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Discovering Silvio: Moviemaker Unlocks Secrets of WWII POW Grandfather by Retracing 500-Mile Trek

New film available to AARP members tells remarkable story of Italian American soldier captured in France in 1944

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Mark Pedri Films

To Mark Pedri, his grandfather Silvio was simply a widowed old man who loved to sit beside him on his porch without saying anything, gave him odd jobs in his mobile home park and played the accordion. On that porch, they ate frozen pizza, heated in the microwave, and listened to the sound of the wind.

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Silvio taught Mark the value of hard work and how to fix things rather than buy something new. There was a strong bond between them, but Mark felt there was a mystery at the heart of it. Although he spent a decade of his childhood seeing Silvio every day, Mark never felt he truly knew the World War II veteran.

“I knew that he was in the war, and I knew that he was a prisoner, but that was it,” Mark, now 34, told AARP Veteran Report. “We were both more comfortable in the silence, so I never pushed him to talk about more and he never volunteered to reveal more.”

In the small town of Rock Springs, Wyoming, Silvio Pedri was known as a man completely devoted to his family — his wife, Rena, his three sons and a slew of grandchildren — who had toiled in the local coal mine.

Some in Rock Springs knew that Silvio was a war hero, a sergeant in the 95th Infantry Division who was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in action in 1944, along with two Purple Hearts for wounds received. But much beyond that was unknown, and Silvio never talked about it.

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Mark felt sadness and guilt that he didn’t know more about his grandfather, the son of Italian immigrants. After Silvio’s death at 87 in 2009, Mark became a documentary filmmaker, not realizing that perhaps the greatest story of his career was that of the old man he had sat with on the porch.

Years after his grandfather’s passing, Mark and his wife, Carrie, now 32, moved into Silvio’s house — a time capsule left exactly as it was in 2009 — in an attempt to learn about this man who had played such an influential role in Mark’s life.

Carrie discovered a knife hidden in Silvio’s bed. Then the couple uncovered a trove of memorabilia and documents, including letters from Silvio to his sweetheart, Rena Ruffini — Mark’s grandmother, who had died at age 80 in 2001 — maps and a journal that allowed them to begin piecing together Silvio’s life.

Silvio had enlisted in the army in 1942, in part to earn U.S. citizenship, and became one of those known as the Iron Men of Metz before being taken prisoner by the Germans in 1944. He ended up at the notorious Stalag X-B POW camp in Sandbostel, Germany.

But Mark concluded that the secret of who Silvio was — the young soldier who had fought so bravely and endured almost unimaginable horrors — lay in France and Germany.

He and Carried decide to retrace Sgt. Silvio Pedri’s journey in the middle of winter, the same time of year he was captured, by bicycle. They started in France and followed his grandfather’s path from the Moselle River near Metz to Heppenheim, Limburg and finally to Stalag X-B.

The result is Dear Sirs, a remarkable award-winning documentary that unravels the mystery of who Mark’s grandfather was. Dear Sirs is being made available to AARP members from Nov 10 until Nov. 14. Click here for details.

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With war footage, animation and scenes of Mark and Carrie suffering through icy bike rides along Silvio’s path, the film gives the viewer a sense of Silvio’s extraordinary tenacity and will to survive the horrors of war.

It captures Mark’s emotions as he learns what his grandfather endured. On several occasions Mark writes heartfelt letters to his grandfather as Silvio’s past comes alive.

“We are losing the firsthand accounts of this generation, and their stories need to be told,” said Mark, who is determined that we should never forget what our ancestors lived through. Carrie believes that Silvio’s story is both intensely personal but also universal in that it represents the experiences of so many veterans of World War II.

Mark has come to believe that peace in silence is a gift. He recognizes that his grandfather just needed someone to share his silent thoughts. With that silence, his grandfather gave him the foundation to become the man he is today.

AARP members can find out how to watch Dear Sirs here.

You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published every two weeks. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.

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