04 Oct 2018

“A Shout Through Time”

How an alumni connection helped bring a WWII soldier home after 73 years


Dan Morrell: Today’s story is a break from our typical in-depth interview format. Today, we’re going to tell a story. It’s a story that starts with a tragic plane crash in 1944 outside a small town in the hills of Northern Italy and ends 73 years later in that same small town with celebration and a sense of closure.

The ID bracelet recovered by GRAC at the crash site, and radio operator Richard Perzyk.


Morrell: In August 2015, a group of amateur Italian historians who specialized in researching and preserving World War II plane crash sites, were searching for remnants of a transport plane in Zavattarello, Italy. The team, Gruppo Ricercatori Aerei Caduti or GRAC, was set up several years ago to help collect these sorts of relics. Piero Ricci (GMP 14), a Milan-based executive at the financial services for Nomura, describes the mission this way.

Piero Ricci: It's a group of amateurs who together, try to study where an event has happened. Try to find some relics of the event and then, from what we find, we try to create web pages, which kind of reveal the history. To bring it back to the memory and to find also some point of interest for people who don't really know about what has happened in the region that they live.

Morrell: The GRAC Team had met locals who helped guide them to the site. One of whom clearly remembered playing with parts from the downed plane as a child. This was their third trip to the site. The previous visits earlier that summer yielding only smaller fragments. But that August day, the group uncovered something remarkable.

Ricci: They found some ammunitions and things which were on the plane. After few hours of digging suddenly they found something different. It came reported by the metal detectors as a piece of potentially silver. So after they started to clean it, little by little the name appeared, and then the code appeared and the emotion was very strong, because suddenly they started to realize this was a personal object. The name started to correspond to one of the crew members and so it was really an emotional situation and it was such an incredible feeling for them.

Morrell: The name on the bracelet was Richard Perzyk. GRAC began an initial search for relatives, but had no luck and grew frustrated. But Piero, who recently joined the group, thought he could help. First, he used a genealogy website that showed him that the surname had a high concentration in the Detroit area. And then, he ran a targeted search on Facebook for the name in that area. There were some hits, but no luck on a connection. But Piero had lived abroad for many years, and built up a sizeable personal network. Maybe he could lean on it for some answers he thought. But when he ran a search on LinkedIn, he found Tim Perzyk who got his MBA from HBS in 2007 and was working at Twitter.

Ricci: And that moment, I said great because, I think I have a connection. I have a link because I am also an alumnus, I could use the database.

Morrell: So Piero, who graduated from HBS's General Management Program in 2013, looks up Tim Perzyk in the HBS Alumni directory and finds his Twitter account.

Ricci: But, I spotted one thing, which made me a little bit ashamed, because it looks I was a little bit too intrusive. But I found that the gentleman that time was having a vacation in France. So that day I said, "Good. I have to go. I have to find Tim because he is close by."

Morrell: So on June 2017, Piero calls Tim's mobile number.

Tim Perzyk: I was in an airport lounge in the south of France, on my way to Lisbon in Portugal. And I had been on a work trip in Cannes. Which is a town near the French Riviera. I'm waiting for a flight, I'm sitting with some colleagues. And we were really just waiting to board at the time, when I got a call.

Ricci: It was a moment of difficulty. So, I had to contain my emotions. So I said my name. I tried to qualify myself. I think the real point was to tell him I am an alumnus of HBS. That helped to pave the way.

Perzyk: Before he even says, "Are you Time Perzyk?" He may have said, "Do you have a relative who died in a plane crash during World War II?" And I was obviously disarmed by that question because, in fact, I do. But, at the time I didn't reveal that immediately. I said, "I might." And I believe his response then was to give me a little bit more detail on what he knew. And he referenced the name, Richard Perzyk. And then he said, "Are you Tim Perzyk? And was a gentleman named Richard Perzyk, who died about 70 years ago at the end of World War II, your grandfather?" At which point, I felt that Piero had shared enough information to clearly have some insight into my family history, but I was unclear on what his motivation was.

Ricci: I said, "Do you have a relative who died in Italy?" and there was a moment of silence. I remember that moment like today, because Tim was taken, I think, on something very personal and private; and then he confirmed. At that moment, he opened up a gate of feelings, passion, sentiment, which developed in what we can talk. But it was really the... the really important moment of our connection.

Perzyk: I corrected him and said, "Actually, I have a great-uncle. My grandmother's brother died in a plane crash 70 years ago at the end of World War II." Piero continued and said, "Well, we've found something that belongs to him and I think that you may be the next of kin and you're really so close to where we found it. I just want to tell you what it is, and maybe you'd like to come and pick it up." So at this point, my instinct for questioning whether this might be a scam was a little bit piqued admittedly.

But Piero at that time, gave me some context on who he was and also freaked me out a little bit. He said, "I see you've been traveling in Cannes." And He said, "I live in Milan." And I asked, "Well, how do you know I've been in Cannes?" And he said, "I've been following your travels on Twitter." And of course as an employee of the company and somebody who uses the product pretty heavily, I had been posting some photos of our meetings in Cannes that week in the south of France. So Piero was correct on that account.

He said, "Do you want to come to my villa, on the border of Italy and France? My wife and I can meet you there. It's probably an hour's drive from where you are today. It'll be an adventure." And I did think about it at the time, but although Piero had gained my trust throughout that call, I felt that I needed to spend some time verifying this. I also was literally boarding a flight to Portugal. I texted my family immediately and said, "You're never gonna believe this. I think that somebody found something related to Uncle Dickie; and it looked like it fell from the plane."

