les brought me here to England, to Leeds, and I have nothing but wonderful memories of our life together.
I would like to say a special thank you to England, and Yorkshire in particular, for taking me under its wing.”
Maria has travelled back to Italy many times in recent years to retrace her steps and gather material for her autobiography, which she wrote during lockdown. She saved up for five years to pay for her book to be published, and has sold out of around 300 copies, raising more than £3,000 for the Poppy Appeal. She says: “I wanted to donate the proceeds to the RBL, because I want Les to be proud of what he did for his country, and because of everything the RBL does for our Armed Forces community, I can’t think of a better place for the money to go.”
Angus O’Donnell, RBL community fundraiser for Leeds, said: “Maria has lived a life that could fill ten books, she is a remarkable lady and on behalf of everyone at the Royal British Legion we want to thank her for making this generous contribution by donating the proceeds of her book to the Poppy Appeal.
“As we approach Remembrance weekend, we think about her late husband Les and remember his service during the Second World War, as Maria is rightly very proud of everything he did for his country.
“This year, the Royal British Legion is marking its centenary, 100 years since we set out on our founding mission to fight for the rights of veterans such as Les who had given so much and came back to so little. The RBL continues to stand shoulder to shoulder with our Armed Forces community, and we are proud to see that the torch of Remembrance is still burning brightly with Maria.”