There was a mix of emotions, but really where I think we coalesced around the emotions was, we're so thankful to have this experience and there was a little bit of melancholy about it too, because my father, who had passed away the year prior, would've loved to know that, that had happened. For him, his uncle Dickie was really probably his childhood hero, and that death was very deeply felt by not only my dad, but obviously siblings and what would've been my great-grandparents.

So, we were very keen to quickly share this information with the only person living who would've know who uncle Dickie is. By that I mean, who actually spent time with him, which is my great-aunt Therese.

Morrell: Therese Perzyk was 88, the youngest of 10 children in the Perzyk family of Detroit, and the last living sibling. Quickly, a plan began to form to have the Perzyk family visit Zavattrello and receive the bracelet. And so, in November of 2017, 12 members of the Perzyk family arrived in Zavatterello to finally bring Richard back home.

Perzyk: Zavaterello is a quintessential, small countryside town. And really, that could be quintessential for anywhere. But there are some things that are just distinctively Italian about it. I'll start with the fact that it's just physically beautiful. Very picturesque. There is literally one road in and one road out. And frankly they're the same road.

The town has, I believe, fewer than a thousand people, and it might be closer to several hundred people. And this gentleman—his name is Simone Tiglio—is the young mayor and a sort of local who took over this responsibility. He is an elected official. He also happens to be the person who is the innkeeper of the only town hotel; which I think may only have eight or ten rooms. So, our experience was being greeted by him, being greeted by a group of local townspeople who actually come to the inn and have drinks and play cards on weekend nights.

But in terms of the procession through the town, which is about a day later, really had the environment where, I would say, almost everybody in Zavattarello came out into the streets for this dedication. The procession I'm describing is this movement up the main streets in this town, from the town center, to about half a kilometer away where there is a church. To describe the procession, I'd say it was both somber but also celebrant. And by somber, I mean there was a bit of mist in the air, it was gray skies, and people were walking quietly, but they were carrying sigils that I think reflected both the town's insignia, as well as maybe that of the local providence; as well as there were some folks in military dress.

Ricci: We walked altogether with the veterans, with the family, many citizens of Zavattarello, and with also a little military band. We walked with the mayor to the church. We had a very nice ceremony, as I said, we had a mass in the memory of Richard, Rupnik, and all the crew members. Then, we came back to the main square where we had the mayor and other authorities to deliver speeches. After that, there was a formal event of return of the bracelet. Which was given to a living partisan.

Perzyk: In the town center, there was a short presentation by the young mayor, Simone. Ultimately to my great-aunt Therese, she, upon taking receipt of it, never let go—so no one else could hold it. Understandable, when something has been gone that long, but for those first hours, she definitely had it with her everywhere. I spent a great deal of time talking to my aunt not only about our family history, just trying to get the records straight. Again, with nine siblings of hers and all of their children, I wanted to have a good picture of what it was like growing up for her and her relationship with her brother. What I came to understand and what I had known to some extent previously was that, how my uncle Dickie was really a star of the family.

He had been not only well-behaved as a teenager, I understand was a good student, a good baseball player, and his story's probably a lot like so many of these other tragedies you hear about loss during war. His life was waiting to be lived, in a sense. Relatively young man, not yet 30 at the time, his connection to the family was sort of as the rising star, the person that everybody looked to for a sense of inspiration—particularly the younger siblings, like my great-aunt. The experience of being connected with what is really an unclosed chapter and getting that closure—that sense of, okay, this can all... it's not that it can end but, I can take comfort in knowing that he came home. I think those were her words exactly is, "We're finally bringing him back." And I can't help but think about what that experience is like for people, who so many times, you really have nothing that remains of somebody who is lost suddenly and tragically, and then, really—almost as though, there is a shout through time—something emerges that allows you to have that moment. Which truly feels like closure. And I think that's what this meant to her and to our broader family.

Ricci: To me, you know, from finding an object to be able to become friend and hug and to create... friendship. Create trust, and create... sentiment in people is a unique emotion. So, I felt that I could put and give my know-how service of something totally different, but that brings people together—with the scope of peace and friendship—is a valuable thing. And so, you know, he gave me a sense of proud and... happiness. This was really confirmed by how the family Perzyk collaborated to all this event.

Perzyk: It taught me that people are fundamentally kind, and that's something that bears repetition. Not just for this moment in time but, just because it speaks to an element of human nature. And I, at times, felt some shame even in that early glimmer of doubt that Piero's interest in connecting with me and my family was somehow ill-intentioned.

Particularly when we experienced the warmth of the reception not only from him but this really small town. Beyond the element of the fundamental goodness of people is the point about how connected we all are; and I don't want to really overstate the role of technology because I think that we're connected fundamentally even without our phones, even without our digital alumni networks. Sure, those things make the world feel a lot smaller, and I think that was our experience.

You think of being a world away, in a sense, or a continent or an ocean away, and having your life end, like my uncle's did. So there's that distance. Then there's also the sort of temporal distance of, this was a period of decades, and really, the notion of having that sort of moment happen across time, is itself, just unusual. So, I don't know what to make of coincidences, or luck, or fate. But I do think that that was a moment that my family needed as an article of faith. And I don't necessarily mean through a religious lens—just faith in each other, faith in, again, human kindness and human nature; and that we don't always know all the forces that are at work in our lives.

Skydeck is produced by the External Relations department at Harvard Business School and edited by Craig McDonald. It is available at iTunes or wherever you get your favorite podcasts. For more information or to find archived episodes, visit alumni.hbs.edu/skydeck.

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 2007, Section C
follow @tperzyk
Class of GMP 14

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